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COVID-19 and Anxiety: The Bigger Picture

While anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty, the COVID-19 virus is impacting people significantly as the future becomes more and more uncertain.

In the best of times, anxiety seems to be on the upsurge as people lead busy, stressful lives.  With these unusual circumstances, people who already experience a lot of anxiety may find their anxiety going through the roof!

There are many online tools available right now to help people deal with anxiety – www.anxietycanada.com is one I recommend.  Also, there are some good apps that offer exercises to calm the mind using CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and Mindfulness practices.  MindShift CBT is one I often use with clients.  Meditation apps can also be helpful.

Like you, I am feeling anxious about what is unfolding with the pandemic right now.  It seems like the whole world has changed – and continues to change significantly day by day.  I am staying home, as we all should, and I am now conducting psychotherapy and counselling sessions via Skype and phone.

As a practicing Buddhist, who has spent many, many months in spiritual/meditation retreats I ask myself today:  How can I apply the Buddhist teachings (dharma) to this very unusual and stressful time?   For myself, I need more than tools (although tools are useful and necessary!)  I need a larger spiritual context to try and understand and hold the confusion and uncertainty that is going on in the world right now.  I need to get out of my “little self” perspective where I worry only about me and mine.

I offer the teachings that are helping me.  They come from an ancient Zen Buddhist practice.

 

1) All is One and All is Different

The COVID-19 virus is showing clearly just how interconnected and interdependent we are.  We are all part of one Earth, one humanity, one Life.  Everything we do affects all of us.  It is not just about “me”!

When the virus first hit Canada, my initial perspective was about protecting myself.  What could I do so that I didn’t get sick?  It was all about me and my fear.  Very quickly I realized I needed to consider that I might be asymptomatic and make sure that I didn’t pass it on to anyone else.  So I stopped seeing clients in person and began doing video and phone sessions.

From the Buddhist teachings, all things are seen to be unique in their differences.  Each human has a unique face, even identical twins.  Each leopard has its own pattern of spots.  Every moment is different from every other moment.  And, we are all of One Life. 

Fear makes us isolate ourselves and think only of ourselves.  But we don’t need to close our hearts in order to be safe.  To quote the Buddha:  Our fear is great, but greater yet is the Truth of our Connectedness.  The COVID-19 virus is teaching us very concretely and immediately just how interconnected we are.  Hopefully, when it passes (and it will) we will have learned the importance of our connection and move to take better care of each other and the planet.

 

2) The Universe is not answerable to my personal wishes.

Loss of control, loss of independence, loss of personal power is a very difficult thing for most of us.  We like to feel we are in control of our destiny.  Uncertainty brings fear.

We get hooked by our anticipation of what’s to come.  The more afraid we are, the more we try to control what is around the corner.

I was out walking the dog (maintaining physical distance!) and we stopped in a small park.  I said hello to a woman and we chatted a bit.   She brightly and enthusiastically told me this “virus stuff” was all going to end by June 1st!!  I asked her how she knew.  She told me she believed in the power of positive thinking and her ability to create reality!  I hope she’s right, but I don’t think magical thinking is really going to do the trick!

The truth is, life is very uncertain and there are many things we can’t control.  Stocking up on toilet paper and hoarding food and medicine is not going to keep us safe.  There is something greater, there is a higher power. And, it is not answerable to any one individual.

I love the Serenity Prayer that is said in AA meetings.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Personally, I’m really glad that the Universe is not answerable to my own desires and wishes.  If it were, what a great responsibility and burden it would be!  And, I do recognize there are some things I can change and control.  It is good practice to focus on these and see what I can really do to help myself and others.

 

3) All phenomena are changing and impermanent.

All things arise, abide, change and die.  There are infinite possibilities.  Everything is constantly changing.

I’ve noticed when I am experiencing fear and dread, I often sink into believing that it is going to feel like this forever. This is where I am grateful for my meditation practice and how it teaches me to watch the impermanence of feeling states.

This pandemic is impermanent. It changes every day.  It will not last forever.  And, there will be consequences and outcomes.  The conditions now create the conditions that will come.

 

4) Mindfulness is All.

Mindfulness means that we have to pause and see what really is without trying to fix it or judge it.

Mindfulness is such a buzz word these days that it has lost some of the depth of its true meaning.  Mindfulness is simple, but it is not easy.  We have to practice it over and over and over, a hundred thousand times a day.

Mindfulness is Presence.  Mindfulness is seeing things as they are.  Mindfulness is multidimensional awareness.

Mindfulness is not about making a feeling state (eg. fear or worry) go away.  Feeling states are natural and intelligent.

Through our interconnectedness, there is a space we share between us – the inter-subjective field- and if that space is filled with fear or worry, if it’s filled with my expectations or my opinions, then I can’t see clearly.  Worse, there is no space for compassion, empathy and kindness.

People who hold their ideas and opinions in front of themselves continually “run into” things.  The opinion is a blindfold and we think we are seeing clearly but it is actually through the opinion or idea.  Mindfulness can teach us to see how our opinions and ideas are getting in our way

One of my favourite mindfulness teachers is Tara Brach. (https://www.tarabrach.com/videos/) She has some great pandemic resources, excellent teachings on Mindfulness .

 

5) Practice compassion and kindness.

It is so easy to get angry and aggressive when we are in fear.  We want to blame someone.  This is when compassion is most needed.  If someone is unkind or aggressive towards me, it helps me greatly to remember everyone is truly doing the best they can.

I was in a parking lot a couple weeks ago, just when the pandemic was beginning here.  I was at least several feet away from anyone else and I cleared my throat without covering my mouth.  A woman yelled at me aggressively. A part of me contracted and felt offended.  I wasn’t really coughing, I was just clearing my throat!  She didn’t have to be so nasty about it!  But I quickly realized she was coming from fear and inwardly offered her compassion.  Besides, she was right!  Even to just clear my throat, I have to get in the habit of doing it into my sleeve.

There is much power in a kind word, in a prayer, in an offer of service.  Let us practice compassion and kindness to ourselves and others.

One of the Buddhist practices I use often and share with my clients is the Tonglen Practice.   There are variations to the practice and the one I am using now for myself is like this:

  1. on a long inhalation, I breathe in the fear and anxiety I am experiencing. (This helps me to recognize and allow what is present in this moment.)
  2. on a long exhalation, I breathe out compassion and loving kindness to all beings who are experiencing fear and anxiety in this moment. (This helps me to connect with others and to recognize I am not alone in my anxiety.)

Slowly and gently I will do this practice for several minutes or however long feels comfortable.  Sometimes I simply do it once to remind myself to be aware of and to allow the fear.

You can find more traditional approaches to this practice online.  Here is one that can get you started.

https://zenfulspirit.com/2017/03/28/beginners-guide-tonglen-meditation/

 Meanwhile, please be safe.  Stay home. This, too shall pass.

For COVID-19 Resources and data specific to British Columbia, Check out Covid19now.com.

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