March 24, 2020

Turning Toward COVID-19: Practice, Stability and Vulnerability in a Time of Uncertainty

Erin Treat and Matthew Brensilver were scheduled to teach at IMS this month. When their retreat was cancelled due to efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, they volunteered to sit for an interview to help others understand how to work with feelings of fear, isolation and disconnection in a time of crisis. Here, they share their thoughts — and their hearts — with the extended IMS community, and explore the dharma of interconnectedness on behalf of all who are suffering.

Erin and Matthew, thank you for offering a teaching at this time of great intensity when so many are concerned and wondering what will happen next. To ground our conversation in practical advice at the outset, are there any simple tips you can recommend right now to help someone through this challenging moment?

Erin: I can suggest three practices. First, tending to our own sense of balance is really important. It’s easy to hear the news and become fearful, become overwhelmed, become even more distressed. Things get amplified and we can lose sight of the larger context that’s holding our experience. When our hearts and our bodies are in balance we can most effectively show up.

It’s also very important to take time to actually do the formal practice. The practice is naturally stabilizing. Rather than losing oneself in Netflix binges, really take time to sit, to walk, and to invite awareness.

Last, the need for sangha (community) is greater than ever right now. In this time of what we’re calling social distancing, I hear people talk about social solidarity as well. And not only do you turn to sangha, but you are sangha, and you can be sangha for one another in these times.

Matthew: Yes, echoing some of what Erin said, our mind can be very wobbly at this moment and prone to collapse. It can feel as if the space of awareness collapses into a single point of pain. So, the value of actually tracking our minds through the day is more apparent now because we are in these fear states. We are highly suggestible. There’s less friction in the mind and every state is potentially a rabbit hole into some extreme view or fixation or obsessional thinking. In times of stress, we can have a very claustrophobic experience that I associate with suffering itself. And that’s not to be dismissive of the fear – the very understandable reason for fear and concern and action – but at the level of our own subjectivity, we want to investigate the moments of collapse when it feels like everything is falling inwards.

As Erin said, it’s almost too obvious but practice is important right now. A lot of us don’t want to do it. It’s not an easy time to be sitting. And we’re likely confronted with various forms of afflicted states. But the whole world looks different when we stabilize the view and settle the body. Some of this stabilization might come through exercise or through social connection, social solidarity. And some of this comes with just letting the silence and the stillness run right through you.

You both mentioned the word fear. How can we more skillfully work with fear when there is so much that is unknown at this time?

Matthew: It feels to me like we’re in a very awkward zone of practice because in some sense we’re trying to navigate within the realm of hope and fear — “May it not befall us. May it not befall others.” And we celebrate the clinicians, epidemiologists and other scientists who are becoming bodhisattvas and delivering us hope. Yet, in another sense, we’re trying to step out of the realm of hope and fear altogether. We have to recognize that a lot of our lives are unfolding within the game of hope and fear and every game includes the possibility of loss.

The dharma has many medicines. One of them is helping us rearrange the conditions of our life such that there is more hope and a deeper sense of safety. There is also a radical side of Buddhism that may be the heart of the practice, which is about stepping out of the realm of hope and fear entirely. And that is a bitter medicine sometimes. It entails grieving. It is what one of my teachers, Shinzen Young, called “industrial-strength dharma.” In a way, this moment helps us distinguish models of practice that are exclusively oriented around navigating hope and fear, a kind of self-help, versus models of dharma that point to this radical relinquishment.

The Buddha said the only safety for beings is in a total letting go. In relinquishing all. We hear this on the cushion in the comfort of the IMS meditation halls. Now, we’re actually getting to see the ways in which our dharma practice has been complicit in remaining bound to the realm of hope and fear. Of negotiating the conditions of our life. That is a valid mode of practice but it is not the only mode of practice. We are well-served by at least having one foot — or even one toe — in the realm of radical relinquishment. In the realm of courage, of fearlessness, of radical renunciation. And if we can get even one degree of space, one ounce of freedom around our own mortality, around the recognition that all of the systems we see are constructed — just one degree of freedom brings a lot of peace.

Erin:  I’ll add that fear is a natural part of the human experience. And any of us who come to the practice in a sincere way are going to have to find a way to work with the presence of fear.

These days it can be important to distinguish between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a kind of ongoing sense of worry. A kind of agitation, like a rock in the shoe. And anxiety can actually become a state of being that can really wear us down over time. Alternatively, I consider fear to be an emotion that is in response to a more immediate threat. So, it’s natural to be having fear arise in these times. The Buddha’s antidote to fear was the practice of metta, over and over again. So, when the fear is there, especially in the uncertainty of these times, just taking a moment to wish, “may I be at ease in the conditions of my life in this moment,” is important.

Often, when there’s an experience of fear, we hover above our experience. So, anything that supports folks to really ground in the body is a good practice for most. It can be deeply regulating. Just feeling your feet on the ground. Taking a deep breath. Touching your heart with your hand. Even touching the hands together in a prayer position. And balancing the information we’re taking in so that we’re taking in good news as well. There are so many beautiful stories of people rising to help one another. There are so many causes for deep inspiration.

