What Do Buddhist Teachings Offer People to Help Cope With Fear During the Pandemic?

I was recently asked this question about the pandemic. Here are some thoughts…
What Do Buddhist Teachings Offer People to Help Cope With Fear During the Pandemic?

Question: During this time when there is a pandemic, it is easy to feel afraid, sad and overwhelmed by the day to day changes. It feels like the rug is pulled out from under us. What do Buddhist teachings offer people to help them cope? The world feels even less safe than before.

A: It is true that we live in a challenging time. First there are the fears which some people have about this pandemic: sickness, separation, death, poverty.

But on top of that is the fear of the unknown. We probably don’t know everything about this virus yet, so that creates questions, and questions elicit answers in our minds, some of which could be generated by very negative, fearful self-talk, or auto-dialogue. In other words, we tell ourselves negative narratives, often without even realizing we are doing it. We ruminate. We catastrophize, either making the present situation worse than it is, or we anticipate a terrible future outcome.

In other words, we over-think it. We worry about it and we weaken our immune system by doing that, which is the opposite of what we need in a moment like this.

Question: Is there a better strategy?

We need to have compassion for ourselves. Then we can be in a better state to help others. Stay connected with good people. Even if we have to isolate physically, don’t isolate socially and risk getting depressed.

I think a good place to start is to acknowledge the fear. We have emotions. They can manifest in our bodies. So if we breathe gently and focus we can probably feel at least something, somewhere, that feels tight or stiff or painful or blocked. Maybe we notice shallow breathing, or pain in the neck or back, Whatever it is and wherever it is, first just notice. No need to judge or comment. Just notice.
Without attachment, see if you can soften that tightness or pain by simply gently moving your body effortlessly while breathing in an easy sort of way. Relax. Rest.

Question: Relax, ok. Is this a Buddhist teaching?

A.Actually it is. It is called the “Six Words of Advice” by Tilopa the great and famous Mahasiddha.
“Six Words of Advice”
Don’t recall
Let go of what has passed.
Don’t anticipate
Let go of what may come.
Don’t think
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t examine
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t control
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

I think if we would just read this everyday and do it as we read it, then that would help us be in a better state of mind and health to deal with the challenges. Then our body and our mind could re-charge. Rest gives us a chance to find our center so we can go back to what we need to do. Then, once we are able, we can look at the situation and see what it is that is really the source of our suffering. If we can find the source then we can perhaps change strategies to get a better outcome.

You said, “…the rug is pulled out from under us.” Or sometimes we say, “my world is turned upside down.” Or, “my dreams are shattered.”

If we can calm our mind enough to really look at these examples, or perhaps find an example from our own experience, can we see that we have created these dreams and plans and our whole reality out of our own projections? We thought they were solid, real, reliable and stable. But of course they are none of those things at all. Then when the waves of karma come crashing in, our sandcastle is destroyed and we suffer.

We usually make lots of plans and assumptions about the way things are and how we want things to play out. But of course those plans and assumptions are just that: plans and assumptions that we make in our minds. There is no guarantee that things will turn out the way we imagine.

Buddha said our waking experience is actually like a dream: an illusion that seems, oh so real. From a Buddhist point of view we need to really integrate the teaching that all compounded things are impermanent. Our plans, our castles in the sky, our world, as well as ourselves, are all impermanent. We mouth the words that we believe that, but we often don’t live our lives like we do. We make things solid and permanent and then when they prove not to be, we suffer from our attachment.
We want things to be our way. We want the world, actually the whole universe, to do it our way and give us what we want, and when it doesn’t, we suffer. Sometimes we even go into our, “why me, it’s unfair” mode. We create a catastrophe with our minds and then complain that it is unfair. Often we repeat this cycle in a sort of vicious circle. We’ve become rigid when what’s called for is fluidity.

Question: What’s the solution? How do we get out of this habit that makes us suffer so much?

