How the act of hand-washing can help you cope with COVID stress – Houston Chronicle

Posted: December 21, 2020 at 2:58 am

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A spike in COVID-19 cases combined with the holidays make for an extraordinary amount of stress. For ways to deal with it, I called Alejandro Chaoul. For decades, working with MD Anderson Cancer Hospital, hes researched the therapeutic effects of meditation and Tibetan yoga; and hes the founding director of the Jung Centers Mind Body Spirit Institute. Chaoul spoke with me sitting cross-legged on the floor of his wifes familys house in Costa Rica, where the family was quarantining.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Early in the pandemic, I saw you in a Jung Center video on YouTube. You were showing people how to wash their hands mindfully. Could you explain that?

Meditation doesnt always have to be formal. We can use activities that were doing in everyday life to clear our minds and reconnect to our hearts or to our sense of being present. So as we were told over and over again to wash our hands more often, I thought people could see hand-washing not as a burden, but actually as an opportunity.

We were told to wash our hands for 20 seconds. Ive been working at MD Anderson for 20 years, so Id heard that rule often before. Sometimes its suggested that you time it by singing Happy Birthday twice. Thats usually not in the right tone, not the way that I want to feel that moment. I mean, sure, if its someones birthday, thats different.

Otherwise, we can just use hand-washing as an opportunity to be mindful. As you wash your hands, youre also watching your mind, particularly your brain and the way that the brain goes from thought to thought and emotion to emotion, and then settle in.

So as you finish washing your hands, youre also connected.

We can also even do it with a sanitizer gel. A colleague of mine at MD Anderson came to me one time and said, Ale, did you realize that now we have a meditation device in every patients room?

I said, Really?

He said, Yeah! The gel: Every time I go to see a patient, and I get to wash my hands with the gel, I take a moment and I breathe. And as I clear my mind, its like clearing away everything maybe an unpleasant discussion with a colleague or my spouse, but even a good conversation I may have had with the last patient. That way, in the few minutes I have with this patient, I can be fully there.

Thats whats really important: to be fully there.

I understand what to do with my hands: I lather up, I rub them together. But whats the brain part of that meditation?

We can use a mnemonic device: STOP.

With the S, we Stop meaning that whatever we were doing before, we take a moment to stop it.

T is, Take a deep breath. (Inhales deeply to demonstrate.) As we take that deep breath, in a way were disconnecting from external things and reconnecting internally.

O is being Open, and observing what is going on there. No judgment, no criticism, just observing.

On Struggling to be more present? Look to meditation

Then, at the end, P is Proceed: You go on with your day.

But many times, after O, were not ready to proceed. So we T Take another deep breath. And again we O, observe how we feel before now. And then, yes: Proceed.

Whats beautiful is, this takes 45 seconds or maybe a minute and a half if you extend it. But its a way of disconnecting from whatever is stressing the stressor and reconnecting to yourself.

Many times we conflate the stressor and stress. We say, This is stressing me out. Or COVID is stressing me out.

We dont realize that we actually have a choice. At the moment of stress, of course, we dont feel we have a choice. But if we stop, we can notice that theres a difference between the stressor and the stress. And then we can take that breath, connect with ourselves, observe in that nonjudgmental way be with ourselves as we connect more deeply.

And then, when we feel that connection, we proceed.

A lot of people feel lonely these days, because theyre alone in quarantine or because theyre vulnerable to infection. What are ways to deal with that?

Loneliness has to do with connecting both inner connection and outer connection. I think its important to start with inner connection, although different people learn in different ways. For me, that means noticing the moment that something gets me in a situation or a difficult mood feeling lonely, sad, angry, those sorts of things.

Different people have different tendencies. I know my own tendencies: I used to try to push these feelings away, rejecting them, and try to find a happy space or if I really couldnt find it, to find kind of my own little cave. What Ive learned with meditation techniques is that we can allow those feelings to be there. We dont have to reject them. But we have to prepare a little bit.

We have to prepare our inner space sometimes, thats just by breathing, like with that STOP formula, or with other breathing practices. When we breathe lower into our abdomen, we elicit the relaxation response that Herbert Benson found 40 years ago in his research with meditation. Instead of getting into that fight-or-flight stress response, we can reconnect and find a sense of relaxation.

When we find that sense of relaxation, thats not the end of it. Its actually the beginning. Now we have the possibility of opening our heart in a different way.

On The pandemic has tripled the number of people who say theyre lonely. But theres hope.

