The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about uncertainty and upheaval in our daily lives. Further, this is only the first of such crises that we will have to face in the near future. However, there is a way to maintain physical and mental balance through it all. By adopting a realistic perspective of the situation, we can think in a healthy and productive way. By having the right attitude, we can develop a balanced emotional state. By utilizing concrete methods of mindful self-awareness, we can have the capacity to adjust our perspective and attitude and respond to crises skillfully and compassionately. The following blog post presents my own approach to dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, based on the timeless wisdom of the Buddha.
Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been instructed to stay at home to prevent further spread of the virus. Here in New York City, it’s been a little over one week, and many people have become acutely stressed over dealing with the sudden changes. Some are adapting to the complications of working at home, while simultaneously helping their children adjust to daily life as schools are closed. Others need to assist family members with managing their anxiety, as people with already-existing mental health issues are more deeply shaken by the upheaval. Many people are fearful about the possibility of lack of resources, and are feverishly stocking up on food, in addition to worrying about the health risks of transmitting the virus. Some have been laid off altogether and are facing a complete financial crisis. What can we do to help ourselves deal with these challenges with peace of mind?
We can create peace of mind by addressing three aspects: 1) perspective, 2) attitude, and 3) practical methods. Perspective refers to our conceptual view of the situation—not only including the pandemic but our life in general—especially how we look at our mortality. Attitude is how we face the pains and vicissitudes of life, and mostly refers to the underlying emotional pattern of response to immediate stimuli. Practical methods are the concrete ways in which we implement our perspective, ease our emotions, and behave in response to the situation.
When things are going well, everything seems to be the “same as usual.” We have our jobs, our relationships, our wealth, and our health. Without noticing it, we adopt a perspective that makes things seem permanent. The seeming stability of daily life and of our own personality gives us an impression that our “self” and “my world” is constant and unchanging. Only when there are major changes like a death in the family, a loss of career, or a sudden break up of a relationship do we notice the fragility and impermanence of everything. The pandemic is a period where obvious and drastic changes occur that disrupt our sense of stability. During these times of sweeping change we are taken off guard, shocked, and emotionally unsettled. It’s hard to face the reality of change and we attempt to hold on to everything for dear life—and end up panicking and hoarding supplies (toilet paper strangely being among one of those “essential” items for daily living). We can easily forget our neighbors and think mostly of ourselves and those that we feel are important to us. We fight for resources and conflicts occur between people. This creates internal and external turmoil.
There is an option to this perspective and self-centered behavior: the perspective of impermanence. If we always keep in mind that everything is changing, not stable, and ultimately will pass away—or recycle into something else—we’ll be prepared at every moment for the reality of impermanence. If we observe change in the little facets of our daily life—our body’s gradual maturation or aging, our developing personality, our increase of knowledge or decrease of memory, the coming together and departing of our daily interpersonal interactions, and the rise and fall of our thoughts and feelings—we’ll be ready for anything. We are ready already. We accept the reality of impermanence and without panic or fear, do what needs to be done. A situation like a pandemic is then perceived as a normal result of the change that occurs when populations and human activities develop in an unstable way. We know that illness and death are part of life, while striving to protect life and improve the health and well-being of our self and others. With the view of everything—great and small—as impermanent and subject to being influenced by the conditions around it, we develop a clear and cool mind which is without fear.
Based on this perspective, we see the importance of needing to respond appropriately to crisis. During the pandemic, we don’t become apathetic, thinking, “Oh we’re all gonna die anyway… life’s impermanent… enjoy what you can while it lasts.” Rather, we learn about what’s happening, how to protect ourselves and others, and are careful about not spreading illness. We limit our social engagements, keep a distance, wash our hands often and avoid touching our eyes, nose, or mouth, etc. We responsibly yet calmly deal with the situation. And with this outlook, we’ll be more aware of when our thinking and behavior is either helpful or hurtful. We need to plan and act; we don’t need to worry and drown in fear. After we take action, we accept the results. If our original plan didn’t work, we make adjustments. However, worrying and then mindlessly looking for things to bring us security doesn’t help. “What if this happens… what if that happens… what would we do if…. It will be terrible… it’s the end of the world!” This kind of thinking is useless and harmful. It can spread faster and be more fatal than viruses. The last thing we want during a health crisis is more of us in the hospital due to fear and anxiety. If we adjust our perspective, we’ll be able to adjust our thinking, and our emotions will stabilize as well. We’ll become clear, calm, rational, and efficient in responding to our challenges.
