Loving-Kindness in the Time of Coronavirus

Lodro Rinzler
Mar 9 · 6 min read

Yesterday I took my dog to the dog park in our small town. Free of iPhones, televisions, and crowds I figured we’d play some fetch and relax. Yet what did the only other two humans at the park want to talk about? How the local Walmart had sold out of Purell due to fear of the Coronavirus. It seems like no matter where you go or what you’re up to, the news of this disease will follow.

As a result, we are facing a time of unprecedented anxiety and fear. As the Coronavirus continues to spread and the death toll rises, various states of emergency are called, and the media keeps coming up with new ways to throw this epidemic in our face, I’m seeing many people struggle with constant fear.

The act of meditation is inherently an act of fearlessness. In the Buddhist tradition, this term does not refer to finding some secret dimension where we no longer experience fear (if you can find that, let me know). It means we look directly at fear and stay present with it as it shifts and changes.

In mindfulness practice we sit with our mind and body, relaxing into the present moment by focusing on the stable and calming influence of the breath. We then notice when the mind wanders off into painful storylines, gently bringing it back from going down those rabbit holes, over and over again. Remaining present, we learn to feel what we feel in this very moment and realize that whatever we’re feeling we are okay, whole and complete as is.

While mindfulness practice is a beautiful way to work with the mind, another way to move from a place of anxiety to that of openness and relaxation is loving-kindness practice.

The way we currently practice loving-kindness came about in the fifth century. A Buddhist teacher known as Acariya Buddhaghosa received the Karaniya Metta Sutta — the initial teachings from the Buddha on this way of offering love — from elders who received it from elders and so on. He then systematized these teachings of the Buddha into the formal practice we now practice today.

As loving-kindness moved from India into new lands, the progression of steps and specific verbiage used have changed. It’s a bit of a long-standing game of telephone, but the original message is clear based on the words of the Buddha: we offer aspirational well-being for all kinds of people, including ourselves and, in the technique I offer here, those who are suffering from fear and illness.

Loving-Kindness Meditation Instruction

Begin by taking a meditation posture that feels grounded and uplifted. For a more complete instruction on getting going with meditation I can send you my free kit, including guided meditation instruction (here). Take a few minutes to settle your mind through the mindfulness of the breath practice.

Now bring to mind an image of yourself. It could be you as you last saw yourself in the mirror, or in your favorite outfit or (if you suspect you might have a hard time offering loving-kindness to yourself) you as you appeared as young child, perhaps seven or eight years old. Make it visceral, almost like you’re sitting down across the table from yourself. Let your heart soften. Holding this image in mind, make these aspirational phrases either out loud at the volume just below a whisper (so only you can hear) or in your own head, pausing after each one to let it sink in:

May I be happy

May I feel healthy

May I feel safe

May I be free from fear

Along the way a felt sense of what it might mean to feel any of these things may arise; that’s totally fine. Just acknowledge it and continue on to the next phrase. If big stories come up like, “Well I’d feel safe if my neighbor wasn’t coughing all the time” just acknowledge that and move onto the next phrase. Repeat this set of phrases three times. Take a breath and let the image dissolve.

Now bring to mind an image of someone you really love, but who is currently struggling. It could be a family member, romantic partner or even a close friend or mentor. Make this image visceral as well — you can think about the way they do their hair, the way they smile or the way they normally dress. Once this image feels vivid, let your heart soften. This person may be lost in deep fear, or maybe they are traveling and you are concerned for their welfare. Holding this image in mind, make these aspirational phrases, pausing after each one to let it sink in:

May you be happy

May you feel healthy

May you feel safe

May you be free from fear

If you prefer to use their name (“May Dave be happy” or “May Nancy be happy”) that’s fine. Similar to before, certain notions or stories may arise and that’s okay; continue on with the practice. Repeat this set of phrases three times. Take a breath and let the image dissolve.

Now we move into the messy part. Bring to mind an image of someone you don’t know very well but who is affected by the Coronavirus. This could be someone you saw on the news who is ill, or a friend of a friend you heard about who is suffering, or a doctor or nurse who is diligently doing their best to help patients. Just like the people we know much better, this person deserves these basic qualities in their life. Consider their humanity for a moment and offer these same aspirations for them:

May you be happy

May you feel healthy

May you feel safe

May you be free from fear

Repeat this set of phrases three times. Take a breath. Let the image dissolve.

Begin to let your love radiate out through all the pores of your body. Contemplate the people who live on your block or in your city or town. They very well may share the same anxiety and fears you do. Offer these phrases for them. Expand out to contemplate the people who live in your state or province. Offer these phrases for them. Take your time as you continue to zoom out to your country and beyond, in particular to all of the areas deeply affected by this tragedy. Make the aspiration:

May all beings be happy

May all beings feel healthy

May all beings feel safe

May all beings be free from fear

Let the words and images fall away. Notice how you are feeling — any sense of openness, appreciation or love. However you are feeling is fine, just notice. Let yourself remain there.

Traditional loving-kindness practice includes a step where you contemplate a difficult person in your life. If you want to add in someone you’re butting heads with after that part where you work with people you don’t know, be my guest, but in my experience doing this version of the practice includes a good amount of difficulty already baked in. What we are aiming for in this particular practice is a felt experience of loving in a free and dynamic manner. At the end of a session you might have every image and aspirational phrase drop away and just feel open and loving and boom, that’s it. Bonus: in that moment of complete openness? You’re not lost in anxiety or fear.

The more we practice connecting to our body and the breath, the more present we are and the less of a hold anxiety has over us. Taking our practice even further though, we can open our heart to include others, realizing that we are all suffering at this time and thus need to be kind and gentle with one another. This birth of compassion can move us from living a life based in fear to one based in connection and caring.

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