In recent weeks, healthcare workers in full protective gear have joined the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC)’s daily zazen meditation practice, logging into the Zoom conferences from the crowded corridors of hospitals. Zen teacher Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, who co-founded NYZCCC with his husband, Sensei Robert Chodo Campbell, has trained physicians and nurses working at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City. Among other services, the Zen center offers education for healthcare workers about contemplative approaches to palliative care.

Koshin is also a Jungian psychotherapist, certified chaplaincy educator, and author of Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up. Last week, Tricycle spoke with Koshin about ways we might best cope with the limitations of lockdown and how we can work with our feelings of grief and bereavement during the time of pandemic.

In Wholehearted, you write about how our addiction to our devices has compounded a sense of disconnect and feelings of loneliness. Now, because of COVID-19, we are more isolated in every way. How can we connect with one another authentically when we have no choice but to do so through screens? One thing we can do when we connect with others on these tablets and on these phones is to actually connect. We can make a point of intentionally looking at one another’s face and noticing the light in the room and really allow ourselves to slow down until we return to the human level. All right, we’re here together. Here we are breathing together. My nervous system is affecting yours and yours is affecting mine.

I learned recently that around 30 percent of the people who were quarantined because of SARS came out of quarantine with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They found that the longer people remained in quarantine, the more pronounced the symptoms. That statistic is so very heartbreaking. I’ve noticed when I’m talking with people, whether it’s students or physicians or nurses, is that we have a habit of running away with our fears. It’s as if we are enslaved to them. Many people are frightened and angry at this time. And many have a habit of exteriorizing those feelings very quickly by finding someone to blame.

With this in mind, my practice during the pandemic has become a question of How do I keep tenderizing, slowing down and softening to this experience? In Zen, we focus on the hara, the place two inches below your belly button. I’ve been encouraging my students to actually put their hands there when they feel overwhelmed, or super isolated, or scared. Just put your hands on the hara and breathe. Breathe the way you’re breathing, feel your breath move your belly and hands. Just see if you can keep returning to that sensation.

At first we’re going to fail. We’re not going to do it well—we might get scared and overwhelmed. We’ll have thoughts like, When is this going to be over; I’m going crazy! Just allow yourself to have those feelings, and return to the softness. Of course, these are easy things to say and challenging to do.

In a past interview you said, “Dying is not an emergency.” But now it feels that death and dying are happening at a very rapid pace—and suddenly. How do we prepare for death and dying when the losses are abrupt and accelerated? We are also so isolated from one another. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who is not grieving about what’s happening. The expression these days is that it’s “the new normal.” I’ve been suggesting that people reach out for help—there are many places to go where you can reach out and let people know you’re struggling. After our meditation on Zoom at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, we go into breakout groups just to check in with one another and process the range of feelings. It’s so important to seek out those spaces where we gather and share. To me, that’s the source of resilience. It comes from our ability to slow down and realize other people matter, and from our capacity to still think about and care about other people and reach out in support. 

Just naming it can be very helpful: how are you experiencing grief these days? Allow a pause to really let others know you want to know what they’re going to say. Just pause. It’s a kind of generosity that we can develop. Come back to the softness of your belly and start again. I think the traumatic part of this is when we don’t take time to recognize what we’re feeling, when we don’t talk about it, and isolate emotionally within it.

How does one recognize that they’re grieving, especially if it’s grief from a loss that isn’t as tangible as death? There is a whole spectrum of grief. I like to think of grief as just “missing something.” It could be as simple as missing going to the gym. Someone else was telling me that she really missed going to the nail salon. These are small things, but it is grief.

But then I think of one of our community members who lost her father to the virus. She had no way of being with her family during the grieving process; she had to arrange for him to go to the crematory online. In a few weeks, she was told she will receive his ashes in the mail. She comes from a large Mediterranean family where it is really important for them to gather, and they can’t. The grief from that is intense and piercing.

[My partner] Chodo and I have been having real conversations about this. If one of us gets very sick, the reality is we may go to the hospital and never see each other again. We live in this time when everyone might be imagining this in some way, and we need to be able to talk about it. To me the work with grief during the pandemic is learning how to name it, reach out to your people, and if you don’t feel like you have people, extend out, do a Google search, and explore. There are lots of wonderful and strange people in this world. You can find your crew, your community.

Have you noticed a change in the quality of communication—on social media and otherwise—during the lockdown? My friend Kanho Yakushiji is a Rinzai Zen monk in Japan. In the midst of the pandemic, he started creating videos that reimagine traditional Zen chants and sutras, which are set in these very beautiful places in Japan. They are so exquisite. I think his work is one example of our desire and need to experience the multiplicity of flavors at this time—to experience joy and creativity in a time of difficulty. At a certain point in Zen training, there’s a ritual in which the teacher and the student share a cup of tea together—a special tea called Five Flavored Tea. We make a point of tasting all the different notes. The question for us now is, how do we each have a five-flavored practice of the day? If we find ourselves caught in a bitter or salty frame of mind, how do we also taste something sweet? Maybe this means going outside and walking around the block, taking the time to watch spring happen, noticing chrysanthemums or a magnolia tree blooming. The ability to experience awe in the midst of all of this pain is so important.

Living in New York, I feel this sense of responsibility to broadcast the emergency, to have the sirens going all the time. I appreciate how you mention the importance of still experiencing beauty. Yes. I’m not saying we should bypass our sadness, but to also allow ourselves to have more. That’s what I consider to be wholeheartedness. We are in a time of grief, of immense loss of everything we thought we knew. How we move through our grief and wake up with our grief into this life at this moment, to me is everything.

People are now asking, What do I really value? What am I doing with my life? What and who do I care about? We have an opportunity to address important issues with family and friends; conversations in which we can tell people that we love them, and how we love them in particular. To me, this time is a really powerful mirror—and the mirror has moved in really close. How we respond to that reflection is an opportunity.

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