No one likes pain or discomfort–well, at least not many people. It’s more accurate to say no one likes to feel something that they don’t want to feel. If we want to feel healthy and we are sick, we suffer. If we want to feel warm and we are cold, we suffer. If we want feel relief by purchasing that last item in the market and someone else grabbed it first, we’ll suffer. If we want to feel secure knowing that we will have our jobs tomorrow, yet we are not sure and feel anxious, we suffer. In this time of pandemic, many of us are facing the uncertainty of what life will be like tomorrow. The pain of losing a job and dealing with the resulting lack of financial stability is certainly not easy to deal with. Previously having a pantry full of food, and suddenly, having empty shelves and growling stomachs is not pleasant. Habitually, we often resist, worry, or complain about our hardships and feelings. We become angry, afraid, or even apathetic when we are faced with hardship. We arouse our animal responses of fight, flight, or freeze. These responses have less to do with rational thinking and more to do with our perceptions of danger, pleasure or pain, like and dislike, seeking and avoiding. These responses disturb our emotions and cause us to respond hastily and unskillfully. Emotional reaction is the foundation of chaos.
How do we avoid reacting emotionally? How do we not get caught in fear and anxiety? It’s important to remind ourselves that resisting discomfort doesn’t help. When we resist what is unpleasant, we add another layer of tension and dis-ease on top of it. We add a stratum of emotional thinking which clouds our mind and disturbs our body. If we remind ourselves to drop our resistance, we relieve ourselves of that extra layer of suffering. Seeking for something out of reach is the same. We often seek emotionally for that which we can’t have. We want this situation to be over already, and add a layer of obsessive thinking which also clouds our minds and is a burden to our body. If we remind ourselves that seeking obsessively is harmful, we have the awareness to drop it. We likewise relieve ourselves of the “seeking mind” which is not a healthy intention, but a burdensome emotionally-bound way of thinking. If we can remind ourselves to be aware of and to let go of these two extremes of emotional response, we’ll be able to accept the reality of the situation. We’ll be able to utilize our realistic perspective mentioned above to deal with the situation properly, with emotional ease. Thus, attitude and perspective are intertwined; our rational and emotional aspects of mind—perception and feeling, respectively—are bound together.
Yet, in order to be successful in adjusting our perspective and attitude, we need to be keenly aware of our thoughts and feelings. To be aware, doesn’t mean simply having an idea, “Oh, I know how I feel… I know what I’m thinking,” and merely reflecting on our thoughts and feelings in the past or future. To be aware means to be fully mindful, or conscious of, the workings of our body-mind in this present moment. To have such a moment-to-moment awareness requires training for most people. Although we are conscious beings—and always aware to some extent—much of the time our awareness is distracted and clouded by our patterns of absent-mindedness. We often lose awareness and are only partially conscious of what’s happening within and without. Our minds are clouded like dusty or dirty mirrors; what’s reflected in them is not accurate.
The means for us to develop our capacity for mindfulness are manifold. Some methods focus more on stabilizing the emotions and others emphasize seeing into the nature of our experience. To be accurate, those approaches for stilling mental distractedness are described as “calming” methods. Those which function to help one have a penetrating insight into our human condition are described as “insight” methods. This article is by no means the proper way to introduce these approaches in great detail, as that requires a book or even volumes. Better yet, direct instruction from a qualified mentor or teacher is ideal. But here, I will share one Buddhist mindfulness approach which develops both calming and insight, and can help us deal with adversity in a thoroughgoing manner.
