Just before the new year, people living near a market in Wuhan, China, started to get sick. Another week passed before people knew what they were dealing with: a new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, which proved deadly a few days later. Despite increasingly strict measures to contain the disease, it continued to spread around the globe, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11 to declare the coronavirus a pandemic.
Much remains in flux as governments and health professionals continue to figure out how to respond to the coronavirus. Perhaps the only constant has been this uncertainty. Even those who are healthy have had to grapple with troubling questions about their risk of infection, the well-being of their loved ones, the threat of widespread panic, and the extent of the economic fallout—all as people become more isolated and without an end in sight.
Tricycle is not immune. In New York, where our office is located, Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people and has been encouraging people to telecommute and avoid the crowded mass-transit system. We, too, have been working remotely this week. We are fortunate to be able to do so. We also are fortunate that our work brings us into contact with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, equanimity, interdependence, impermanence, and compassion, which have been especially relevant in recent days.
One doesn’t have to be Buddhist to know that ignoring difficult problems or thoughts doesn’t make them go away. Or that when panic sets in, people tend not to make the best decisions. Or that the things we treasure won’t be around forever. Or that no matter how alone we may feel, we are always part of something bigger. Or that we are at our best when we take care of each other. But Buddhist teachings place these ideas at the fore, and ask us to keep them in mind when we are otherwise prone to get swept up in our day-to-day tasks.
Some may feel that these teachings have prepared them for times like this one. Others may find comfort in knowing that they can return to them now, or they may have previously encountered these ideas and now see them in a new light. There also are those who feel that they currently are unable to access the dharma.
We have been speaking to Buddhist teachers and writers who have been thinking about the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve shared their reflections, advice, and practices for dealing with the uncertainty and fear that have arisen around this disease. We have the privilege of being able to share those with you here:
These five articles from our archive on uncertainty and fear will also be available for free:
ANTI-CORONAVIRUS MEDITATION: PAYING ATTENTION TO YOUR HANDS
By Taylor Plimpton
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that people wash their hands thoroughly and regularly, and that they avoid touching their face. Unfortunately, touching our faces with our hands is a deeply ingrained and unconscious habit—studies have shown we do it more than 20 times an hour. Fortunately, heightening our awareness of what we do with our hands can not only help protect us from COVID-19 but also help bring our meditation practice off of the cushion and into our everyday lives.
Meditation Practice #1: Wash Your Hands
Hopefully, we all do this multiple times a day—but how many of us really do it with our full attention? I know I don’t—until now, my routine has been to absent-mindedly splash on a little soap and water, rub my hands together a bit, give a quick rinse, and let that be that. But in today’s world, where washing your hands properly can mean the difference between life and death, absent-mindedly isn’t an option. Interestingly, you don’t need to add much to the CDC’s hand-washing guidelines to make it a meditation practice: just carefully following its steps requires focus, presence and a complete immersion in what you’re doing. The following is their five-step directive, with my own Zen commentary in italics:
- Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap. The most interesting part of this step, to me, is turning off the tap. I admit that until now, I usually just let the water run the whole time. But what a waste! (Especially if you’re now going to be scrubbing for 20 seconds). To practice Zen is to be aware. It is exactly to turn off the faucet when running water is not needed.
- Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails. I am impressed by the thoroughness of this directive. You are paying attention to lathering every part of your hands—nothing is left out! Getting a good lather going also necessarily involves bubbles, which are not only fun, but bring to mind Buddha’s famous proclamation from the Diamond Sutra: “So should you view this fleeting world … as a bubble on a stream.”
- Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice. You can also sing the alphabet, or two rounds of “Row your Boat.” Let the ridiculousness of singing these children’s songs lend a little lightness to your actions, and remind you that our practice is a joyous one. And so, right now, realizing life is but a dream: merrily, merrily, merrily scrub your hands.
- Rinse your hands well under clean, running water. The fact I have clean, running water reminds me that this basic ability to wash my hands is indeed a great luxury. Throughout the whole experience, appreciate this opportunity! Luxuriate in it. Immerse yourself fully in the scent of the soap, the feel of the warm water rushing over your hands. Soak it up.
- Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them. Me, I like to air-dry my hands, although, honestly, what I like to do even more is place my hands on my face and the back of my neck and allow the cool wet to awaken me—though I doubt the CDC would recommend this. My penchant for wanting to put my hands on my face does, however, lead us nicely into our second and third meditation practices.
Meditation Practice #2: Check in With Your Hands
Throughout the day, take a moment to check in with your hands. What are they doing? What have they just touched? Are they reaching for something? Fiddling? Scratching an itch? Are they white-knuckled and tense, or calm and settled? Right now, what are your hands telling you about your state of mind?
