Keeping a Cool Head and Warm Heart in Challenging Times – By Willem Kuyken

Keeping a Cool Head and Warm Heart in Challenging Times – By Willem Kuyken

The COVID 19 pandemic is an unprecedented, very real and urgent challenge. There are many people across the world working night and day to find vaccines and treatments.

Many more are involved in a collective effort to safeguard health, treat those who are very ill and provide critical services.

The spread of COVID-19 around the world is being more than matched by the spread of information. Words that we had never or rarely encountered have become mainstream – “coronavirus, COVID-19, social distancing, self-isolation, pandemic.” Other words are increasingly encountered everywhere, “unprecedented, uncertain, scary, worry and anxiety.”

Understanding COVID-19’s very real threats and good health education are supporting effective prevention. But they are also creating understandable fear, worry and anxiety. This is a double edged sword that on the one side creates an appropriate call to action and on the other can create panic, reactivity and additional problems.

Clearly we need an international coordinated public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But we also need another type of response – at the level of our psychological well-being. A public health and psychological response can together help us find a way through these challenging times.

Both ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychology emphasize the importance of equanimity: a quality of inner balance and steadiness that is imbued with awareness, care, and compassion. Equanimity is neither detached, nor idealized. Rather it is a very real engagement with what we’re facing, but in a way that enables us to see clearly the changing weather patterns of our minds and the dynamic changes in the world as the pandemic runs its course. It helps us understand that when we recognise and allow difficult thoughts, worries and feelings, when we don’t over-identify with them or cling to them, they will change and pass. We begin to understand that difficult moods and thoughts last longer when we fight them or over-identify with them. This is not about clever words or ideas. It is about an attitude of mind, and more than this, an attitude of mind that we can we can train and cultivate.

Equanimity is not a quality reserved for our inner life. Our external lives, especially just now provide much grist for the mill. The news cycle is not unfolding as we want, people aren’t acting the way that we think they should, each day requires more change than we feel we can manage, we want to know what will happen next week, next month, next year, but no one knows. Equanimity can resource us to navigate our way through life, with all its unpredictability and uncertainty, without losing our balance or becoming lost. Compassion enables us to do this with care both for ourselves and others.

Of course we urgently need a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19 and our best scientists will develop them. But we also need a response at the level of the human head and heart. Words matter. As well as words such as “uncertainty, worry and social distancing” I have also noticed other words and phrases being used increasingly: creativity, courage, care, kindness, ingenuity, appreciation, connection and values.”   In the same way that reducing our carbon footprint is essential to slowing climate change, cooling the fires of reactivity in these challenging times supports our well-being and the well-being of those around us. Equanimity is not a surrender of innovation or action —rather, it is a wholehearted responsiveness that values human health and human well-being. It is the steadier ground on which we can stand and meet the challenges in our lives.


Mindfulness Exercise: Equanimity

Take a few moments to steady your attention on your breath, anchoring and stabilizing your attention. Take up a posture that communicates a sense of wakefulness and dignity.

Once your attention is stable, bring to mind a mountain you know well, its base, its flanks, the way it rises up from its solid base. Have a sense of yourself as a mountain, with a solid base where you’re in contact with the ground, your body stable, and your head supported on the top of your body. Like a mountain through each day, through each of the seasons, through the years, having a sense of yourself sitting with dignity and wakefulness, your breath as your anchor, as experiences come and go, the mountain steady through it all. Like a mountain as weather patterns move through, so your body and mind are steady as thoughts, images, bodily sensations, impulses, and emotions come and go. Open to the sense of the steadiness and enduring nature of the mountain.

During the day, bring awareness to moments of the day, as best you can, meeting everything with a recognition and allowing that is poised and balanced. Bring this same attitude, as best you can, to experiences, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Recognize, allow, and embrace caring for each moment of your waking day.


Please see this Briefing Note from the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs about the Mental Health and Psychological Social Support aspects of COVID-19.

Adapted from Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology by Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken.

Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford Press.