Wisdom for a Pandemic

7 guidelines for living in turbulent times.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

“This pandemic is utterly mind and soul-boggling. How do we even begin to live in such cataclysmic times?” This statement from a friend prompted me to reflect on how we might respond to the enormity of what’s unfolding around us.

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote: “Especially in times of darkness, that is the time to love, that an act of love might tip the scale.”

While still being realistic, I find myself wanting to cultivate some positive perspectives for living during these challenging days.

1) Create pauses. Whatever you’re doing throughout the day, wherever you are, simply stop, pause, and close your eyes. Turn within for some slow, deep breaths, affirming that this moment, this breath, is what you’ve been given. Everything may be unraveling in the outer world, but you are held in the benevolence of your own breath and the momentary quiet. This way you can create moments of refuge throughout your day.

2) Reach out. Never before have we been so aware of our interconnectedness with the whole world. This recognition may feel both overwhelming and strangely comforting: We’re all in this together. We may be temporarily limited by “social distancing,” but we can still reach out to loved ones through electronic means such as phone, email, FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom. Or write a note to an elder who lives alone and would rejoice in your small act of kindness. “An act of love might tip the scale.”

3) Working with fear. In addition to the coronavirus, there is a secondary pandemic of anxiety and fear. We can take care of ourselves and those around us by addressing our fear and help others to do so as well.

Start with a “welcoming practice,” a four-step process for working with fear:

a) Fear always starts as energy in the body. Although it seems counter-intuitive, we need to open to the fear, feel it fully, and allow it to run its course. If we can stay with the cascade of feelings, they will diminish, because the less one resists, the faster that will happen.

b) Bring awareness to your breath, that ever-present ally. Deepen your breaths. Breathe into your belly to activate the parasympathethic nervous system and lower your blood pressure. Imagine the fear flowing out with your out-breaths. Fear creates contraction in the body, whereas breathing through the sensations will invite softening and a sense of greater ease.

c) Repeat a mantra or short prayer on the out-breath. For example, “let go,” “calm ... ease,” “quiet mind,” “peaceful heart.” Feel deeply the meaning of whatever words you choose.

d) Expand your field of awareness to include others who may be experiencing fear too – a family member, friend, or even all beings. Tune into this vast field of interconnectedness. Imagine that you are breathing with them and extend loving kindness to them. “May you be free of fear and have ease of heart.”

Every time you turn your attention away from yourself toward others, your heart will feel lighter. Whatever ways you find for working with fear, appreciate that it calls for self-acceptance, kindness, and great courage.

4) Seek solace in nature. Become aware of what distracts you and throws you off balance—perhaps an overdose of news programs, too much time on your phone, countless hours at the computer. Go outside and open to the natural world. Look up at the sky and notice the cloud patterns, see what has changed in the tree outside your apartment, walk in the nearby park. Breathe deeply! Yesterday, I heard the chirping sparrows hiding in the hedge, singing their hearts out. Then a display of snowdrops in my neighbor’s yard—gifts from the natural world, reminders that at some level all is well.

5) Live in the present moment. In spite of this familiar exhortation, our minds are often lost in the past or future. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a beloved Buddhist teacher, “The future is being made out of the present, so the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.”

Don’t shrug this off as one more platitude! Really notice and bring awareness to whether or not you are fully living in this precious moment—the only one you have.

6) Cultivate calm. The simplest steps are often the most overlooked, or the hardest. Since we know how interconnected we are in subtle ways, it is truly a gift to yourself and others to cultivate calm. We can start to do that through the steps mentioned here. Be still. Be calm. Beneath the turbulent waves of this storm, we can always find the calm that lies deep beneath the surface appearance of things. That calm is within.

7) Living with the unknown. The fact is we’ve always been living with the unknown, but probably we’ve never given it serious thought. The enormity of this pandemic thrusts this reality into our consciousness. In these turbulent days, we have a choice: We can slip into a sea of anxiety and fear, or we can look into the face of reality and accept the unknown as a natural part of life. We can rejoice in the day we’ve been given and live it as consciously and lovingly as we can.

A wise one once said, “Fear creates the abyss; love crosses it.”

I’ve always loved this statement, an invitation to open to the love in our lives. Who can we reach out to? What kind gesture might we make toward a neighbor? How might our cultivating calm be a gift to others? Our act of love might tip the scale.

Take care, stay well, and many blessings.