I remember from the beginning-instruction class at the Village Zendo in New York City that, along with our breath and our posture, our hands were to be considered a point of awareness—a way of checking in with ourselves and seeing how our practice was going. In seated meditation, we form the “cosmic mudra,” left hand on top of the right, the thumbs circling up to form an oval. The thumb-tips should lightly touch, as if holding a piece of paper between them—connected firmly enough so that the paper would not fall, but not so firmly that the paper would crinkle. Paying attention to this point of contact can let you know what your mind is up to: if your thumbs start to drift apart, your mind, too is probably drifting; if your thumbs are pressing hard against each other, wrestling, struggling, so too is your mind enacting some remembered or invented conflict.
In other words, your hands are a way to pay attention to what you are doing unconsciously, and to bring that unconscious action into the realm of consciousness. This is one of the points of Zen—to become awake to your whole life, your whole self—and to not let even an instant slip by unnoticed. Besides, when you maintain a consistent consciousness of your hands, you’re far less likely to unconsciously touch your face with them and put yourself at risk of getting sick, which brings us to…
Meditation Practice #3: Keep Your Hands in Your Lap
Another lesson I remember from the beginning instruction was simply to sit still. For a half hour, we commit to not moving, even when we really, really want to. In other words, if we feel an itch on our face, we don’t just immediately reach up and scratch it.
Our teacher explained that our whole lives we’ve just been reaching up and scratching that itch, unconsciously, involuntarily, so that in a certain sense we’d never even actually experienced what that itch really felt like, what an itch really was. We learned that the practice here was to not scratch it, to sit with it, to experience it fully and not just swipe it away into oblivion. The teacher went on to explain that even the smallest itch can be excruciating in this situation—that a stray hair tickling your nose can feel like a blade slicing through your flesh—and yet still, if you just sat with it for a moment, the sensation would rise and then fall.
So it is in daily life: just because you feel an itch on your face does not mean you need to scratch it. Instead, experience it fully, and let its sensation keep you present, awake, alive. Notice your desire to solve it, fix it, respond to it—but don’t. Keep your hands settled and calm. Let the itch rise and fall. What’s the worse that can happen if you don’t scratch it? Will that tickle on your nose kill you? No, but apparently, scratching it in the era of COVID-19 might.
Now, of course, none of this is easy. Indeed, I fear this directive to avoid touching your face can somehow make the littlest itch feel even more excruciating, even more impossible not to scratch. (Sitting here writing this on the train, there was one itch on the tip of my nose that just kept getting worse and worse until finally I gave it a good scratch with the sleeve of my sweater—and it was the best thing ever.) The point of Zen is not to simply endure misery. If, while sitting, for instance, your knee is in real pain and you’ve given the pain a chance to rise and fall and it’s just getting worse, you can make a conscious decision to do something about it: and so you do a little bow, shift your position to alleviate the pain, make another small bow, and then recommit to remaining still. Perhaps if you really are going to scratch your face, it should be with similar awareness and intention: make a little bow, do it with a part of your hand that has not touched contaminated surfaces, enjoy it, and then make another commitment to keeping your hands calm, settled and still.
SPIRITUAL ADVICE FOR FEARS OF PANDEMIC
By Gesshin Claire Greenwood
I don’t know a single person right now who is not emotionally affected in some way by the COVID-19 outbreak. As a Buddhist priest and community mental-health worker, I have counseled many people in the last week who are anxious about family members contracting the virus. This is perfectly understandable; I have also felt the anxiety and fear. Fear is a natural response to the existential (and very real) threat of death. But the people I talk to also feel powerless, confused, and are desperately searching for a feeling of agency in the face of potentially overwhelming tragedy. I believe these secondary feelings of powerlessness and confusion are perhaps more painful than simple fear.
In times like these, I am grateful for my many years of Buddhist practice. After initially feeling anxious about the virus myself (and doing my share of stress shopping—yes, I did buy dried lentils and canned food), I have started to feel more grounded and hopeful—or at least, equanimous—about the state of the world. And so I would like to share with you a few things that have been helpful for me in gaining equanimity.
Old Age, Sickness, and Death Are Inevitable.
Buddhist wisdom points to the reality that suffering is an enduring and continual part of being alive. There is one foundational Buddhist parable that explains this beautifully. Before the Buddha was enlightened, his name was Siddhartha, and he lived as a prince in India. (“Buddha” means “one who is awake.”) Siddhartha’s father had received a prophecy that his son would be either a great ruler or a great sage, and so he kept his son enclosed in the palace, surrounded only by lovely people and beautiful experiences, to prevent him from encountering the spiritual life. However, well into his early adulthood, Siddhartha longed to see what was outside the palace. He convinced his attendant Channa to drive him through the city on his chariot.
