Stressed by COVID, Online Seekers Discover Buddhism’s Calming Practice

Photo by mikegi, through creative commons on Pixabay

(RNS) — When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March, Heather Hopkins suddenly had fewer things to do and nowhere to go. Dealing with feelings of stress and uncertainty, she began to reflect on her life.

“It gave me the time and space to think about what’s important in my life, what do I want out of life, what do I want my routine to be like, how do I want to spend my time,” said Hopkins, 37, who lives in San Diego. 

While Hopkins had nurtured a passing interest in Buddhism since college, and once went to see the Dalai Lama speak, she had never developed a regular practice.

But realizing that spirituality was part of what she was missing, she searched online and came across EverydayBuddhist.org, a virtual school affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America, a group of 59 churches and temples across the United States that follow Shin, or True Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.

For several months Hopkins has been taking courses on topics such as rebirth and transmigration and participating in virtual guided meditations on various Buddhist sites and apps.

“It’s been a really good reminder to slow down and focus on what’s important and that nothing is permanent,” Hopkins said, invoking a core Buddhist teaching. “It’s actually been very comforting — the impermanence of everything — because everything is so crazy now.”

Many Americans have been turning to religion to deal with the turmoil of the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of adults in the U.S. say their faith has become stronger as a result of COVID-19, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

While Pew’s poll didn’t include Buddhists, teachers from a variety of the faith’s traditions say they’re seeing a surge of interest in Buddhist practices, driven both by the stress many have encountered in the pandemic and the nation’s switch to online programming, which has allowed greater access to Buddhist teachings and practices than ever before.

Mindfulness apps have boomed during the pandemic — the top English-language mental wellness apps, such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer, had nearly 10 million downloads in April 2020, 2 million more than in January — but so have Zoom meditation and chanting sessions.

Sean Feit Oakes, a dharma leader at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in Marin County north of San Francisco, said about 2,000 people now attend founder and author Jack Kornfield’s Monday night dharma talk and meditation sessions virtually — far outpacing the several hundred who attended at the pre-COVID in-person sessions.

Many of these newcomers may not consider themselves Buddhist, but the sudden embrace of mindfulness and meditation makes sense, Oakes said, as Americans have long been taught that mindfulness is an intervention for the kind of anxiety that the virus has caused.

Oakes adds that Buddhist teachings have particular relevance in this moment. “Buddhism recognizes the reality of suffering,” he said. “It doesn’t try to push it away. It says this is the nature of being here — there is suffering. That’s profoundly comforting.”

The Rev. Jon Turner, a minister at the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, Calif., and an instructor for EverydayBuddhist.org, said the site offers courses for the uninitiated on how to chant, how to pronounce certain words, how to bow, how to wear your beads, how to put your hands together. He also works with students to establish a sustainable daily practice, even if it’s just five minutes of chanting every day.

Other students, he said, want to know how to set up a home altar or a dedicated space where they can practice, especially those working from home.

“They like the idea of at least one small area of their house being clean of work,” said Turner. “It would just be a sacred, quiet place where they can sit.”

Turner said the school has been gaining more than one new student per day since the pandemic began, bringing enrollment to 1,000. Many of the new students, he said, are from areas without large Buddhist populations or a temple close by.

EverydayBuddhist.org, like Turner’s Shin temple, doesn’t practice or teach meditation; his students come to learn the more physical practice of chanting. “If you’re upset and anxious about COVID, sitting quietly might not be the best thing to do,” he said. “When you chant, you’re forcing your mind to focus on something else, so that there’s nothing in your head other than the chanting.”

Others have turned to Buddhist practice to fight off pandemic-induced isolation. “People say they don’t know what they would do without an opportunity to connect with others because it’s been so grounding in such a tumultuous time,” said Martin Vitorino, deputy executive director of InsightLA, which has seen an upsurge in participation since moving online.

Vitorino, who leads the center’s transgender affinity group, adds that the benefit of community is a powerful draw for many in the trans community, who often suffer from isolation in the best of times. “Getting online has been a lifesaver for a lot of folks.”

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If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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