One good habit to develop is to simply live in the present moment. Easy to say, but doing it might take some practice, some re-training of our mind. Buddha taught a kind of teaching called mind training. These teachings are pithy instructions for health, happiness and spiritual development. Of course a healthy mind has a beneficial effect for our bodies. Tilopa’s “Six Words of Advice” are an example of a mind training teaching. So what is it that the great Tilopa is advising us? Let’s go back to the “Six Words of Advice” and look in a bit.
Tilopa’s first word says,

“Don’t recall. Let go of what has passed.”

Now how many times have we gone over and over again in our mind something that happened in the past. Sometimes even the distant past. We churn it around in our mind. Maybe it was an injustice we were subjected to, or an unkind word or deed that came our way. We might experience anger, resentment, hurt or indignation. We might have self-talk about it that we repeat to ourselves over and over and over.

But does it do any good? Does it reverse what happened”? Does it cause the other person to come and apologize and ask our forgiveness? Probably not. In other words, its only result is to keep us unhappy.

Who has injured us more, the person who spoke badly to us once, or we who repeat the words to ourselves dozens of times?
As mentioned earlier, Buddha said our waking experience is actually like a dream; that is, it is not real or solid in any way. He gave several methods for dealing with unkind or even hostile words that are spoken to us. One is to view the words as merely empty, like an echo that simply returns to us. This can lessen the power the words might have over us. It’s like the children’s saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Of course words can hurt and we shouldn’t use them as a weapon. But words spoken against us only have the power that we grant them. We generally have very little control over the words and actions of others. But we can learn to control our reactions. If our reaction to having been offended in some way makes us unhappy then perhaps a different approach might be in order.
The Indian Buddhist master Shantideva said that we can’t cover the globe in leather in order to protect our feet from glass and rocks and thorns. However, we can put on a pair of shoes. So now, during the pandemic, we find ourselves in a situation like that. This virus, and all the reactions that it elicits, are now part of our “reality.” So the salient question would seem to be, “What kind of shoes should I put on?”

Frankly, there have been some days when I felt shoes wouldn’t have been enough…like I needed a whole suit of armor. I remember being at a teaching once with the very great and famous lama Dezhung Rinpoche who happened to be a very large person. A student asked timidly, “Rinpoche, what can I do when it all seems too much. I want to practice Dharma but sometimes life is hard. What can I do?”

Rinpoche seemed to take a deep breath and the kind look on his face showed that he knew exactly what she was asking. Instead of his usual booming teaching voice, he gently said to her, “I know. Sometimes it’s hard. But we just have to put on the armor of courage and continue.” Remembering that has helped me more than once.

Now, it’s not that we should never remember a pleasant memory. But we need to be vigilant of two things: that we are not attached to that experience and that we don’t let our mind wander too far into the minefield of extreme longing, sadness, depression, etc. That’s a rabbit hole that could sometimes be hard to dig ourselves out of. Take an opportunity to practice not looking back. If we want peace, Tilopa’s advice is to simply not enter the field so as not to wander near the rabbit hole. He advises us to rest.

Question: So if we see our world as a dream, we learn not to react to people and things, and we find courage, is that it? Is that enough?
Well, that depends. It might be for some, but if we want to know and practice the Buddhist approach then we need to include the heart of what the Buddha taught: loving kindness and compassion.

I remember when the pandemic first arrived where I live, I saw people putting paper cut-out hearts in the windows of their homes. At first I wasn’t sure why. Then I saw some people putting the word “kindness” together with the heart. Then I realized that it was a call and a reminder for all of us to be kind to all of us. We are not all in the same boat but we are all in the same ocean.

Of course for a Buddhist, the ocean is often talked about in reference to the ocean of samsara, i.e. suffering cyclic existence. One of the paddles we use to make it across to the other shore is loving kindness. Simply put, loving kindness is the aspiration that others have happiness. Aspiring implies that not only do we wish it, but if we are in a position to actually do something to help the happiness of others, we will do it.

Compassion, on the other hand, is the aspiration that others be free from suffering. Again, aspiring implies that not only do we wish it, but if we are in a position to actually do something to help alleviate the suffering of others, we will do it. It is more than empathy. Sometimes I like to think of loving kindness and compassion as two sides of the same coin. They really do go together.