When he finally entered the city, Siddhartha saw many wonderful things, but he also saw a man who was hunched over and wrinkled with age. He turned to Channa and asked, “What is that? Why is that man hunched over and wrinkled?”
“That is an old person,” Channa answered.
Ignorant of the ways of the world, Siddhartha asked, “Who becomes old?”
His friend answered, “Everyone in the world is young in the beginning but grows older with time. None of us can escape old age.”
Siddhartha continued driving, and eventually saw a beggar lying on the side of the road, wheezing and coughing, with a pale face drenched in sweat. “What is wrong with that man?” Siddhartha asked Channa.
“He is sick,” Channa answered.
“Who becomes sick?” Siddhartha asked.
“Everyone who lives long enough will become sick. There is no one who can escape that fate,” Channa replied.
Next, Siddhartha encountered a corpse being carried away on a stretcher. He asked Channa the same questions, and Channa explained that everyone who is born will inevitably die. Siddhartha was shocked and horrified.
Before he reached home, Siddhartha encountered a holy man. Channa explained that many people, when faced with the inevitability of suffering, choose to devote their life to spiritual practice. This experience inspired Siddhartha to leave the palace, become an ascetic, and eventually achieve enlightenment.
I love this story because even though it might seem ridiculous that someone could be so sheltered as to not understand old age, sickness, and death, the truth is that we are very much like Siddhartha in our naivety and ignorance. We are often sheltered in our own kind of psychological palace where we are shielded from things like illness. Yet this kind of suffering can ultimately not be avoided. We will all, everyone one of us, face old age, sickness, and death. The fourth sight—the holy man—reminds us that we can choose the way we respond to this suffering.
Personally, one of the most distressing things to me about the COVID-19 outbreak has been a feeling that “things should not be this way.” In reality, though, things are and always have been this way. While there is a certain contemporary, American, capitalist flavor to the suffering caused by COVID-19 (our abysmal healthcare system, corporate greed, governmental incompetence, lack of sick days for most part-time, exempt workers, and a host of other factors), the suffering caused by illness and death is nothing new.
There is one more Buddhist parable that I want to share. According to a Buddhist legend, there once was a woman who sought out the Buddha after losing her baby to illness. Crazy with grief, she asked him for medicine to bring her son back from the dead. He replied that he would give her this medicine if she brought him back a white mustard seed from the house of a family that had never experienced death. The woman went door to door, searching for a family untouched by the loss of a loved one. Of course, she could never find such a family. She realized that death touches everyone. And in realizing the universality of grief and death, her suffering lessened.
This story shows us that the feeling of “things should not be this way” is an additional and unnecessary pain on top of our inevitable suffering. We cannot avoid old age, sickness, and death, but we can remove the unnecessary assumption that things should be otherwise, and the psychic pain this assumption causes us.
Another important piece of wisdom, though not exclusive to Buddhist traditions, is the recognition of interconnectedness. Nothing lays bare our interconnectedness like a literal global pandemic. Humans depend upon each other for survival, and we also impact each other in large and small ways.
Take, for example, the now ubiquitous advice to wash your hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At first glance, hand-washing is an act of self care. Frequent hand-washing protects us individually from contracting the virus. But it is also an act of community care; we help protect others when we help protect ourselves. So too with the recommendation to stay home when sick. Although there is definitely a level of privilege in being able to take time off work, it is clearly important to take care of our communities by preventing the spread of illness. In these simple hygiene practices, our understanding of “self” and “other” start to break down.
Where do I end and you begin? We breathe the same air. My survival and happiness depends upon yours. As the Dalai Lama points out, “Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.”
Convert Fear into Action.
Without catastrophizing too much, I think it is important to consider a future reality in which there is insufficient government response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and our healthcare systems become overwhelmed by illness. This is when community response will become crucial. In fact, the CDC recommends talking to your neighbors about creating a community crisis plan. But I don’t think we need to despair too much. Human beings are quite good at taking care of each other, especially in the face of natural disasters.
In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger documents how mental health actually improves during times of war and disaster. This, he theorizes, is because we have lost touch with our natural proclivity to form community (i.e., to join “tribes”), and disaster necessitates building community. During World War II, he writes, psychiatric wards were “strangely empty,” and suicides decreased. Despite the horrors of war, social resilience actually increased, because people depended upon each other more.
