Covid-19 has sent over a third of the world population under some type of lockdown. It’s a global pandemic already. And common sense tells us it will soon be a major global stressor. Don’t believe me?
Try a simple Google search about coping with coronavirus, and you will find hundreds of results about anxiety, fear, depression, and mental health. Many of them lead to suggestions for doing some physical exercise, eating healthy, practicing meditation and compassion, and keeping a positive attitude, to stay fit during these stressful times.
On a 9-point advice to its personnel to maintain wellbeing during Covid-19 scare, the United Nations recommends keeping things in perspective and practicing mindfulness. “A good antidote to adversity is kindness and compassion,” it says. For stress-reduction, it advises to “set aside time for relaxation,” and do “spiritual practice, if any.”
Physical health very much depends on a healthy mind, and vice-versa. One cannot separate them. As the World Health Organization puts it, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In Eastern spiritual systems, the second factor—mental wellbeing—precedes everything else. Dhammapada, a basic Buddhist text, starts with the verse: “All that we perceive are preceded by the mind; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made.”
Mayo Clinic, a leading American health non-profit, says mental illness results in complications like weakened immune system, heart disease, and other medical conditions. It means a growing anxiety will lead to weakened immunity. Evidently, nobody would like that at a time of a pandemic.
The science behind it
Famed American neuro scientist Richard Davidson says the practices of mindfulness and loving-kindness influence our minds, brains, and bodies in ways that promote mental wellbeing as well as physical health. “Meditating for mental wellbeing can be similar to a routine job that we do for our physical wellbeing. We take care of our minds as part of personal mental hygiene, just as we all brush our teeth every day,” Davidson had told me some time ago.
Davidson, who has found through laboratory research that mediation can slow ageing, says: “When it comes to physical health, there is more good news: small improvements in the molecular markers of cellular aging seem to emerge with just thirty hours of the practice of mindfulness and loving-kindness.” But the practice, nevertheless, needs to be sustained for tangible results.
Davidson has studied the brains of meditators extensively to understand the effects of meditation on personal wellbeing. In Altered Traits, a book he co-authored with Daniel Goleman, he refers to studies on the application of meditation methods to treat patients with mental health problems. “The findings show that meditation can lead to decreases in depression [particularly severe depression], anxiety, and pain—about as much as medications but with no side effects.”
‘Let go’ but don’t give up
“Due to the coronavirus, everybody has a lot of fear, panic, and anxiety,” says Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a noted meditation teacher and Buddhist master. “But the most important thing is our mindset and how we think about this. This virus is breaking out around the world, and many people are having many problems and difficulties,” Rinpoche adds. “We must accept the situation and ‘let go’. But we never give up.”
Likening our lives to the waves of the ocean, Rinpoche says we can gain a lot of insight from the ups and downs that exist not only in our lives but in the society and the world.
“We can grow a lot. The important thing is not to give up. If we give up, we cannot learn, we cannot grow, we cannot find a solution, and we do not know what to do. Rinpoche advises people to follow expert advice on healthcare. “You need to maintain hygiene. Wash hands. Take enough rest. Doing physical exercise is very important,” he says. “Be carefree, not careless. Follow the advice.”
“And meditation is really important. You can do the simple exercise of watching your breath or your bodily sensations. When in worry, this awareness is quite good. Sometimes it seems to get worse, but actually it will be getting better.”
“We all have great potential. Everybody has wisdom, love and compassion, awareness, and skills,” Rinpoche adds. “Try making best use of these.”
Meditating via Google Hangouts
Most yoga and meditation classes in Kathmandu closed after Covid-19 became a pandemic. But the students of Mingyur Rinpoche in Nepal have found a new way to keep meditation going even during the lockdown. Fionnuala Shenpen, a meditation facilitator based in Kathmandu, has started hosting meditation sessions using Google Hangouts after the lockdown was imposed on March 24. Shenpen is associated with Tergar International, a global organization that follows Mingyur Rinpoche’s teachings.
“We are limited to our homes, so we’re all on sort of home retreat now,” says Shenpen. She says it is the perfect time to work on one’s meditation practice, adding that it can really help if one is feeling anxious. “As we cannot meet in person, connecting online with others is a great way to alleviate our sense of isolation without breaking the self-isolation rules,” she tells APEX. “It’s so nice to meet everyone without any risk!”
Rashmi KC, a World Bank consultant and a coordinator of Tergar meditation group in Kupondole, has also moved her group online. She too is using Google Hangouts to lead sessions along with Shenpen.
“Our participants have welcomed it as an opportunity to be aware under difficult circumstances. They have told me that it helps them expand awareness into their daily lives, like while they are working in the kitchen.”
“I think we need it more than at any other time. For me, continuation of practice in this crisis is important,” KC adds. “These tough times remind that life is uncertain and we need to learn to embrace it in all its manifestations.”
A major trigger of stress is uncertainty about the future. Things may change not the way we like. The problem lies not in the change itself, but our skewed views about the change. According to Buddhist teachings, ignorance about constantly changing nature of things is a major human stressor. Things keep changing whether we want them to change or not. When they change not the way we want, we feel suffering, we feel unhappy, says Venerable Burin Thitakusalo, executive director of The Middle Way Meditation Institute, a New York-based global non-profit organization.
“Now the world is suffering due to coronavirus, which is a big change from the normal times. But this is not the first time humanity is facing the inevitable change and pain. And we must choose to learn something from this pain, not only suffer from it,” he says while talking to APEX.
But how not to suffer when the world is facing its worst crisis in recent history? How to find that mental calm? “We need to practice mindfulness to let go of grief and sorrow caused by changes,” advises Thitakusalo. Mindfulness makes our minds clearer and brighter, and once that happens, we will find peace and wisdom to respond to the coronavirus crisis, he adds.
Of course we need to find ways to make things better, not worse. Referring to the old saying ‘pain is inevitable, suffering is optional’, the Thai monk and meditation teacher offers guidance: “This is the time the whole world has slowed down. Maybe it is a good to practice spiritual deepening in this time of social distancing.”
“In the end, we might become wiser and stronger to face any future challenge,”Thitakusalo concludes.