Finding Your Center in the Eye of the Storm
Hostage US Article
By: Katie Symansky Hunter, January 2023
When a loved one is taken hostage or wrongfully detained, it can feel like a cycle of unending ups and downs, alternating hope and worry, optimism, and despair, while we ourselves are prisoners of the uncertainty and shifting tides of changing expectations. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to allow that fear to paralyze us and for it to become so pervasive as to virtually put our lives on hold. In addition to the exhaustion, we know that constant stress is hard not just on ourselves, but also on those around us. Just when we find some relief, something that brings us a moment of unexpected joy or happiness, everything shatters as we feel guilty that this isn’t shared with our loved one.
But just as a good night’s sleep is restorative, so is a break from the worry and rumination. The trick is how to step away and find the space to do that. The term “mindfulness” is one now seen seemingly everywhere. A quick Google search will turn up courses on “Mindfulness Meditation,” “Mindfulness Training,” “The Basics of Mindfulness,” and more. The truth is that at its core, mindfulness is simply paying attention, really paying attention, and being completely present and aware of an activity in the moment, no matter how simple or routine it may seem. Think of it as a power nap for your brain. A restorative practice that will allow you to tackle the next days’ challenges.
So, what does this look like? First, it may be helpful to consider the Japanese school of psychotherapy that refers to mindfulness as a means to achieve a level of mental peace. One of the techniques that the therapist uses to assess whether a patient is mindful is to hand them a broom and ask them to sweep a room. The therapist closes their eyes and listens carefully. If they hear a regular “shoop-shoop….shoop-shoop” as the broom goes back and forth, they know that the patient is not being mindful of their sweeping, and their mind is otherwise preoccupied. If, instead, they are paying attention, digging into the corners, and finding the dusty spots, the sound of the broom will be much less regular. They call this “centering” your thoughts- finding something that you can focus so intensely on that everything else falls away for a time.
My husband is a psychologist and during the day he assesses wounded Veterans for psychological trauma related to their service, a job that can take its toll. As I write this, his workday is done, and he is attempting to make a particularly elaborate and difficult French pastry- a Covid hobby he started some months ago- with the assistance of the Internet. From time to time, I might hear a little swearing, and when I watch him, it is clear that his whole concentration is being brought to bear on that little pile of eggs, flour, and butter, and for that brief time, he has found his center and is focused on nothing else.
No matter how hard we try, most of us cannot just decide to switch off or put aside our thoughts at will. Take, for example, the “yellow crayon” paradox. Right now, do not think about a yellow crayon. Do not picture a yellow crayon in your mind. Put all thoughts of a yellow crayon aside. As you can probably see, you are now guaranteed to think about this yellow crayon for the rest of your day. The goal of mindfulness is to concentrate on one thing, the thing you are doing in the moment, intently enough, and to the exclusion of all other thoughts or distractions (including the yellow crayon) so that the other thoughts fade away. This Mindfulness, putting everything else aside, is, at the same time, perhaps both the simplest and most difficult thing we can do.
One way to start is to find an activity that will allow you to find your own center. This should be something that, if done well, might even be a bit difficult, but in any case, it will ideally allow your full concentration. But this doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to take up oil painting, play the harpsichord, or start any new activity that will cause even more stress. For my husband, who already loves to cook, it is presently preparing unfamiliar and complicated dishes; for you, it might be journaling, gardening, or reading a good book. It really is that simple. Just choose an activity and start wherever you are.
Whatever it is, work consciously to focus only on the activity at hand. Tonight, when making dinner, maybe pay close attention and cut the carrots into pieces as similarly as you can make them. Try hard to listen intently and focus as your six-year-old describes their day. Be aware of your mind wandering, and when it does, pause and bring your attention back to the present task. It will be difficult at first. Our brains enjoy nothing more than to multitask. Right now, as I write this, with a deadline looming, I can hear the television in another room; I apparently forgot to turn it off. The dog is walking down the hall, and I wonder if she needs to go out. I hear the wind and a slight banging sound, and I worry that maybe something is blowing around on the deck. And there is also that yellow crayon; I guess I did that one to myself… Anything and everything but what I really need to focus on.
But centering yourself through mindfulness is a skill, and as with any skill, as time goes on, you will find it easier to ground yourself and your thoughts for a time and return to the center when your mind wanders. As you do this, it will begin to allow the worry to fade into the background, giving you a moment of badly needed rest and clarity from the constant chaos and concern.
Three years ago, Hurricane Dorian threatened to wreak havoc on many of us who live in the Southeastern U.S. All of us who live near the coast watched the weather constantly with anticipation for any news, not knowing whether to expect the worst or feel relief as the path shifted alternately toward and away from us. As it roared ashore in North Carolina, it tore a path of destruction miles wide as it passed directly over our house in the Outer Banks. The wind-driven water flooded roads and submerged cars all around us, and the wind shrieked and roared for miles in all directions. It was a monster, full of uncertainty, fear, and chaos, and we could do nothing but wait for forces far beyond our control to move on.
But for a brief time at least, although surrounded by the wall of wind and rain, in the very center of the storm, you could look straight up in the eye and see sunshine and blue sky. Despite the wind and rain raging all around, and while still not knowing what the backside of the storm had in store, the center was quiet, and the fear and uncertainty briefly faded. The relief was palpable, and for a time, we had calm and respite from the chaos.
Similarly, hostage and wrongful detainee families face an ongoing storm of uncertainty, fear, and frustration that can last months or even years. Finding calm in the eye of the storm provides a much-needed mental break that may come from living your life in a more mindful manner. Try to find ways to ground and center yourself and your thoughts in the simple things you do. In other words, find the eye in your storm. By doing so, you may find a moment of badly needed calm and grace while you wait for your own winds and rain to pass.