The role of Zen in the time of COVID-19, or how to find calm so worry won’t eat you up
This time of social distancing is an opportune time to reconnect with our selves—but without completely shutting out the reality in our midst. Two Zen practitioners show us how it’s done. By DAHL BENNETT
The irony of being quarantined in this time of connectivity is that we are exposed to more noise than we should be. Just a day of scrolling on our feeds sends our monkey minds on somersault, leaving us with more anxiety, stress, and fear of a pandemic whose end we are not certain of.
From the perspective of Zen meditation practitioners, the quarantine is a spiritual opportunity to go into ourselves and tap into our energy without necessarily neglecting the reality and seriousness of the crisis we are dealing with.
“During this time of social distancing and self-quarantine, we have more time than ever to slow down and look inside ourselves so this is a perfect time to do some serious meditation,” says Rollie del Rosario, president of the Zen Center for Oriental Spirituality in the Philippines, also known as the Zen Center Philippines (ZCP) since 2014.
ZCP practices Zazen or sitting meditation, the purpose of which, says Del Rosario, is to discover and realize one’s true nature. “This is another way of saying that the end of Zazen is total enlightenment. We usually do not sit for any intention other than that,” he adds. According to Del Rosario, being totally present, open to, and responding fully to the call of “the Source of All Being” at all times and at any circumstance is another way of describing it. With constant practice, he says, Zen meditation results in wisdom, compassion, harmony, and wholeness in its practitioners’ lives.
Carmen Afable, a teacher at the ZCP and one of the original members of the Center, says that amid the fear, panic, and confusion, people need to find a place where there is peace, calm, and happiness. “This place is really inside ourselves but we don’t believe it,” she says. Meditation is the path to this place, she says, and doing it as a community makes meditation all the more powerful.
The power of group meditation
Like most organizations around the world, the lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted ZCP’s weekly group meditation sessions or what they call communal sits (Zazenkai) which are usually held in their property in Provident Village in Marikina. On top of this, their ‘much-cherished’ Holy Week Sesshin or retreat had to be cancelled as well.
In the absence of actual sittings, the group was inspired to do Virtual Zazenkai instead. Through a Viber group, members are asked to ‘sign in’ before beginning their sit, and ‘sign out’ once they are done. This process makes each participant aware who is with them as they meditate in the privacy of their own homes.
Since it started in March 14, the virtual Zazenkai proved to be a success, with more than 170 members from countries like Germany, Spain, Singapore, Japan, and Canada participating in real time. “The joriki or concentration power that a collective meditation generates is much, much more than that of an individual,” explains Del Rosario.
Controlling the monkey mind
In general terms, meditation is a mental exercise that trains attention and awareness. While its methods go back thousands of years, it remains relevant today, says Psychology Today, in its ability to generate calm by curbing reactivity to one’s thoughts and feelings especially those that are disturbing and upsetting.
“When we sit together the energy transforms the fear. We experience that there are really no barriers and together we energize the peace within and radiate it to the whole universe,” says Afable, “We save ourselves and the entire cosmos.”
To hear these guys say it, it is only in actually practicing meditation that we start to grasp what the practice can do for us internally and externally. At its most basic, the practice is a way to keep the monkey mind under control, and in the process keep emotions like fear and anxiety at bay.
“We cannot command the monkey mind to stop; it’s just doing its job. But, we can trick it to quiet down, to go to sleep mode,” says del Rosario.
Beginners in Zen meditation are taught to concentrate on their breath by counting from 1 to 10, where each count is alternately attributed to an inhalation and exhalation. “The way to trick the mind is to count the breath. This is an utter no-brainer activity that the monkey mind hates so after a while, the monkey loses interest and goes to sleep,” explains del Rosario. The purpose of the counting is to keep the mind from wandering. If it does and focus is lost, then it is a matter of going back to 1 and starting all over again. This act of starting over when focus is lost is what is called awareness.
With practice, the more one’s awareness will sharpen. Among members of ZCP, daily sitting at home of around half an hour is akin to what they call ‘maintenance dosage’ in medicine,” del Rosario says.
Seeing the pandemic for what it is
While Zen meditation has no other purpose than to seek enlightenment, ZCP’s virtual sessions make the exception of including an underlying theme: seeing the COVID-19 pandemic for what it really is.
“We cannot ignore the virus, but we have to see that it is not something apart from our True Self,” says del Rosario. This, he says, takes us to the point when we see things as they really are and that there is nothing but what they call the “whole.” “This point of view does not deny the danger posed by NCOVID-19 but it opens one up to respond appropriately.”
Del Rosario expounds that people are now beginning to really comprehend the issue on different levels. Beyond the disruption to our daily busines, the possibility of getting sick, and even having to contend with our own mortality, the slowdown and the respite from the usual hectic pace of 21st century life is actually beneficial to our physical and mental health.
On another and more practical level, del Rosario offers a perspective that we, as interconnected people, may have realized all along but whose weight we are only becoming aware of as we see the world struggle to tackle the pandemic. “People are now coming to realize,” he concludes, “that humankind can no longer proceed with a me-alone attitude—in relation to nature, other human beings, and other countries.”
Artcard by Chris Clemente. Images care of Zen Center Philippines.