But if we go too much into relaxation, we go into the famous mantra of (makes a loud snoring noise). Thats not really what we aim to do in meditation, either, right? (Laughs.) It can be a nice nap maybe a much-needed nap. But what we want is to maintain some sense of alertness.

So within that relaxation response, within that feeling of relaxing in our whole body, we find energy in mind, and with that energy, we maintain awareness. What happens with awareness is like the sun at dawn. As it rises, it starts illuminating, and it doesnt judge. It doesnt criticize. It doesnt make up stories. It just illuminates, and as it illuminates, it sees whatever is there.

So even that sadness, even that loneliness, even that stress now its seen. As its seen, its acknowledged. And once its acknowledged, we can do something, not only meditate about it but, for example, bring our hands to our heart.

(Demonstrates, placing his palms on his breastbone.) In a way, the motion is containing ourselves like when we hug a child that is in pain and crying, the hug just contains him or her, and were able to be there.

Many of us particularly men often feel like, No, Im strong. I dont need to do that. But I find it so useful to be open and vulnerable. Roshi Joan Halifax, a wonderful friend whos a Zen teacher, talks about having a strong back so that then we can have a soft front and an open heart. If we do that, we are strong where we need to be, but also were soft and open where we need to be.

Once we are vulnerable, we can accept that loneliness. We are inviting it from a place of openness. As my teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche said, with spaciousness, awareness and warmth. That warmth is what arises when we meet that loneliness and stress from a more open and aware state.

Its like sky and sun, space and light. In that embrace, theres warmth and rays of light. There are all your beautiful qualities: lovingkindness, compassion, joy, peace of mind, equanimity. Thats what we stay with.

Let me ask about anxiety: Meditation and yoga help with that?

Yes, they do.

Take a moment to wake up and breathe. Allow that relaxation response as you start your day. Then keep on doing that during the day. Find these moments washing your hands, walking more slowly, before you open the door of your car to take a moment to breathe. By doing that, youre getting more of that relaxation response and therefore also helping with your anxiety.

We found and many other researchers have found that through these practices, such as meditation, yoga, Tibetan yoga that anxiety can be lowered.

Let me share another technique that I particularly like. Its showering. When I showered in the morning, I used to start thinking, At 7 oclock I have this meeting, 8 oclock that meeting, 9 oclock, I have to talk to Lisa you know, whatever my day was.

But I had a teacher that said, Oh, dont do that. Thats not good for your health. What you want to do is, when youre taking a shower, shower. Dont just shower externally, but also internally. As you shower internally, its like youre clearing your mind, youre clearing your body, youre clearing your energy.

The way that they describe it in the Tibetan tradition is, you become like a crystal. And if you become like a crystal, and your mind rises like the sun or dawn, what happens?

Rainbows! Bring that light and rainbows into your day! Have a day with rainbows.

And I can start all of that just by paying attention to my body and my breathing while Im smearing a blob of hand sanitizer gel?

Yes. Thats a great start.

Remember, meditation is a state of mind. Instead of focusing so much on the brain-mind, we start coming to our heart-mind. Its the wisdom of our grandparents, whod say, When you have an important decision, do it with your heart.

The heart is where that intelligence is, in the meditation world. In the Eastern world, in India and Tibet, when they you ask where the mind is, they point to the heart.

The brain is an important aspect of the mind, but its the office its the minds office. The heart is the minds home. At the office, the mind works, goes from thought to thought, emotion to emotion. Thats what it needs to do. It even asks us to multitask, though we cant really do that.

But at home, in the heart, the mind is at rest. That rest isnt sleep. Rest is rest with awareness. What you start cultivating is learning how to rest. And as you learn how to rest, you learn that theres more space. You learn theres more light.

And when theres light and space, you learn, there are rays. There are rainbows. You learn to contact that lovingkindness, that compassion, that joy not by rejecting sadness, loneliness and stress, but by hosting them, acknowledging them, embracing them, being with them, breathing with them.

(Closes his eyes. Inhales. Exhales. Opens his eyes and smiles.)

And from there, we continue.,

Lisa Gray is a senior writer on the features desk. Previously, she's held many of the Chronicle's most interesting jobs: Senior editor for digital, features enterprise editor, member of the editorial board, acting op-ed editor, columnist--and, most fun of all, founding editor of Gray Matters, the Chronicle site named "Best Blog" in Texas three years in a row.

Email her at Or follow her on Facebook, where she spends way too much time.

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How the act of hand-washing can help you cope with COVID stress - Houston Chronicle

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December 21st, 2020 at 2:58 am

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