On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus COVID-19 a global pandemic. What started in China in mid-November 2019 has now spread around the world. Exact statistics about those infected are not known because of the lack of testing in many areas, but what is certain is that the numbers are increasing rapidly. So far, those most likely to die from the disease are older people and those with underlying health conditions and weak immune systems. (This TedTalk by global health expert Alanna Shaikh provides a good explanation of what coronaviruses are, COVID-19, and what we can learn from it about epidemics to come in the future.)
The situation is serious enough to panic global financial markets, concerned about the effects on economies of changing work patterns and limited access to resources. The travel, restaurant, entertainment, and other industries worry as people are encouraged to avoid being in closed spaces with others. Hospitals and other health care facilities are bracing for an influx of patients.
This is not good. But there are opportunities here. One of them is increased reliance upon spiritual practices. A popular meme circulating on social media quotes the recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that to avoid spreading the coronavirus, you avoid physical contact and don't go into large crowds. To which the "introvert" replies: "I've been training for this moment my whole life."
So have contemplatives and meditators, who are accustomed to solitude and being quiet in their minds and bodies. In her poem "Pandemic," written on March 10, Lynn Ungar, a minister with the Unitarian Universalists' online Church of the Larger Fellowship, suggests we reframe this moment:
"What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling. . . .
Do not reach out your hands,
Reach out your heart." [More . . . ]
To encourage a turn to spiritual practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spirituality & Practice Team has collected practices for different aspects of this global health crisis.
(Click or Choose the [More . . . ] links to find full, easily printable versions of the practices.)
Disarm Fear and Uncertainty
Covid-19 is a "novel" or new virus, and scientists, health workers, and the general public know very little about what to expect from it. We do know that it spreads quickly, that it will be difficult to get everybody who might be infected tested, and that a vaccine is 12 to 18 months away. No drugs are currently available to slow down the virus.
As the days and months go on, the unknown qualities of the pandemic may be alleviated. But in the meantime, we need spiritual practices to lessen the impact of fear and uncertainty. These practices are not intended to sugarcoat or minimize the very real dangers of this global health emergency. But they can help us deal with the associated stress, accept what we cannot change, and build up our resilience. Here are a few practices for you to try.
Embrace your fear. Fears seem to come in bundles. A fear about catching the coronavirus may be accompanied by other fears — of death, losing a loved one, isolation, financial problems, and more. Buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das encourages you to address all your fears and work to transform them. "What is it that you are afraid of? . . . Start out with only one fear. You can't cut through all of them at once, so don't try. Where you find your greatest fears, you'll find buried treasure deep below within your psyche." [More . . .]
At Spirituality & Practice, we are partial to simple gestures or rituals that enable us to symbolically address an issue or a problem in our lives. Bradford Keeney, a practitioner of many shamanic traditions, is a master at creating clever and useful practices. To deal with fear, try his Fear Balls, Index Cards to Divert Fear, and Piggy Bank of Worry.
It's important to also remember that fear has value. In Healing through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan salutes fear's capacity to connect us with others. "If fear is only telling you to save your own skin, there's not much hope for us. But the fact is that in conscious fear, there is a potentially revolutionary power of compassion and connection that can be mobilized en masse." [More . . . ]
Accept uncertainty. When we are worried or distraught, it helps to realize that something is not certain. In regards to the coronavirus, there is a lot of uncertainty. Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah thinks that in many life situations and states of mind — happy or unhappy — we should be constantly reminding ourselves that "This is uncertain." His meditation practice "is not very complicated — just this." "When you sit in meditation, there may be various conditions of mind appearing, seeing and knowing all manner of things, experiencing different states. Don't keep track of them, and don't get wrapped up in them. You only need to remind yourself that they're uncertain." [More . . . ]
Nourish positive emotions. This is one of the best ways to disarm fear and uncertainty. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh uses the breath as the gateway to calm, joy, and other positive feelings.
"Breathing in, I experience calm in me. Breathing out, I smile to the calm in me.
Breathing in, I experience joy in me. Breathing out, I smile to the joy in me."