Tilopa’s Second Word
Don’t anticipate
Let go of what may come.

This advice of Tilopa could be very useful for some of us during this time of the pandemic. There are many unknowns and many people are getting sick and dying. Some have to deal with the death of a loved one. It can be frightening to hear about or to watch on the screen.

It’s good to be informed and know what is happening and how to stay as safe as possible. However it is also true that many times our minds can run away on us and begin to dream up terrible scenes, horrible images about what could happen. If we don’t let go of these thoughts, we run the risk of repeating them again and again. If we overload our system with worry about what might happen in the future, we could weaken our immune system. Not only that, we could also fall into fear or depression. This is not useful, but how do we let go?

Of course there are many ways. I will suggest one simple but effective way to step out of the pattern we are talking about and find a bit of peace.

How to stop worrying about the future:

1.First of all we need to become aware of what we are thinking by simply paying more attention to the thoughts and images in our minds. So, awareness is the first step. Often our minds run on a kind of cruise control. That is, thoughts and images come and go without us being fully aware of the content and quality.

2.As soon as we recognize that we are catastrophizing or imagining some awful future, we need to simply and gently say to ourselves, “stop.” Let the thought or image go. Don’t try to force it to stop. It will dissolve on its own if we don’t focus on it or feed it. Then, as Tilopa advises, rest. It’s like a re-set. A reboot. This will help us to get off the runaway train of our minds imagining horrible scenes which probably will not happen anyway. Even if they did, worrying ourselves sick now is not going to help us one bit later. It runs us down and makes us weaker.

3.When we rest, we need to really rest. To help us, we can simply focus on our breathing, without comment or judgement. This calms our minds so they don’t go running after our old worrisome thoughts and images like a stick dog running after a stick. Fear sometimes is the result of worrying too much about what might happen in the future. If that is the case, it might be good to do this practice regularly.

When thinking about these words of advice from Tilopa, of course we must apply our own common sense. When Tilopa says to not anticipate, I think he means to not overdo it to the point where we agitate our minds. I’m pretty sure it’s still ok to make out a grocery list before going shopping.

“Rest” doesn’t necessarily mean to go take a nap (although some days it might). Rest means to rest our mind. We agitate our mind my recalling, anticipating, over-thinking, and so on. Resting our mind is like a time-out. It allows us to find a kind of relative peace. Some might call it finding our center. From there, we can have the mental clarity and physical calmness to then go forward in a better state. By learning to rest, we can move into calmness and clarity relatively quickly.
There is an old saying, “Anticipation is greater than realization.”

Excessive worrying or projecting that something might happen in the future has several disadvantages:

1.We run the risk of catastrophizing. Catastrophizing has two parts:

A.Predicting a negative outcome.

B.Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.
To put it simply, we might imagine the worst and assume that if the worst happens it would be a catastrophe. There are a couple of disadvantages to this way of thinking.

Quite often the worst thing that we are imagining very often does not happen, so we have created stress for ourselves by not controlling our mind. Tilopa’s remedy is to simply let go of what may come and rest. Of course if we are habituated to worrying about the future, we might need to practice letting go, but it is possible to train our mind. After letting go, Tilopa says to just rest.
The great Indian master Shantideva said that if there is a problem that we can fix, there is nothing to worry about because we can fix it. If there is a problem that we cannot fix, then again there is nothing to worry about because worrying will not fix it and the worry itself is not good for us.

Secondly, the other disadvantage of catastrophizing is that even if “the worst” were to happen, there is no certainty that it would be a catastrophe. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but if we look we can probably find examples where something that seemed very negative at first, in the long run turned out to be positive.

I remember meeting a young man once who was in a wheelchair. He told me his story about being a very high level skier. He didn’t have a ski accident, but while he was skiing he had a kind of blood clot in his spine that rendered him a paraplegic. During his rehabilitation he met a beautiful young woman and they eventually ending up getting married. He told me that what looked like a catastrophe at first, ending up bringing him happily to meet the love of his life.

