The following is a summary of a teaching I gave at Dinh Quang Buddhist Temple in response to the question of how to sustain our daily practice during the pandemic.
The first part of the practice is just this: giving a compassionate, honest look at what we’re actually experiencing. A pandemic is something that brings us into contact with suffering, especially kinds of suffering we often avoid as a culture. And we also experience this suffering more frequently and intensely, and that’s something that deserves our kind attention. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s metaphor, we should be taking care of our suffering like we would a little baby.
So compassion and kindness is very essential. Illness, death, and separation from those we love are very prominent right now. So are the related fears: that those we love will get sick, that we might unintentionally spread the virus to others, that we might get the virus if we go out in public, and that our needs won’t be met if we don’t go out. Then there’s the anger: of how the pandemic is being handled, of how individuals act in risky ways (including, sometimes, ourselves), and of the myriad ways that people are suffering needlessly. We can also add in grief and despair, or numbness and delusion. It’s all here, and we are often experiencing variations of different themes throughout the day.
So we begin with kindness.
If I am having a difficult time during the pandemic, I can look at myself as someone who is suffering, and I can offer myself compassion. If we begin by being critical of ourselves, that we should somehow be immune to being affected by the pandemic, or that being affected means there is something wrong with us, then we will end up making the process of working through these feelings and thoughts more difficult. That’s when we end up looking for someone to blame, and relying on punishment. We coerce ourselves, push ourselves to get through it, but without taking the time to understand ourselves. Repressing, suppressing, denying, and otherwise avoiding our suffering may sometimes be necessary in a crisis moment, but, over the long term, it just postpones the suffering for another day. And often, the suffering simmers, and we find that the experiences are even more difficult to manage, erupting in a way that we can no longer avoid them.
That’s where the kindness really comes through. When the anger, anxiety, despair, numbness, or whatever difficult state arises, a simple practice is just to reflect: how would I respond to a loved one who was experiencing this? Similarly, we can ask, how would this person who loves me respond to this suffering I’m feeling? Then we can act out of that compassion. We can treat ourselves with this intuitive wisdom and kindness, and that can pause the suffering, and make it possible for us to respond from a different place than anxiety, anger, or despair.
For specific practices, a key thing is to find some very basic activities that really help you feel grounded in nature and/or your body, and take time to do those often. Mindfully wash the dishes, work in the yard, brush your hair, etc. It can be something very simple, but just let it be something you do regularly that gives your mind a break from the stress. Walking meditation can be great for this, but so can playing with a pet. Give yourself permission to find and do these simple things, and treat those activities with honor and care.
Within the Buddhist tradition, gathas can help with this. You can find gathas online, or even write your own. Here are some examples - https://mindfulgatha.wordpress.com/gathas/ or https://www.stillwatermpc.org/practice-resources/mindfulness-gathas/
If you are having trouble with formal meditation, but find that meditating does help, I would suggest using a guided meditation. Kristin Neff has a collection that are oriented around self-compassion - https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations
There are also lots of Dharma talks available now that are specifically addressing our suffering during the pandemic and how to respond skillfully. I would listen to several and find teachers that you connect to. You don’t have to listen to a whole talk, either. Just a few minutes may be useful in giving the mind a break, interrupting the stress and giving yourself a chance to reset. Dharma Seed is a great place to find these kinds of talks. I did a search for “pandemic” and five pages of talks resulted - https://dharmaseed.org/talks/?search=pandemic&sort=-rec_date&page_items=10
If you spend a lot of time on your smartphone, I’d also recommend the Plum Village app - https://plumvillage.app/ It includes guided meditations, songs, short talks, body practices/movements, etc. It’s easy to use and very helpful. Things like this can also be very helpful if you are used to mindlessly using your phone to cope with the stress, and want to use the phone more intentionally for something that creates healthy habits.
It can also help to connect with other like-minded people – to share how you are doing and even to team up to do something practical to help. This can be especially helpful if you are feeling powerless, and it is one of the reasons our community here has been so active in helping with food donations during the pandemic. We cannot solve every problem, but we can do these small things that make a difference, and keep training ourselves to respond to suffering with compassion, generosity, and wisdom.
Finally, keep close to your aspirations. I begin every time of meditation by remember a few very simple aspirations that have sustained my practice for a long time: to relate to this present moment with kindness, openness, curiosity, and gratitude, so that wisdom has a chance to arise. The habit of remembering and repeating this phrase for many years means that it easily and automatically comes to mind. This in itself often interrupts my reactivity and helps me be more intentional about choosing how to respond to my experiences, including stressful ones.
All of this reminds us that training the heart-mind is ongoing work. Sustaining our practices during such a stressful time is not easy, but it is possible. And we can encourage and support one another, like we are doing today, to make the possibility something real.