One member of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Charles Fritz, intrigued by the resilience of citizens during the blitz in London, conducted further research into community response to disaster. According to Junger, Fritz was “unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves… Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”
The months to come will undoubtedly bring pain, suffering, and fear. My wish to you, gentle readers, is a recognition that “things should not be another way.” This is all the stuff of human existence. It’s beautiful and traumatizing and it’s life. Additionally, I invite you to open up to your surroundings and to your community. This can be a time to get to know neighbors, care for the most vulnerable, share resources, and build connections.
If we can convert our individual suffering and fear into compassion for others, we will suffer less. This is because you and I are not separate. We breathe the same air and touch the same subway poles. As COVID-19 spreads, fear and grief are perhaps inevitable, but so is connection and care. We are all of these things.
[This article was originally published on Medium.]
REFUGE IN THE STORM
By Radhule Weininger
These days I am listening to a rising swell of alarm about the spread of the coronavirus. In the midst of this storm, we have a great need to inform ourselves, to make ourselves as safe as possible, and to protect ourselves and our families.
Looking from the point of view of terror-management theory, we understand that fear can disconnect us from others. Especially a pandemic fear can make us circle our wagons, contract, and become less open to others in our world.
While this unpredictable, mysterious virus is a real danger, it could perhaps be also seen as a metaphor for so much that is alarming and uncertain and potentially dangerous on a very primal level. It all feels quite volatile and scary.
What helps us to protect ourselves? And in a time like this, how can we keep our hearts open?
I talked with my friend and mentor Joanna Macy about the effects we may notice within ourselves when having to deal with an acute or ongoing crisis.
She said, “The human spirit does not want to avoid. When we turn away from reality, then our energy contracts and wanes, and we begin to feel dull and tired . . . We have been given eyes, ears, and intelligence. As humans, we are called to meet courageously what is obstructing our path. That gives us energy. When we meet the challenges in front of us, may they be illness, climate crisis, danger to our democracy or to vulnerable fellow humans, then we become discerning, eloquent, courageous, and able to hold our heads up.”
Joanna concluded, “Courage gives us the energy to see when things are not right. Then we can feel healthy anger and our passion for justice and democracy. And this awakens our compassion.”
Courage means in French “large-heartedness.” How do we keep our hearts large and wide open in such times as these? I want to encourage you and me to ask ourselves how can each of us find our way to compassion and connection; maybe through spiritual practice, compassionate work for others and our world, or connection with trees, mountains, and the Earth?
No matter what happens, we are held by something deeper, that gives us security and makes it possible for us to show up and be present to life.
CALM, CLARITY, COMPASSION
By Jack Kornfield
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
Amid all of the rapidly changing conditions of our world, I’m sending deep metta to those impacted directly by the coronavirus (COVID-19) and, on this interconnected planet, to all communities as we feel both the strength and fragility of our interdependence.
The need for the dharma is stronger than ever. We can choose to live in our fears, confusion, and worries, or to stay in the essence of our practice, center ourselves, and be the ones on this beautiful boat of the earth that demonstrate patience, compassion, mindfulness, and mutual care.
If you want to live a life of balance, try this: Turn off the news for a while, meditate, turn on Mozart, walk through the forest or the mountains and begin to make yourself a zone of peace. Let go of the latest story. Listen more deeply. When we react to insecurity with fear we worsen the problem—we create a frightened society. Instead we can use courage and compassion to respond calmly with a fearless heart.
Below is an excerpt of a talk I gave on March 2 at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, on how to stay grounded and steady as we navigate the spread of the coronavirus and other challenges. We can use these conditions as a portal to connect to the teachings, right here, right now.
Reprinted from Jack Kornfield’s newsletter. jackkornfield.com
IN THE MIDST OF THIS SWIRLING WORLD
By Koshin Paley Ellison
“All of practice is just about being your natural self,” said the Vice Abbot, Enryo Kikkawa, in a practice discussion at our stay at Koshoji monastery in Kyoto, the monastery that Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Japanese Zen, established shortly after his return from China in the 13th century. We were there in the midst of the outbreak of the coronavirus and the threat level was raised to level three in Japan. Outside the room, the courtyard was filled with snarled plum trees bursting into pink and white blooms. Plum trees are appreciated in Japan for their courage in coming out first when it is still cold and warding off evil.
Across the courtyard, we sat with the artist in residence, Yuta Niwa, who was making an enormous painting that filled the full length of one of the monastery’s large buildings. Yuta told us the story of the three big images: tiger, wolf, and raccoon. In Japanese culture, these beings are thought sometimes to be gods and sometimes the bringers of evil.
“Like the evil the plum blooms ward off?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “200 years ago, we had another coronavirus here in Japan. The people believed that it was caused by the tiger, wolf, and raccoon becoming a chimera, which was sick, and that’s what created the virus.”