2.Anticipating (excessive worrying about the future) limits our ability to respond skillfully. If we are in a state of mind where we are excessively worrying, we tend to think the same thoughts and imagine the same images over and over again. We are like a pet hamster in a cage running on an exercise wheel, going round and round but never really going anywhere.

This can limit our ability to see other possibilities, other solutions. If our mind is more open, we can “think outside the box” more easily and the possibility of a previously unseen solution appearing increases. When we are relaxed our intuition and our creativity and our spontaneity have more space in which to manifest. Our inner voice has more possibility to present us with an “Aha!” moment. How do we access that relaxed state of mind according to Tilopa? Rest.

Anticipating tends to be based on our past experiences. We limit our thinking to what we know and what we have already experienced. In other words we pre-judge people and situations based on the past. “He always does that.” “It always turns out that way.” “It never fails to happen to me.” Some would say that we actually create the conditions that cause the things we fear by projecting our fear outward.

I remember when I was quite young and the polio vaccine had just been developed, but there was still lots of fear about the disease. There was a man in the neighborhood who was very fearful of polio, so he wouldn’t let his children go door to door to get Halloween candy, nor would he give out any candy to the local kids. In the end, he got polio and nobody else in the neighborhood did.
The above discussion is regarding anticipating “bad”events. Of course we can also anticipate “good” events. It might be a gift we are expecting or an event which we are going to. It might be a book or movie that we are eagerly awaiting. Of course sometimes our expectations are met or even exceeded. But as we know all too well, sometimes we are disappointed because our projections were not met. The stress and suffering of disappointment can then increase if we don’t heed Tilopa’s 6 words of advice.

So, in summary: Anticipating bad events can lead to anxiety and stress and missing out on possible good outcomes. Anticipating good events can lead to disappointment and stress. Tilopa’s advice is the same. Rest.

Tilopa’s Third Word
Don’t think.
Let go of what is happening now.

As we talked about earlier, we often create our world thinking that things will be how we want them to be, but even more than that, how we think they should be. If things turn out to not be how we think they should be, then we have a choice. We can either let go and accept things as they are, or we can not accept them and be frustrated, angry, disappointed, hurt, or whatever other story we choose to embrace. The first choice leads to greater happiness, and the second to greater suffering. Again it is our faulty thinking that gets us into trouble. So just as before, if we monitor our minds and simply let these kinds of thoughts and feelings go, not feeding them, then they dissolve on their own. Then rest.

Tilopa’s Fourth Word
Don’t examine.
Don’t try to figure anything out.

This refers to over-thinking or over-analyzing. So, don’t over-examine something or someone. Don’t try to figure it out too much. Sometimes we get trapped by the “Why” questions. Why did she say that? Why did he do that? Why did that have to happen? Why can’t they be nicer? The list goes on and on, but this road usually leads to a merry go round where we just end up going in circles without really getting anywhere. Trying to figure everything out can be exhausting and we need our energy for other things.
I think to put this into perspective, it might be good to think of this advice as “Don’t over-examine. Don’t go round and round trying to figure things out to the point that you stress yourself or wear yourself out.”

Of course a certain amount of examining of things or ourselves is needed. The problem comes when we over-do it and just end up going round and round without getting anywhere. We risk getting frustrated, tired, and worn out while not really getting anywhere, without any new understanding or insight. That takes us away from the peace that rest would bring us to. Better to just let it be. Better to just rest.

If we are trying to figure out why something happened or why someone behaved the way they did, it can end up being a fool’s errand. People and situations can be complicated and everything that we would need to understand might not be available to us. In the simplest terms, everything happens because its causes and conditions have come together to manifest it.

Generally speaking, according to the Buddha’s teachings, when we refer to how or why something happens, the cause refers to karma, (our actions), and conditions refers to all the things that need to be present for the karma to manifest. When those things arise together, a result occurs. Karma is a complex topic and is classified as one of the knowable topics, which means it is only completely knowable by a Buddha.