[More . . . ]
Susannah Seton and Sondra Kornblat, authors of 365 Energy Boosters, say it is both recommended and possible to practice positivism in any situation, if we ask ourselves the right questions. "We really do have a choice to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. And when we look at what's right instead of what's wrong, we give ourselves renewed energy to face life in all of its complexity." [More . . . ]
Take a respite from negativity. It is important to stay informed about the pandemic, but constantly reading or watching the news may water the seeds of worry and despair inside you and negatively affect your immune system. Alan Epstein in How to be Happier Day by Day suggests that you take a break from the news: "Try your best to shut out the outside world, and concentrate on your own world instead. . . . Following the news day after day can induce a feeling of depression and helplessness. Taking a respite from the constant negativity of the world scene can be rejuvenating." [More . . . ]
Receive what comes. Arthur Green in Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow builds on the understanding that our worries and dreams are derived from our thoughts about tomorrow and "Tomorrow, after all, does not yet exist." He offers an exercise building on this natural tendency to turn our attention to the future: "As you sit quietly, you may want to open your hands, turning the palms upward, remaining in silence. The open palms indicate your acceptance. Whatever will come, you will receive it. Whatever happens tomorrow, there you will look to find God's presence." [More . . . ]
See that life is good. Zen teacher Brenda Shoshanna in Fearless comes up with a strategy for when you experience expectations of catastrophe. "The Bible says, 'Taste and see that life is good.' This statement stands up to fear and laughs in its face. . . . Say it to yourself." [More . . . ]
Practice as You Take Preventative Measures
Wash your hands. The same preventative measures we learned to use to avoid getting a cold or the flu are also helpful with this virus. First and foremost is washing your hands frequently, especially after you have touched surfaces such as doorknobs, railings, elevator buttons, grocery carts, etc. The recommendation is that you wash your hands vigorously with soap and water for 20 seconds.
Those moments are perfect for reciting a mantra or short prayer. Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern notes that 20 seconds is about the time it takes to slowly recite the phrases of metta (lovingkindness) meditation. He posted these on his Facebook page:
"May all beings be safe.
May all beings be content.
May all being be healthy.
May all beings live with ease."
Thich Nhat Hanh's book of mindfulness verses for daily living, Present Moment Wonderful Moment, has several gathas (short verses) for hand washing times:
When turning on the water:
"Water flows from high in the mountains.
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us,
and sustains all life."
When washing your hands:
"Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet."
Stock up on medicines and other remedies to reduce your symptoms or help you cope. As you do so, add intercessory prayers to your regime. Episcopal priest Mary C. Earle in Beginning Again encourages you to consider others needing the same medicines as you pray: "For all those who live with this same illness. For all of those who need medicines and cannot acquire them. For all of those who brought this medicine into being." [More . . .]
Check supplies of food and household goods. As you shop and store these items, say a prayer of gratitude for the chain of supply that brought them to you: the farmers, manufacturers, truckers, stores, delivery services, etc. Use this moment to remind yourself of how dependent you are on the services of others. Alan Morinis, who teaches Jewish Mussar practices, notes that "Gratitude begins with recognizing the good that comes your way." [More . . . ]
The Japanese practice of naikan encourages you to focus on what you have received and given. Brenda Shoshanna, a Zen teacher, explains the practice: "Make a careful, specific list of all you have received today. Be careful not to overlook small things. Everything matters." [More . . . ]
Listen to your body. If you are not feeling ill, it can still be helpful to survey your body and see what it has to tell you. How do your head, nose, throat, chest, abdomen, legs, and feet feel today? What can you learn from your body by giving it this extra attention? Here are two body practices to try.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's body scan is "an exercise for releasing the tension in the body as a whole and releasing the tension in each part." He explains: "We can begin by paying attention to the whole body and then different parts of the body. Begin with the head, or the hair on the head, and finish with the toes." [More . . . ]
If you are experiencing symptoms, in addition to getting medical attention you may want to follow Sue Patton Thoele's suggestion: "Gently bless your body. With as much acceptance as you can, focus your attention on any pain or illness you are experiencing and ask your body what you need to do to help alleviate the discomfort." [More . . . ]
As You Practice Social Distancing and If You Are Quarantined
Because it may be up to 14 days after exposure to the virus before symptoms show up, the CDC is recommending that everybody practice social distancing (avoiding crowds, staying six feet away from other people); this can break or slow down the rate of transmission from person to person. Those who think they may have come in contact with the virus are being asked to self-quarantine for two weeks. Many retirement facilities are requiring that anyone who has traveled by sea or air stay home for two weeks upon their return. So these are good times for some practices around your house.
