If you’re feeling extra anxiety these days due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, you’re not alone. This pandemic has us all facing more stress and uncertainty than usual. It also has many of us asking: How do we keep from spiraling into full-blown panic?
As we try to navigate our anxiety about the coronavirus, there’s one quote I’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of my mind. It’s by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “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.”
Tara Brach, an American psychologist and a widely respected teacher of Buddhist meditation, sent out this quote in a recent email newsletter. It prompted me to call her up and ask for some guidance about using meditation to navigate this pandemic.
The first thing to know is that the word “meditation” actually refers to many different practices. In the West, the most well-known set of practices is “mindfulness meditation.” That means paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to your experience in the present moment. It can involve a formal practice — like when you sit down, close your eyes, and focus on feeling your breath go in and out. But you can also practice mindfulness while you read the news on your smartphone, say, or shop for groceries.
I talked to Brach about how we can use mindfulness and other meditative techniques to find balance during the coronavirus crisis, and about why this is not a selfish escape from reality: Many neuroscience studies have shown that meditating can help us regulate our own emotions so we can better pay attention to other people and act more altruistically. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
I’m guessing that you, like the rest of us, have been feeling stressed about coronavirus. What have you personally been doing to stay calm and centered?
Yes, like everyone else, I feel the hugeness of this and I feel fear for my dear ones and for the most vulnerable people in our world. What I’ve been doing is a mix: walking in nature and taking in beauty; talking to people and feeling our shared vulnerability and connectedness; and doing a lot of meditating. It gives me a pathway back to steadiness that’s just immeasurably helpful.
For people who don’t have experience meditating but who are looking for a way to avoid sinking into the panic vortex, can you suggest one or two simple meditation practices that would be useful for our current situation?
Sure. The first step when we get really gripped in fear is to calm our sympathetic nervous system. A simple way to do this is with long, deep breaths. Take at least three full breaths, counting to five with the inhale, and counting to five with the exhale. And with the exhale, intentionally release tension. That begins to calm down the nervous system.
Our breath is often the most helpful home base for coming out of our circling worry thoughts and back into our senses. But we can also come back to the sounds we’re hearing in the moment, or the sensation of our hands or feet tingling, or the sight of a tree or table. Coming back to the senses in our body helps us come back to the present moment. [SS: You can listen to a five-minute guided mindfulness meditation here.]
In your new book Radical Compassion, you also offer a short meditation practice called RAIN, which I’ve found helpful. Can you spell out what the acronym means?
Yes, I use the acronym because It’s an easy-to-remember handle if you’re getting caught in fear. It stands for recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. [SS: You can listen to a guided RAIN meditation here.]
First, just recognize, “Okay, I’m feeling fear.” Mentally whisper it, and that helps right away.
Then allow it. Just let it be there, don’t try to run away or fix it or control it or judge it.
Then investigate it. Begin to come into the body and just feel where the fear is in the body. Find out how it feels and breathe with it, with a gentle quality of attention.
And then nurture. You might just put your hand on your heart and offer a kind or soothing message to yourself. You can say to the fear, “Thank you for trying to protect me; it’s okay.” I sometimes will say to myself, “It’s okay, sweetheart.”
I’m curious about the “recognize” part, this idea that when you can name a fear, it loses some of its power over you. What is it about that mental notation that changes the activity in the brain?
When we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode, our limbic system has basically hijacked us, and we lose contact with our prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain, which has to do with executive functioning and making good decisions. When we name what’s going on, we start to activate the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness reconnects us with that.
Outside of a formal meditation practice, how can we use mindfulness in our daily activities while we’re navigating this pandemic? For example, should we be mindful of our news intake — how, and how often, we’re taking in updates about the virus?
I think it’s good for all of us to take in the amount of news we need to take in to be informed, but also to know how to turn away from our screens. Listening to beautiful music or going outside for a walk will really nourish us. What the news will do is keep on agitating us. For some people what really works is [to limit news intake to] one time a day, and that can really make a difference.
