A traumatized world is gripped by coronavirus terror and grief. Anxiety abounds. Mental health helplines are inundated with calls.
The stress has prompted many to seek respite in meditation. The cultivation of awareness, be it on the breath, a mantra or an object, can provide invaluable respite from the overwhelm, renowned meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg told the Daily News recently in an interview.
Stepping back and focusing inward, taking a break from the horrific events happening at our doorsteps, provides a space in which to react, said Salzberg, who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. The bestselling author’s 11th book, “Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal the World and Ourselves,” will be out in September.
“One [benefit] is that ability to center again after maybe being overwhelmed or lost in some reactive state,” she told The News. It keeps you focused on what’s actually happening in a given moment — “just center, and be with what actually is,” she said. “That’s important.”
The cultivation of awareness, be it on the breath, a mantra or an object, can provide invaluable respite from the overwhelm, renowned meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg told the Daily News in an interview. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
That has certainly proved true for Sarah Prud’homme of Brooklyn, an off-and-on meditator who has stepped up her practice greatly since the pandemic started.
“Any time that I ever have stress, it’s such a go-to method for me,” the photographer and artist told The News. “Since COVID has begun, I’ve especially been doing it.”
Perhaps the most important component, Salzberg said, is the feeling of connection — especially during this time of isolation and social distancing.
“It’s a really powerful acknowledgement of connections,” Salzberg said. “Meditation looks like such a solitary activity, but it actually helps me feel so connected to others.”
This runs counter to what many people think meditation is.
“Many people who try meditation for the first time erroneously believe that the point is to clear the mind of thoughts,” said Michael Haederle, a lay Zen monk who leads a sitting group in Albuquerque and, as a journalist, has written about the neuroscience of meditation. “When attempting a simple practice, like following the breath, they realize their minds are very busy. That isn’t a sign of failure, though — recognizing that our minds are unruly is the starting point for a meditation practice.”
Escaping and tuning out do not eliminate anxiety and pain.
“Meditation is really going toward the chaos, not running away from the chaos,” said Tanya Bonner, a long-time Zen practitioner in New York City. “Meditation is not escaping; you’re actually leaping in.”
If that sounds daunting, it sort of is. But the result is worth it, she said.
“I find myself pausing now before I act,” Bonner, a policy and media consultant, and a professor of mass communication, told The News. “That second for breathing can transform your entire perspective.”
Meditation keeps you grounded in the here and now, practitioners said, an especially important skill when we’re being buffeted by conflicting headlines and tragic news at every turn.
“If you can stay more anchored in the present moment you are better equipped to respond to what actually needs a response,” Haederle said.
Meditation has helped New York City attorney and poet Elizabeth Coleman find greater self-acceptance.
It “allows you to accept all your imperfections and love yourself anyway,” said Coleman, who in 2001 took an eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the practice model founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and has barely missed a day since.
“Come hell or high water, I meditate every day,” Coleman said. “It’s changed my life.
“It makes me 10% calmer. It doesn’t make me 100% calmer. But that 10% is huge,” Coleman said. “It’s not a panacea, but it’s such a healing tool. It doesn’t cure COVID-19, it doesn’t cure cancer. But what it does do is, it can help heal you.”
Meditation and mindfulness have a lot to teach us in a pandemic, Bonner and Prud’homme noted.
“I feel like the world hopefully is going to be changed forever,” said Prud’homme, as people slow down and examine what’s really important.
“This is a moment where the whole world is pretty much on pause,” Bonner said. “And this is the time right now when we can figure out, ‘How have I been showing up in the world? Has it been healthy? Has it been harmful?’ If we use it right, when we emerge from our apartments, our houses, we could literally build a better world.”