Bless your house. Many people host a blessing ceremony when they move into a new house, and for Christians, Epiphany is traditionally a time to do a house blessing. If you are going to be spending more time in your home because of social distancing or quarantines, make your house feel special by doing a ceremony. This S&P article has some ideas.
Be grateful for your bed. "Beds are something we all have in common," writes Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark. In this book excerpt, she surveys a range of feelings that come to her in bed, especially when she can't sleep, and concludes that "A bed, in short, is where you face your nearness to or farness from God." Once you've done that, you may want to use this blessing by James Mirel: "I am aware of the comfort that the bed provides me and of Your bountiful blessings." [More . . . ]
Appreciate the things around you. The objects, tools, and appliances in your home will come in handy during an extended stay there. Gregg Krech suggests this exercise: "Before going to bed make a list of these objects. Reflect on the efforts it took to invent, design, manufacture, package, and ship these objects so they might make your life a bit easier or more enjoyable." [More . . . ]
Listen to music. Singer Rita Wilson, who with her husband actor Tom Hanks, has tested positive for the Covid-19 and is quarantined in Australia, put out a request via Twitter for some songs to listen to at this moment. She then set up this playlist on Spotify. Other lists are bound to be circulating, and you can also make your own.
Watch sad movies. In difficult times, it is important to express our emotions, including our sadness and despair. The spiritual traditions honor the "gift of tears" and have found ways to ritualize it. One of our rituals is to watch movies that draw out our feelings of connection with others in their suffering and pain. In an article about why crying in movies can be a spiritual practice, we tell this story: "In the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, a little girl gets lost in an abandoned theme park. She is befriended by a boy who gives her a cake that he says will give her back her strength. When she eats it, she starts crying. There is strength in tears." [More . . . ]
Work with loneliness. A change in social interactions can trigger loneliness or aggravate it in those who already feel lonely. Hugh Prather offers a spiritual exercise to counter loneliness. "Once in the morning and evening, for 5 or 10 minutes, silently and slowly repeat these words: 'I am gentle. I am peace. I am one.' As you say this, try to become gradually aware of a place in you that the words point to, a place of utter stillness and peace, the one part of you where there is no loneliness." [More . . . ]
Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos describes another practice: "At times we can feel lonely, abandoned, unloved. Bring to mind someone who has offered you unconditional love sometime in you life. See that person and hold them in your consciousness for a few moments." [More . . . ]
If You Get Sick
Spiritual teachers have long recognized that illness offers opportunities for spiritual growth. Ram Dass, writing in Still Here after suffering a stroke observed: "By making stillness necessary, illness slows us down to here-and-now." And in that present, we can encounter the Presence.
Be present with your sickness. The Zen master Seung Sahn puts it correctly when he says "Sick time, only sick." To get better yourself, and to avoid spreading the virus to others, stay home (unless your doctor advises otherwise). If your symptoms are not too severe, and when you are recuperating, you can make this time into a mini-retreat, a time to be in silence. Read spiritual books. Journal about what you are experiencing. Work on your memoir. Write letters to friends and family telling them how much you appreciate and love them.
Accept your situation. Rather than adding to your stress by complaining or asking why you had to get sick, try affirmations and prayers to be at ease with your situation. Here are two possibilities:
The Celtic Christian tradition, writes Mary C. Earle, offers a variety of prayers that begin "Bless to me" Here is an example:
Bless to me, O God,
My soul and my body;
Bless to me, O God,
My belief and my condition;
[More . . . ]
Barbara Ann Kipfer in 201 Little Buddhist Reminders offers a gatha for getting sick: "I shall not be angry with getting sick. Illness is inescapable and I can choose to be at ease with and even gain strength from illness. . . . Everything is impermanent, even sickness." [More . . . ]
Connect through prayer. Even though you cannot go to a communal worship service or gathering, you can pray for others, if not with others (though you could agree to pray at the same time.) Here are some suggestions.
