Cultivating Compassion in a Time of Uncertainty

by Courtney Bruntz, Assistant Professor of Asian Religions

Around the world Buddhist communities are reacting to the Coronavirus by chanting mantras (repeated sounds or phrases), sutras (Buddhist scriptures), or dharanis (recitations) for healing and/or aid from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, others are providing help to healthcare workers and individuals affected by the disease, and many are sharing wisdom for coping with a time of uncertainty, stress, grief, and pain. After studying Buddhist traditions for over 15 years, what I hope to offer are a few insights into a few of these teachings that might be helpful at this time.

I. Recognize the Grief, Fear, and Anxiety

Essential to the teachings of the Buddha is the teaching of suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering occurs in terms of overall pain (physical, psychological, emotional), anxiety over change, and with loss or death of loved ones. Suffering occurs as a general feeling of dis-ease, discomfort, or dissatisfaction. Significant to Buddhist teachings is thus the importance of grounding oneself where we are by recognizing the reality of pain, acknowledging its presence, and working with discomfort to overcome it. This is immensely important in our current situation. For us to feel whole while so splintered apart we must acknowledge the grief, the loss of physical connection, the fear over sickness, and the anxiety concerning health, healing, and loss. We must recognize these feelings and their impact on our overall well-being.

II. Calmly Abide in a World of Change

Change, the Buddha taught, is the underlying reality of all of existence. Everything is constantly changing, and we too, are always changing. While we so often seek to run away from change, pandemics bring this reality to us in a very intimate way. Change brings fear and uncertainty, but if we are able to acknowledge the feelings of insecurity and work with them, we can calmly abide. How do we do this? Be mindful that everything is impermanent and that uncertainty has always been the foundation of reality, pay attention to the rising of emotions and reactions occurring within the mind and body, and practice meditation to calmly abide.

I practice the Chinese Chan (Zen) tradition of meditation, and in this tradition mindfulness is aimed at cultivating a clear, calm, peaceful mind through complete mental absorption into the activities of the body. When cooking, cleaning, teaching, walking, playing with a child, etc., one seeks full mental engagement. This is Zen Mindfulness — to absorb the mind fully, which thereby grounds all thought processes into the activities of the body. What results from this alignment is a slowing down of mental processing, a cultivation of clarity, and a development of equanimity and stillness.

III. Embody Compassion

In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that Zen is part of, one hopes to become a Bodhisattva — an enlightened being who seeks to awaken for the benefit and compassion of all others. This is based on a recognition of interconnectivity. Not only is everything in the universe constantly changing, but all of us are intimately connected. When these truths are seen together, the only response one can have is compassion — we affect all others, they affect us, we are in this together, and together we will change/alter our collective paths.

Our time in isolation does not end interconnectivity. It’s quite the opposite — our choices now more than ever critically affect others’ health, and simple acts like staying home are ones of great compassion.

Isolation thus presents us with a great opportunity for growth — a time to become our most compassionate self. While change and interconnectivity are always present, perhaps now, we feel them more strongly. Rather than seeking ways to escape the situation, we can choose to embrace it with compassion. We can cultivate a mindstate of loving kindness for ourselves and all others, and choose to act for the benefit of ourselves and each other.

Together may we be happy, may we be healthy, may we be peaceful and may we be at ease.

The blog posts in Forward. Together. are intended to foster an inclusive community of empathy and curiosity at Doane University by providing a glimpse into various individual identities and worldviews. These are community members’ unique stories and should not be presumed to be the experience of all who share the same identity.



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