Sometimes, when working with fear, it can also be helpful just to practice “this too.” This too. Because part of what really drives the suffering of fear is our resistance to it. So just the sense of “this too.”

What advice or guidance would you offer those who are feeling isolated at this time?

Erin: It’s important to find relationship where you can, even in a time of quarantine. Remember that we are creatures of nature and most of us can step out the front door and go outside. Take a moment to look up and appreciate the vastness of the sky. Look at the moon. Spend time with a plant. Touch a tree. If you have pets, listen to your cats’ purr. By virtue of being creatures of nature we belong. We are deeply interconnected.

Anything that brings a sense of belonging is good practice now. Reach out to others. You can even make an altar where you place pictures of loved ones. Or pictures of spiritual figures who inspire you in some way. Altar practicing can be very powerful as active relationship with the spirit of devotion. If Kwan Yin is the being who is meaningful or alive to you, call upon the presence of Kwan Yin — “May the presence of compassion rest in my heart now.”

Matthew: Solitude is not equivalent to loneliness. In loneliness, there is a kind of disconnection. And in solitude or seclusion — just as in the seclusion of retreat — the dharma becomes our companion. The practice itself becomes our companion. And that can cut through the pernicious effects of isolation. I don’t mean to simplify it — sangha is a jewel. So, as Erin was suggesting, we find ways to honor the jewel of sangha in whatever way is available to us. And then it’s possible to live amidst connection even in isolation.

What broader lessons about interconnectedness can be learned in this worldwide event that has spread a virus person-to-person and affected all of humanity?

Erin: It’s a deep question. We live within deeply entrenched systems that are built upon ripping us out of our connection with all of life. Systems that are ripping us apart from our connection to mother earth. Systems that are built upon some being oppressed and others being dominant. And as much as we want to dismantle systems of control, oppression, dominance, we also live within them. So, part of the purpose of life is to reclaim and return to the truth of our interconnectedness. And this is where dharma practice is revolutionary in a certain way. It’s revolutionary to sit down on a cushion and turn toward the experience. When we do that, it actually grows our sense of sufficiency and begins to lessen our sense of lack. And when we are within a sense of sufficiency, we are able to really know the mysterious beautiful wonder that we are. This wonder, this deepest nature, is shared with all of life. So, the practice — very directly — can help us return to the interconnectedness that is the truth of our nature. We are something much more vast, and awake, and imminent, and mysterious than who we take ourselves to be. The practice in these times just invites us to return.

Matthew: Part of where my mind goes around this inquiry is towards tactical policy. It puts the lie to these absurd narrow, nationalistic models of governance, and the problems that face our species. Are we exclusively a country drawn of fantastical lines and soaked in the blood of history? It’s constructed. And this has implications for how we think about governing our civilization — which is global and requires a deep acknowledgment of this truth of interdependence. The vulnerability of the world is touching us at every moment. What is the responsibility that arises ethically given the perception of interdependence?

What can an individual do at this time to help themselves or others?

Erin: Develop or enhance vulnerability. For me, the practice of vulnerability is an actual strength. When we are vulnerable, we know our permeability. When we are vulnerable, it means we are not separate and cut off from the world. It means we are permeable and open to being deeply impacted by the world around us. And this is what can grow a heart of compassion. A heart of courage.

This practice really is about becoming more fully human. And vulnerability is such an important part of how we connect with one another. Not just through our stories. Not just through our histories. But through the experience of being human. And living within a heart that knows. A heart that feels deeply. A raw, feeling heart. And when we know how to be vulnerable in this way, we start to trust ourselves more deeply. We start to trust the goodness of our own hearts, and our hearts are more able to resonate with the life around us. And there’s a real beauty when the heart is able to resonate with all of life. That’s a way of returning, of coming home. These qualities are just so important for this time and so important for the dharma path in general.

Matthew: Develop or enhance stability. People are marinating in very impressionable, suggestible mind states and our stability can be a resource for those in our lives. Groundlessness can make us love or it can make us hate. So, it feels like a kind of moral obligation to keep this thread of connection to love and to support the people in our life with our stability.

So much of my practice has been around appreciating the preciousness and ungovernability of life. Of actually tuning in and discovering the poignancy of the human condition. It’s almost unbearable to see the suffering, to see the depth of our longing for peace. When I imagine nightmare scenarios, what I’m really imagining is the disintegration of love. It is said that love is like glue and it holds the world together. And the visions that weigh on me most are where that glue of love starts to dissolve. The silence, stability and love we know from practice is not ethically neutral. Now is a time when we need to trace out the ethical impressions of our practice for engaging in this moment.

Erin Treat is the Guiding Teacher at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center and at the Durango Dharma Center. She also serves on the Spirit Rock Teacher Council. Her approach to sharing the dharma is influenced by her love of wild nature, her passionate commitment to serving personal and collective liberation, and her ongoing experience as a student of the Diamond Approach by A.H. Almaas.

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, MSW, is a member of the Guiding Teachers Committee and Board of Directors at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He previously served as Program Director for Mindful Schools, and for more than a decade, was a core teacher at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He lectures at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center about the intersections between mindfulness and mental health. Before committing to teach meditation full-time, he spent years doing research on addiction pharmacotherapy at the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction medicine. He is the co-author of two books about meditation for adolescents.