“I thought I was going to die from COVID-19,” said Chris Burton, the founder and director of Art Active, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing art and mindfulness to underserved communities of all ages in the greater Los Angeles community.
In March of 2020, Burton became very ill with COVID-19, which is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. He had all the typical symptoms – fever, loss of smell and taste, extremely lethargic, and random pains. He battled with COVID-19 for six weeks. Of all the symptoms he experienced, he says the worst one was the virus’ effect on his mental health.
Burton is not alone. Although it is seldom discussed, one of the most devastating aspects of suffering from COVID-19 is its effect on a patient’s mental health. Many COVID-19 patients are now speaking up about the mental health effects of the virus due to the isolation from quarantining away from family members and society, the harsh physical symptoms, and how the mind begins playing tricks on them.
“When you are as sick as I was, you are left with your thoughts,” said Burton. “And if you are not aware of your thoughts and the direction they can go, you can get hijacked by your thoughts,” he explained.
Burton, a mindfulness teacher, is well aware of the power of your thoughts and the importance of being aware of them. He knows that our minds are capable of producing thousands of thoughts a day.
Mindful.org defines Mindfulness as the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an internationally known meditation teacher, author, and founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), adds that Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. The key is being both aware in the moment but without judgment of ourselves or our thoughts.
Burton credits his mindfulness practice for making him aware of his thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotional wellbeing. It allowed him to watch his thoughts and his overall thinking when he was battling COVID-19.
Mindful Awareness Explained
Burton explains that mindful awareness of your thoughts is like standing on a train platform. In this analogy, each train car that passes in front of you is like a thought. Your goal is to notice each train car. Occasionally, your mind may drift, and you end up on the train or down the track. Yet, your mindful awareness of the thoughts, or train cars, disrupts your mind from continuing down the train tracks. And you bring yourself back to standing on the train platform watching the thoughts.
Burton shares that his thoughts during his bout with COVID-19 sounded like this: “Oh my God, you are going to die. Oh my God, are you ever going to get better? Oh my God, are you even going to be able to get out of the bed and make it to the bathroom? Oh my God, I don’t think you’re ever going to get better? This is how it’s going to be forever.” He describes his thoughts and emotions during this time as on “turbo boost.”
A Thought Isn’t You
While having COVID-19, Burton knew he had to use mindful awareness to disrupt his thoughts to improve his physical and emotional wellbeing. Burton explains, “So, when the thoughts came, I had to keep looking at them. And then, I was separating myself from the thought. This thought is not who you are. This thought is coming up in you. It is not you.”
Mindfulness teaches practitioners to put a little bit of space between themselves and their thoughts. Burton confides that his mindfulness practice allowed him to not be overly consumed with his thoughts as well as not identify with them. He developed a constant awareness that he was having the thoughts but that the thoughts were not him.
A Thought Isn’t Automatically True
Additionally, Burton’s mindful awareness practice allowed him to see that just because he was having a thought didn’t make the thought true. He began to open up his mind to the possibility of seeing the thought, especially concerning his health, another way. He also realized that he could stop the thought train right there and not go any further. So, instead of allowing a scary thought about his health to worry him incessantly, he would observe the thought and stop thinking about it.
Surprisingly, Burton says that he didn’t even have to think wellness thoughts of “I am well, or I am better.” He would simply say to himself, “I am open to seeing this differently” after noticing his thoughts. This practice prevented his mind from “taking him down” and allowed his body to heal itself.
Mindfulness Helps with Suffering
One of the biggest benefits of mindfulness that Chris Burton experienced while recovering from COVID-19 was that he lessened his suffering. There is a famous Buddhist parable about two arrows on how to deal with suffering skillfully. It is said that the Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then went on to explain, “In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.”
Burton learned that he didn’t have to experience the second arrow of suffering. By using his mindfulness practice, he was able to manage the suffering, which let the body do what it does – heal itself. Burton said, “I had to get out of the way. I couldn’t allow myself to feed into what I was hearing on the news about all the devastating effects on the body like blood clots.” And within six weeks, he recovered and felt much better, although he still experiences some of the long-term effects from the virus.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Burton’s experience using mindfulness during his time with COVID-19 exemplifies many of the benefits of mindfulness. According to Positive Psychology, some of the most commonly stated benefits include a decrease in stress and depression, emotional regulation, an increase in self-compassion, and less anxiety. Mindfulness is also known to enhance a person’s ability to deal with illness. It may not take away the symptoms, but it makes the illness more manageable. A 2013 study by Garland & Howard showed that mindfulness can also help patients to focus less on the pain, thereby improving their quality of life. Additionally, mindfulness can facilitate recovery. It helps people who suffer from a chronic or potentially terminal illness or life-threatening event move on from it. Similar to Burton’s experience, Positive Psychology explains that mindfulness provides the necessary tools to step back from intense negative emotions, identify them, and accept them instead of fighting them.
Mindfulness for the Community
Despite all of its known benefits, mindfulness is often met with skepticism and mistrust in the African American community. It’s important to understand that mindfulness is not a religion. Mindfulness is a secular, scientifically based practice that helps people become more present to their lives in a nonjudgmental way. And, as a result, mindfulness helps its practitioners lead more peaceful, less stressful, and healthier lives.
Chris Burton recognized the need for more mindfulness teachings in the African American community. Although Burton began his career as an aerospace engineer, his passion for learning, community service, and embodying and sharing mindfulness practices led him to found Art Active, Inc., a nonprofit organization in 2014. As the leader of Art Active, Burton has designed and facilitated art and mindfulness programming in schools, senior citizen clubs, community centers, and the greater Los Angeles area. His contributions have been recognized with awards and honors, and most recently by Curren D. Price, Jr., Los Angeles City Councilmember for District Nine. A graduate of California State University, Fullerton with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Mathematics, Burton’s continued education includes a certificate in the UCLA Training in Mindfulness Facilitation (TMF) program and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Practices (MAPs) teacher training program.
As a meditator of more than 30 years, Burton currently provides two mindfulness opportunities for the community. First, he offers a morning meditation from 7:00-7:15 a.m., every Monday through Friday. And second, he offers a 30-minute, Monday Mindfulness drop-in class at 7:00-7:30 p.m. in which he shares mindfulness practices through a guided practice and a brief reflection period thereafter. For more information, please visit www.ArtActiveLA.org. Join Our Email List and you will be given the zoom links to the two mindfulness opportunities for the community.