What about practicing gratitude? I’ve generally found that my brain can’t be anxious when it’s busy being grateful.
Yes. Human beings have a negativity bias. We get very fixated on threats and often overlook goodness and beauty. So it needs to be an intentional practice to celebrate goodness. By that I mean that we actually pause and savor seeing the gleam in our child’s eye or watching the new blossoms come out.
Many people get gratitude buddies and, at the end of the day, they’ll send a note to their buddy naming three things they’re grateful for. That can really lift people up and change the mood.
I think some people in the West see practicing meditation as this very individualistic or even selfish thing, because it’s often presented to us as divorced from a broader ethical framework. But in Eastern traditions, meditation has always been part of this broader framework of moral responsibility toward the other. So what would it look like to make sure we don’t divorce it from that in the context of coronavirus?
In China, the word for mindfulness is “present heart.” If we keep emphasizing the heart side of things, if we keep offering care to ourselves and others, that’s going to make us much more tender and we’ll live naturally from a more ethical place. The true impact of meditation is that it actually dissolves our excessive sense of self. It frees up our sense of connection with each other.
But if we think mindfulness is just something I do so that I can feel better in the midst of fear, then it’s going to have a much more self-centered feel.
So I think emphasizing the heart practices is critical. One of the heart practices is called lovingkindness. That’s where we take time to appreciate the goodness in other people. We might remind ourselves of the health workers on the front lines who are risking their lives to help people who are suffering. Or we might think of someone we know and remind ourselves of their humor, their intelligence, their care. And then we offer them our best wishes.
Someone reading this might think, “Oh, so you’re just mentally sending someone a wish like ‘May you be free from suffering’ — that’s not actually doing anything to help them.” But I’m guessing the next step is that you also want to convey that to them out loud, right?
Absolutely. When I wrote Radical Compassion, what I meant by those words is a mature compassion that has three elements to it. First, you’re feeling the caring viscerally in your body. It’s embodied, it’s not just an abstract idea. Second, the care is active and engaged — it actually leads to reaching out. The third part is that it’s all-inclusive: I’m not just caring about my sister but also about everybody in every country.
It might be that in the meditation we’re simply offering someone a prayer, but after that we’re much more inclined to reach out and make that phone call or go get someone groceries or medicine.
The single most important thing that can happen right now in this pandemic is that we feel our collectivity — that we’re really here to help each other move through this. And the truth is each one of us can help. We have a real gift to offer each other just by who we are and how we come forward. If we can find an inner refuge of calm, our calm is contagious.
A lot of us are experiencing fear around our mortality right now, and in the West, that’s something we don’t talk about much. Do you think we should respond to the pandemic by leaning into that — uncovering the fear and bringing it up from the subliminal to the conscious level? Or is that a terrible idea?
I think it’s not going to be a choice to bring it up. We will all be faced with the fear of mortality and the grief of loss. We can’t use our normal mechanisms to avoid it anymore.
When things fall apart, it’s a really horrible time in the sense that there’s so much suffering, but it’s also an opportunity for us to wake up our hearts in an unprecedented way. The ultimate gift of meditation is that it helps us come home to a space of presence that is large enough for whatever we encounter. And it’s from that space that we can actually live from who we most want to be.
So really the question is, how will you be with the fear and the grief? What is being called forth in you in these times? Who do you want to be? And what kind of world do you want?
Listen to Future Perfect: The Way Through
Future Perfect: The Way Through co-host Sigal Samuel talks to Valerie Brown, a mindfulness teacher with a racial justice lens, about how to use Buddhist spiritual teachings not only to soothe us as individuals, but to tackle broader inequality, especially racial inequality.
Reporting for this article was supported by Public Theologies of Technology and Presence, a journalism and research initiative based at the Institute of Buddhist Studies and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Future Perfect is funded in part by individual contributions, grants, and sponsorships. Learn more here.