“We All Need to Breathe”: The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale ‘75 Counters Pandemic Anxiety with Mindfulness

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The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale ‘75 likes watches.

For years, the founding and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, has collected time pieces in every shape, color, and style. Watches became an essential part of her wardrobe.

When Ray of Hope’s women’s ministry presented Hale with an Apple Watch, it was a game changer. As a fashion statement, the watch’s interchangeable bands meant she didn’t need to wear a different watch with different outfits. What’s more, she said, “Whatever I need and want to do is on my Apple Watch. I can answer my phone, read and respond to email and texts, program an exercise routine, store my credit cards. I haven’t even come close to naming all the things I can do because I’ve yet to discover them all.”

One of the most enduring discoveries she made occurred in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a day when she was besieged with worry about the well-being of her congregation and others and grieving over the losses she was personally experiencing, “my watch suddenly vibrated and said, ‘breathe.’ It told me I would have a better day if I took a moment to breathe. I said to myself, ‘This watch is clairvoyant. It knew exactly what I needed when I needed it.’”

The act of simply breathing on a regular basis was part of the wisdom Hale shared recently with an audience of Hollins students, faculty, and staff in her presentation “Mindfulness Matters: Physical, Emotional, and Mental Well-Being in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond.” Hale explained the state of mindfulness with a definition from scientist, writer, and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Mindfulness is awareness cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and careful way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The often overwhelming stress of daily life has been amplified by anxiety over the pandemic and the future generally, and Hale warned of becoming “‘human doings’ rather than ‘human beings,’ never taking time to enjoy, learn, and love while in the moment. When you’re always busy moving from one thing to the next, you fail to pay attention to what is happening to you in the moment.”

Hale went on to describe the debilitating aspects of stress. “It robs you of energy and the opportunity to live life to its fullest. It can lead to cardiovascular issues, decreased immune function, and an increase in recovery time from illness. When you’re stressed, you have a problem concentrating and thinking clearly, affecting your ability to learn and produce. It makes you irritable and hard to deal with.”

As a counterbalance, Hale urged “living in the present, in the now, and stewarding the gift of life we’ve been given. First and foremost is loving ourselves, which involves knowing ourselves. Each of us must learn to affirm our dignity and worth.”

Mindfulness is particularly challenging for women, Hale said, “because we don’t always know who we’re supposed to be. The world and people around us have certain standards and expectations about how we should look, act, think, react. When you allow the desires of others to determine who and what you will be, you rob them of the joy of being and receiving from the real you, who is vibrant and alive and exciting and valuable to the relationship. The world needs somebody with your intellect, your intuition, your creativity, and your ingenuity to show them what being a powerful woman is all about.”

Along with championing breathing as “essential to our well-being, not just physically but mentally and emotionally,” Hale offered these suggestions for achieving mindfulness:

  • Accept, believe in, and celebrate who you are. “See yourself in the future: Where do you want to go? Who do you want to be? What gives you joy? The sky is the limit to what you can be and what you can do. Don’t be afraid to try something new and different. Give yourself to the process of being who you were created to be.”
  • Take care of yourself. “Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, eat right, and exercise regularly. But, you must also learn to be still. When was the last time you just sat still and listened to the creative stirrings of your heart, the singing of the birds, the rustling of the wind through the trees? Doing nothing at regular times, experiencing calm in the wonder of it all, is healthy.”
  • Seek times of solitude. “Solitude is an investment. It is a time to recharge your emotional, your physical, your spiritual batteries. A time to dream, a time to imaging the possibilities of your life, a time to get in touch with yourself. Solitude is a time to gain insight or a solution to a pressing problem.”
  • Listen deeply. “Simply to refrain from talking without listening is not silence. Inner solitude and inner silence are inseparable. The purpose of silence and solitude is to be able to see and hear with one’s heart and not simply one’s ear. It is cultivating an intimacy with your inner life as it unfolds.”
  • Be intentional about acknowledging your grief and your loss, especially during the pandemic. “One of the most devastating effects of this pandemic is the loss that we’ve all experienced in so many ways: loved ones, colleagues, friends, and classmates, the loss of people we didn’t even know but nevertheless are part of the human family. Loss must be grieved in a healthy and mature way. Mindfulness is sitting with our pain whether we like the way it feels or not. It allows us to learn, to grow, to mature, to heal, to be delivered.”
  • Embrace your limits. “We cannot do everything we want to do whenever we want to do it. Much of what happens to us is beyond our control. Limits are really gifts from God to keep us humble and to ground us. Limits remind us that we are of the earth and we have to stay committed and connected to the earth. Realize that life isn’t perfect. There will be pain and disappointment. We must live with it and learn the lessons it teaches us.”

Hale concluded with a message that “given all that we’ve been through as a nation and a world over the last 18 to 20 months, we need one another to help affirm our common humanity. We need one another to navigate through the continued uncertainty of the effects of this pandemic. We can’t make it without the other, and we have to learn how to be kind. Kindness is a state of being that includes the attributes of loving, affection, sympathy, feeling for another, and identifying with one another.”

A native of Roanoke, Hale graduated from Hollins with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music, and went on to complete a Master of Divinity degree at Duke University and a Doctor of Ministry at Union Theological Seminary. She holds five honorary Doctorates of Divinity and an honorary Doctor of Law degree. Because of her leadership and foresight, Ray of Hope Christian Church has been cited in the book, Excellent Protestant Congregations: A Guide to Best Places and Practices.

Hale has been inducted into the African American Biographies Hall of Fame and the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers. She has been honored by the National Urban League and is a recipient of the inaugural “Women of Power” award. Ebony magazine placed her among its Power 100, a yearly compilation of the most influential African Americans in the country.

In 2009, Hale was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. She also served as a member of the 2016 Platform Committee for the Democratic National Convention and delivered the invocation at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Hale serves on the Hollins University Board of Trustees. She is also chairperson of the IC3 Conference Board; chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Beulah Heights University; vice president for the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference; a member of the Board of Visitors of the Divinity School at Duke University; a member of the UNCF NFI Advisory Council; and a member of the Welcome.US Council.