"A Prayer for Those Affected by the Coronavirus" was posted in S&P's Praying the News blog in January. It begins: "God of Mercy, be with the tens of thousands of people who have contracted the coronavirus around the world. Comfort those whose loved ones have died. Bring peace to those living with uncertainty . . ." [More . . . ]
Diane Berke, the founder and spiritual director of the One Spirit Learning Alliance in New York City, offered a prayer at a virtual community gathering on March 12, 2020. She began with these words: "I'd like us to join together now in prayer as we pray for ourselves, as we pray for those we love, as we pray — as we always say at the end of seminary — for those who are in need of prayer but have no one today to remember them by name." She concluded: "And finally, Beloved, we offer you ourselves. Sometimes we don't even know what it is we need, but here we are. We place ourselves, our loved ones, our precious world in Your hands. You know the way to healing. Please show us the way."
[More . . . ]
Mary C. Earle has written an oratio for the body, focusing on one organ of the body and how it connects one to others. In the case of COVID-19, this might be the lungs: "Give thanks for your body, for one particular organ and its ceaseless working. Become mindful of those in the healing professions who help persons who have an illness that affects this particular organ." [More . . . ]
Recognize your unity with others. As we are instructed on how to navigate our daily lives and minimize the risks to ourselves and others during the pandemic, one truth becomes clear: We are all in this together. What each of us does — and doesn't do — can have an impact upon the spread of the virus. No matter what our own health situation is, we are connected with the familiar and the stranger, the strong and the vulnerable. This is what Belleruth Naparstek in Your Sixth Sense describes as a "place of empathic attunement. It's about seeing the connections, the interlocking webs of energy among people and things, and residing as much as possible in that place of no separation." At the end of each day, spend a few minutes in self-assessment, identifying those moments when you were reminded most forcefully of your connection with others.
In The Mindfulness Code, Donald Altman offers a simple relationship practice: "Make a point of consciously imagining each person you meet as your own brother or sister — someone whose well-being, safety, health, and happiness you deeply care about." [More . . . ]
Exercise your compassion. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes in The Kindness Handbook: "Because compassion is a state of mind that is itself open, abundant and inclusive, it allows us to meet pain more directly. With direct seeing, we know that we are not alone in our suffering and that no one need feel alone when in pain."
Wayne Muller echoed this point in his book Legacy of the Heart: "We are never alone in our suffering. The pain of being human is shared by all who live. In this meditation, we use our own pain to make contact with the simultaneous suffering of all other beings." [More . . . ]
The Buddhists have many practices to develop your capacity for compassion. Here is one by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. "Think of all those around the world who are dying in hospitals right now. . . . Next, bring your attention back to the present circumstances. You are not dying in this moment or losing those you lose. . . . Then resolve to do what you can to reduce the suffering of others." [More . . . ]
Tonglen meditation practice is one of the best ways to widen your circle of compassion. You breathe in the pain of someone in distress and your breathe out something to relieve that distress. Pema Chödrön, who explains this practice in her book Start Where You Are, advises always working both with the immediate suffering of one being and with universal suffering of all; this makes your practice both heartfelt and visionary: "The main thing is to really get in touch with fixation and the power of klesha activity [disturbing states of mind, destructive emotions] in yourself. This makes other people's situations completely accessible and real to you. Then, when it becomes real and vivid, always remember to extend it out. Let your own experience be a stepping stone for working with the world." [More . . . ]
Nobody knows how many people will become sick during the Covid-19 pandemic, how many will be affected, and how long it will last. So it makes sense to get some hope practices in place that will serve you for the long run.
Live with tender hope. "If ours is a civilization meant to survive, it will have to restore the ancient art of hoping," writes Protestant minister Dr. Robin R. Myers. To practice, he recommends: "Be patient, and remember how often things work out according to a wisdom that is beyond understanding. Along the way, don't ever give up the joy of looking forward to things that give you pleasure." [More . . . ]
Dwell in grateful joy. Two practices give depth and breadth to our hope. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield connects them in a meditation on gratitude and joy. It will help you realize how much you are supported and get you through difficult times. He ends it with this prompt: "Practice dwelling in joy until the deliberate effort of practice drops away and the intentions of joy blend into the natural joy of your own wise heart." [More . . . ]
Welcome the sweet fragrance. Tom Cowan in The Way of the Saints reminds us that time heals all wounds. "When you are troubled by something, light a stick of incense and sit before it, noticing the slow burning . . . Let your thoughts focus on the way time passes, and remind yourself that with courage and goodwill, a sweet fragrance will come even from the difficulties that you currently find yourself in."
[More . . . ]