So, right off the bat it is virtually impossible to completely understand why and how something happens. I think that is one reason why Tilopa tells us to not try to figure things out. It’s a losing battle. Even if we think we understand an occurrence, chances are we don’t have a complete understanding or we might even be completely wrong. So it’s better not to dwell on it and make ourselves stressed or unhappy. Let go. Rest.
Tilopa’s Fifth Word
Don’t Control.
Don’t try to make anything happen.

This is another useful piece of advice to heed during the pandemic, but also anytime we find things not going our way. Sometimes when things don’t go as we think they should, instead of letting go and relaxing, as just mentioned, we resist. We don’t let go but we try to make something happen. We think we can force things to go our way.

It might be that we try to force a situation to get our desired outcome, or we try to force someone to do what we want. This rarely works out and sometimes even makes things worse. Think about your own experiences. Have you ever tried to force a situation to meet your own wishes? Have you ever tried to force someone against their wishes to do what you want? How did it work out? Have you ever had someone try to force you to do something that you didn’t want to do? How did you feel?

Even a casual observation of how things work will usually show us that there is a certain “flow” to situations that makes it very difficult to go against. It’s usually easier to swim downstream than upstream. That’s not to say that we should simply lie down and become victims to our situation. What Tilopa is suggesting here, I think, is for us to exercise some wisdom in ascertaining whether we should go with the flow or we should try to resist.
Tilopa’s Sixth Word
Relax, right now, and rest.

Another advice particularly helpful during this pandemic. Many people are now subject to varying degrees of isolation. This can be stressful for some. We are social. We are used to running around busily doing our lives. Some of us have become human doings rather than human beings. We define ourselves, our lives, our success according to how much we have done, do and will do. There are often not enough hours in the day and resting has sometimes been mislabeled as laziness.

Actually, in Buddhist teachings, it is considered a form of laziness to be so busy that we cannot attend to our spiritual practice. It’s called the laziness of busyness. Our modern societies often reward us materially and in other ways for being workaholics and busy worker bees. I remember having a boss once who lavishly praised workers who came to work in spite of having a cold or a cough. The pandemic has hopefully put an end to that way of thinking and acting.

Obviously we are not talking about being just plain lazy, but getting proper rest is important for our physical and mental well being, and for those around us whom we relate to and who have to deal with us. We are more pleasant, efficient and effective when we are in balance.

When the isolation orders started going out, there were many comments online about how this could be an opportunity to work at home, read all the books we never had time to read before, start a project, keep a journal, start a home business, and so on. It almost sounded like an order not to rest! Some might have even felt some guilt about not accomplishing numerous great things at home. Personally I think that while it is fine to do worthwhile work, if we can see that rest is not just doing nothing, but is actually a renewal, then we can give it the value that it needs to have in our lives. Perhaps renewal should be understood in the meaning of the word rest when using it in this context.

In addition, there is another reason why rest is important for us. As mentioned earlier in the section, “How to stop worrying about the future,” learning to recognize our discursive, rambling “monkey mind” is important. We then just simply rest. We let go of thoughts, they dissolve and we rest our mind. This allows us to begin to establish for ourselves a kind of “home base” which we can recognize and go back to when we lose it. This is a simple meditation, but meditations don’t have to be complicated to be effective.
There is a mountain of scientific research available now about the many benefits of meditation. But you don’t have to wade through research papers to know this. You can know it directly and enjoy the benefits by doing the practices and experiencing the results for yourself. Buddha famously said that he didn’t want us to believe something simply because he said so. He wanted us to do the practices ourselves to experience what happens for ourselves. Buddha taught for about 45 years and gave us many teachings or practices to use. This was because there are many different types of beings with many different kinds of minds. Some will prefer one type of practice, others might prefer another, according to our propensities.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said to find one or two practices that we like and do them. The important word in that sentence is “do.” We have to actually practice. It’s not enough to get medicine from a doctor and then just leave it on the shelf. We have to take it correctly. The practices mentioned here are relatively simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. With time and practice they become easier. So don’t give up too easily but just steadily do your best to practice and then…rest.