“In this painting I am separating them and surrounding them with healing things from the monastery.” I could see depictions of drums, monk’s hats, bells, and food. Perhaps the healing comes from noticing what is different about each thing, I thought.
I think of the Enryo and Yuta today in New York City. The plum blossoms have yet to bloom here. There is so much stress and fear. My heart aches for all the people who are so afraid. But knowing the plum blossoms are coming heartens me. That which can remind us of help is here. New life is here. Perhaps what we can do is untangle the tangle of real reflecting on how we can muster the plum blossom courage of compassion for our fear. In my understanding of Zen, I remember the lineage of all the people who dedicated their lives to this practice of liberation in the face of all that is scary and difficult.
It is my daily practice of appreciating and deep gratitude for the lineage that supports me in this time of mass uncertainty and fear. I don’t know what is going to happen, and yet what I do with my thoughts, words, and actions impacts everyone. How can I practice wholeheartedly with my stress, anxiety, and fear?
During his time at Koshoji, Dogen wrote, “Take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, rock your body to the right and left, and settle into a steady, unmoving sitting position.” When I settle into the easy natural place that is unmoved by my fears (perhaps the tiger, wolf, and raccoon chimera!), I rest in my hara, the place two inches below my belly button. From this place I see how my thoughts can become the chimera, and how that chimera can speak and then ruin a town.
I notice then that I am not present, and I have the courage to return to my breath in the softness of my hara, in the midst of this swirling world.
DEEPENING OUR COLLECTIVE ROOTS
By Thomas Hübl
As I write from my 14 days of home quarantine in Israel, I’m reflecting on how our current global situation presents an opportunity for us as a community to come together in intensive self-exploration. In confronting an external agitation or threat, we can respond by choosing to raise our awareness, creating mutual support and collaboration, and ultimately, emerging with an integrative, new vision of life. We now have a chance to find alternative ways to think, feel, and act.
In responding to a collective crisis, the first question to ask is always, “Who am I in relation to the current situation?”
This virus is moving; it’s the nature of it to penetrate boundaries. Most of us in our current lifetime have not experienced such a phenomenon. This movement is unsettling, uncertain, and shocking. In contemplating this movement, what do I feel?
First, I need to become aware of my own inner process. How am I affected by the current situation? During this uncertainty around health and the economy, am I aware of not just my thoughts, but my deeper feelings? If this is possible, only then can I stay in a place of vulnerability. Only then can I have a clearer perspective on what’s happening around me. If I don’t move through this layer within myself first, I might project my own fears onto others, including our governments.
Like many other current global challenges, COVID-19 brings to light a massive amount of collective fear that is surfacing. If we can embrace this reality and approach it with a greater sense of presence, we will see that this is an incredible moment for humanity to deepen our grounding on this planet.
Without being fully grounded in our bodies and rooted in an inner state of presence, we will allow only fear to run our decisions. Or, we will swing in the other direction, toward detachment and avoidance to downplay what is happening. Both of these reactions restrict our full engagement and potential for growth.
We are now attuned to the fragility of our world; our deep interconnectedness and interdependence has become abundantly clear. Our defense patterns tell us we can take on anything alone, but we must realize the web of life connects us all. All that we do in life affects and impacts one another.
A collective crisis needs a collective response. Layers of past collective trauma are being reactivated during this time of strong uncertainty. In this time of heightened emotions, we can diligently apply practices which will deepen our sense of presence and grounding within ourselves and within the greater collective we share.
By Duncan Ryuken Williams
Thus have we heard
At a time when physical distancing is required, yet social solidarity is so needed
The Great Physician Buddha offers medicine to alleviate the hurts of our world:
A net of jewels
each a precious being
an infinite mirror to see ourselves
Interlinked is the rising wall of suffering
interlinked are the efforts to surmount walls
interlinked we turn the wheel of the Dharma
Turning views to see things clearly
turning hearts to know that we are not alone
Like a lotus flower blossoms above muddy water
drawing nutrients from darkest despair
discovering freedom in the midst of constraints
Solidarity bodhisattvas recite the mantra:
SHUJŌ MUHEN SEIGAN DO
“Beings are innumerable/we vow to liberate all”
BONNŌ MUJIN SEIGAN DAN
“Delusions are inexhaustible/we vow to eliminate them all”
HŌMON MURYŌ SEIGAN GAKU
“Dharma gates are boundless/we vow to study them all.”
BUTSUDŌ MUJŌ SEIGAN JŌ
“Buddha’s path is unsurpassable/we vow to actualize it.”