A very direct and powerful way to calm and clear our body-mind is through sitting meditation. In the Zen tradition, there is method called “just mind sitting” (in the Chan tradition, it’s called “silent reflection.”) It is a simple yet profound way to practice. Simply put, “just mind sitting” is where we sit still and lay all of our mental and physical burdens to rest. We don’t think about anything and we don’t do anything. However, thoughts still come and go, and impulses to act also come and go. Emotions rise and fall due to habit and our unaware reactive patterns of thought. We still hear, see, and feel, yet we simply sit and observe it all happening. Although we are not actively doing something—as with some meditation methods that require the practitioner to reflect on some topic, silently recite a word, or visualize some image—“just mind sitting” does away with all kinds of mental busy-ness and allows the thinking mind to settle and become silent. It’s analogous to when we put a cup filled with dirty water down on the table, in time the sediment will naturally settle to the bottom, and the water will be clear. With “just mind sitting” we just sit, yet we should be clearly aware that we are sitting. We must have a sharp awareness that our body is there, poised upright, relaxed, and stable. Our attitude must also be relaxed, not resisting or seeking anything, while fully alert. Otherwise, if we “just sit” without “minding” ourselves sitting, it’s likely that we’ll fall asleep or be in a mental haze—like looking off into fog.
You can try this method at home, by adopting an upright sitting posture (on a chair is fine) that allows you to balance yourself without using muscle to hold your body in place. Then, allow your muscles to relax fully, allowing the structure of your body to support itself. Relax mentally, drop all thinking and be simply aware of your body sitting. Don’t focus on your breath or certain parts. Just know your body is there. If you get distracted and realize that you’ve been daydreaming—lost in thought—then continue to know that you’re sitting. No worries, no problem. Most likely you’ll often drift away into mindless thinking. But again and again, return to the simple awareness of the act of sitting. In time, drifting thoughts will quiet down, and you’ll have a sharp and clear awareness of sitting. You may not even feel your body so much, but you’ll know that you’re there sitting, relaxed, and fully aware of what’s happening in and around you. At this time, you won’t be bothered by anything, yet fully alert and at ease. You feel at peace, while wakefully knowing what’s going on. This practice starts with sitting, but can be extended into all aspects of daily activity: walking, eating, cleaning, working, talking, having a meeting, or even dealing with an emergency.
With the foundation of a relaxed, stable, and clear mind, cultivated through “just mind sitting,” you’ll be both calm and insightful. Insight refers to the capacity to notice the problematic thinking patterns which interfere with your life. You’ll notice the emotional responses that disturb you and others. In the face of adversity, you’ll then be able to drop the unskillful thinking and responses and choose wise, healthy ways to think and behave. Regardless if you’re in a crisis such as this pandemic, or if it’s another “ordinary” day, you’ll be well prepared to deal with any challenge. This is not magic, and the results do not come to complete fruition overnight. It’s a practice, and you develop it over time. Yet as soon as you practice, you get results. The moment you are minding yourself sitting, walking, working, eating, talking, or any activity, in that moment you are emotionally calmer and mentally clearer. The more you practice, the more natural it becomes. You’ll eventually discover firsthand that self-centered obsessive thinking leads to a host of conflict, whereas societal concern and compassionate action can resolve the worst of crises.
Although the above approach is not a comprehensive means for how to deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a core practice for dealing wisely and compassionately with all crises—big or small. This is the “better way to be confined”: where we open ourselves to our capacity for mindful awareness and compassion, while confining ourselves to whatever space we must be in. In addition to this practice, we can supplement other means of staying healthy during this period of confinement, which I plan to share later.
I hope that this little blurb has been useful for you. If it has, please share it with others. May you have peace and ease of body and mind and bring that into your daily life through your presence and way of being.
c) 2020 David Listen