At this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic most of us are focused on what we need to do to stay safe, take care of loved ones, and make ends meet. In quieter moments we may also face the question of how we want to be with what reality is throwing at us right now, and how we can respond to the crisis as an opportunity to deepen our spiritual practice.
For many people, this pandemic is a wake-up call, a concentrated reminder of core existential facts we often ignore. Like the Buddha before he left the shelter of his father’s palace, those of us living with privilege may have been insulated from sickness and death, or from poverty and lack of adequate health care. The pandemic also offers us stark lessons in impermanence, as well as interconnectedness, but our practice can go beyond simply receiving the Buddhist teachings that the current situation has demonstrated.
If there was ever a time to meditate and chant, this is it. In my practice of zazen, I pour myself into breathing from the belly, let go of thinking, quiet down, and open up calm presence. (At least that’s my intention—easier said than done.) In meditation we are given the opportunity to settle into an awareness free from obsessing and worrying, if only for a few moments, and become more grounded and centered in the midst of crisis. When thoughts and feelings about the pandemic do arise—and they will—we can note them and let them go.
The great Japanese Zen master Dogen lifted up genjo, which I translate as “presencing,” something that is realized when we let go of thought, empty our mind (“forget the self”), and become filled or “confirmed by the ten-thousand things.” This calm, open presence helps us stay present in the present, and does not exclude our fear and whatever challenges the pandemic is sending our way. Presencing also helps us let go of reactivity—greed and ill will, like and dislike, attraction and aversion—and gain a taste of the equanimity that enables us to sit with uncertainty without being rattled by it. While helping us deal with challenges, presencing also helps us let go of expectations and our attachments to certain outcomes.
But wait, we might say, with the magnitude of anxiety we’re feeling right now, settling down in meditation and manifesting calm presence seems impossible, even if we are lucky enough to have time to sit. Here, something else Dogen lifted up can help us: gujin, pouring oneself fully into whatever one is doing. Though we may not be Zen monastics, right now we can practice gujin in our handwashing, as we give ourselves fully to soaping and scrubbing our hands under hot water for twenty seconds. Or, as when Zen practitioners do samu—tasks done one at a time and thoroughly as acts of meditation—we can pour ourselves into projects at home: cooking, cleaning up, reducing clutter, fixing things, taking mindful care of our possessions, creating art, or making an inventory of people in our lives who are struggling and need our support. Those of us who are not at home—continuing our work as bus drivers, truckers, custodians, landscapers, nurses, cooks, and cashiers—can also bring the wholehearted attention of samu to our jobs in the midst of anxiety. Doing tasks fully and thoroughly can help ground us while also providing a sense of accomplishment and, by extension, an enhanced sense of agency.
As we engage in the physicality of giving ourselves fully to washing our hands, doing projects at home, or doing tasks at work, we can cultivate mindfulness, which extends outward from our meditative actions to mindfulness of what we are doing when we care for a child, head out for a walk, drive to a store, or go to work, and then return home and take precautions to make sure that we and the objects we carry back with us do not bring the virus into our abode. With this practice we can also develop our understanding and actualization of mindfulness beyond simply paying attention: the Pali and Sanskrit terms (sati and smrti) usually translated as “mindfulness” also connote remembering and keeping in mind. This sort of mindfulness can keep us safe as we collect ourselves before we head out the door, remembering to put on gloves and a mask and stay six feet away from co-workers or other shoppers, and keeping in mind the importance of not touching our face.
This can be supported by the practice, popularized by Thich Nhat Hanh and others, of pausing and taking several breaths before acting. The other day when I pulled into a supermarket parking lot and saw a long line of people with shopping carts waiting to enter the store, I felt anxiety well up in my mind and my breath rise up from my belly and into my chest. I fumbled as I reached for my face mask, the bandana to go over it, my nitrile gloves, and my shopping list. In the midst of this panicked swirl a thought arose in my mind: “Take three breaths.” After doing so, I walked across the lot to join the line, remembering another useful mantra, “Move at 80 percent speed.” By the time I grabbed a cart, I was calmer than before.
