Spiritual Wisdom in the Time of COVID-19
What I'm learning from my clients about coping with the pandemic.
Posted Apr 19, 2020
Q: I wrote to you a few weeks ago and asked for spiritually informed mental health advice for coping with the many coronavirus stresses. I appreciate the recommendations you offered. Now I have a related but different question: What are you learning from your clients about coping with this pandemic? And can you share some of that?
A: I love your questions and hope you’ll keep sharing them. I especially love this invitation to pass along wisdom from people who are discovering it and living it in these extraordinary times. I suspect most therapists would agree with me that we learn and benefit from our clients at least as much as they learn and benefit from us. That may sound like a plateful of platitude. But I promise you it’s true, and I’m grateful for it.
I could name 10 things, right now, off the top of my head, that the people who talk with me have taught me over the past month. But I’ll limit myself here to 3 — all of them being things that have caught my clients a bit by surprise.
Return of the religiously repressed. Several people have told me that, quite unexpectedly, long-lost elements of their “growing up” religion have suddenly become meaningful to them. These are people who, for various reasons, have gradually outgrown or consciously rejected the faith of their early life. But in the past month, they say, stories, images, and rituals from their religious heritage are touching them in emotionally powerful ways.
A Jewish man told me he mostly just goes through the motions each year at Passover. But this year, gathering with his family over Zoom, he choked with tears when he tried to pray aloud. “I say these words every year, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the earth,’ and I never cry. But this year I couldn’t get them out.”
A woman raised Catholic, who now describes herself as spiritual but not religious, has felt a renewed connection with Mary, the mother of Christ. “I haven’t thought of her in forever, but ever since I started staying home alone, I’ve been feeling her with me. And I’m not sure why. All I can figure is, she knows how to bear suffering.”
I share these stories not with the thought that you or anyone else can replicate them. Spiritual experiences do not happen on demand. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” as the King James puts it. I share them, rather, as encouragement to be open and receptive to whatever help comes to you, in whatever form, from whatever source.
Drawn to the earth. A number of clients tell me they’re spending more time gardening this year. For some, it’s their first garden ever. It’s not just my clients, either. So many friends and neighbors are cutting back brush, planting flowers, and preparing beds for vegetables. (A couple down the road are putting in an extra-large garden this year to help feed their musician friends who aren’t getting to play and be paid.)
When I ask my clients what this is about—how come they’ve upped their gardening game and what’s it meaning to them—initially they chalk it up to the stay-at-home order, the need to be outside, and the desire to do something constructive with their extra time. But I think there’s more going on here than just killing and filling time.
Is there any denying that our collective awareness of vulnerability, uncertainty, and death is stronger than any of us can remember? When was the last time you remember reading daily updates on the numbers of people who have died globally, nationally, and locally? It’s not that these realities were absent from our lives before the coronavirus. They have always been with us and always will be. Life is suffering, says the Buddha. But many of the smaller dramas that occupy our attention in ordinary times are not available—baseball, I really miss you—and the light of pandemic and mortality reveals them as pale, thin substitutes for the story that really matters.
Meanwhile, people are putting their hands in the dirt (from whence we came, says the book of Genesis) and investing in life. The temporary nature of our existence is on unprecedented display, and there is a need to connect with something enduring. The seasons. The cycle of life that was here before us and will be here after us. The way a seed gets buried, finds the soil around it warming, cracks open, and, if it is spared the contingencies of drought, frost, wind, hail, and disregard, sends forth roots, stalk, leaves, and fruit a hundred times larger than it ever was before its descent into darkness.
For some people, I think, gardening might be a way of praying. Perhaps it’s a way of asking the earth, which is older and wiser than we, and whatever it is that sustains the earth, which is also older and wiser than we: Will you teach us to pray? And can we pray with you?
Praying the news. And speaking of praying, some clients are teaching me that reading and watching the news can be an act of prayer and service. In my last post, I suggested that we’ll all be healthier and better able to serve others if we spare our nervous systems the battering and shredding they experience when we over-consume the news. Taking a cue from the 19 in COVID-19, I recommended limiting your news intake to 19 minutes a day. And all in all, I still think that’s good advice.
But some of my clients are blazing a different trail. They find themselves coming to the news in a way that feels strangely spiritual. They're opening their laptops or turning on their TVs not in a compulsive-consumptive way to fill their brain-bellies with information, nor in a blood-thirsty way to stoke their anger and vent at whatever knucklehead isn’t doing enough to make things better. They are coming to the news to bear prayerful witness to suffering, and they might spend 19 minutes with a single story.
These clients—call them what you will: bodhisattvas, saints, prayer warriors, jnanis—are turning toward the pain of the world, not away from it. They say they read or watch with an open heart. They let themselves feel. They bear in their own bodies the burdens of others. Some offer prayers for those who are sick, those who have died, those who are grieving, and those serving on the frontlines of healthcare and grocery stores. Some hold in their hearts those living in poverty and experiencing an unequal impact of this crisis. Others practice tonglen, the Buddhist practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out whatever might benefit them. They are transported to a deeper-place state where they sense a connection with and send their presence to the persons in the news.
“I’m not in the trenches,” one man said. “But this feels like a way I can help. It’s never occurred to me to do this before, and I can’t say for sure how any of this works, but it’s what I feel led to offer.”
Thanks again for your question. I share these responses with two hopes. First, that something mentioned here might evoke in you some spiritual resource that helps you take care of yourself or take care of someone else. And second, that you might marvel with me at the beauty and goodness of people and the Mystery that animates us.
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed here, please contact me through my website.