In addition to a keener understanding of others’ suffering, I think this pandemic is fostering another component of the path, at least the Zen path: paying attention to the little things, such as the face of a loved one, the sweet taste of orange juice, or the daffodils blooming down the block. (Granted, for those of us who are sick or jobless and struggling to pay bills, this is not where our primary attention needs to go.) This attentiveness shades into the related practice of appreciating beauty, especially the restorative beauty of spring (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), and offers a respite from the pain around us. For those of us sheltering at home, daily walks provide a chance to savor flowers, bird calls, and budding trees. All of us can practice gratitude, counting these blessings and cultivating thankfulness for all the good and beautiful things that reality is bestowing on us each day.
It will likely be months before we can ease these social distancing measures, live with less fear, and resume the activities we may miss. In this respect, the pandemic is also giving us an opportunity to cultivate ksanti, patience or perseverance, one the Mahayana six perfections (paramita). Short of perfecting the ksanti necessary for countless lifetimes of work to end suffering, we will certainly need emotional stamina for the next three months or so if we hope to stick with social distancing, deal with risky workplaces, and address financial problems without getting burned out.
For those of us fortunate enough to be looking out across these three months in a safe home, it may be helpful to view this time as a retreat, not unlike traditional 90-day Buddhist retreats. Of course, it could be more than three months, but either way, a question for our practice is how we might work fruitfully with this unusual time rather than seeing it as a bad dream we need to endure. Many of us are already pulled back from ordinary life, sheltered at home. Letting go of any attachment or expectation that social distancing will end soon, we can focus our intention to use this time to cultivate our practices, whether meditation, chanting, prayer, or extending lovingkindness. Like the three jewels of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, we can take refuge in our practice right now, and we can see our homes, with the simple living we are doing there, as our monasteries, or at least as our dojo, the “place for attaining the Way.”
Perhaps “retreat” is the wrong construct here, for the coming months also provide an opportunity to go beyond individual practice and engage in the act of envisioning what might be the new normal for our societies and the world. The pre-pandemic “normal” was plagued with growing racism, inequality, and catastrophic climate disruption, and we can take this crisis as an opportunity to upend destructive political and economic structures and work toward a world based on the Buddhist values of non-harming, generosity, love, wisdom, and liberation. In this moment of suffering and regeneration, we can join with those who have been striving to organize mass movements necessary for structural change.
Thus the pandemic also grants us a chance to expand our notion of sangha. In addition to our old “friends on the path” (kalyanamitra), our sangha now includes a wider community of practitioners that we have met since we began practicing social distancing—people we have encountered online or in our local communities.
This moment provides a powerful chance to extend lovingkindness to others as we wish them safety and health, and activate compassion as we—if not in a dire medical or financial bind ourselves—make an effort to help those who are sick, afraid, financially strapped, or lonely, whether by reaching out to elderly neighbors, sharing food and masks, contributing to food banks, or making donations to organizations helping those who have lost their jobs. In this multifaceted outreach we can take inspiration from the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara, who lends a helping hand (a thousand hands!) to others, combining compassion with savvy in upaya, or skillful means, in determining what people might need. While our compassionate offerings may be more modest in number, through them we can begin to free ourselves from greed and attachment, cultivating the wisdom and compassion behind our bodhicitta, our “mind of awakening” that aspires to liberate sentient beings from suffering.
Ultimately, what much of this pandemic practice boils down to is choosing how we wish to respond to what is happening right now. Some of us will clarify our intentions, make vows, voice aspirations. Others may rely on mantras to help focus their mental activity, speech, and bodily actions.
In recent years, as I age and get ever clearer about how reality keeps hurling challenges my way, I’ve formulated a reminder, a kind of mantra, that is helpful at this tumultuous time: “Meet what comes with mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion.” Perhaps this can help us create a new world out of this chaos.