Stressed by COVID, Internet users discover the calming practice of Buddhism

(RNS) – When the pandemic hit the United States in March, Heather Hopkins suddenly had less to do and nowhere to go. Facing 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 I want out of life, what I want my routine to look like, how I want to spend my time,” said said Hopkins, 37, who lives in San Diego.

While Hopkins had had a fleeting interest in Buddhism since college and once went to see the Dalai Lama speak, she 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. who follow Shin, or True. Pure Land Buddhism, the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.

For the past several months, Hopkins has been taking classes in topics such as rebirth and transmigration and participating in virtual guided meditations at various Buddhist sites and apps.

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“It was a great reminder to slow down and focus on what’s important and that nothing is permanent,” said Hopkins, invoking a basic Buddhist teaching. “It’s actually very heartwarming – the impermanence of everything – because everything is so crazy now.”

Many Americans have turned to religion to deal with the troubles of the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of adults in the United States say their faith has grown stronger as a result of COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Although Pew’s poll does not include Buddhists, teachers from various religious traditions say they are seeing a resurgence of interest in Buddhist practices, driven both by the stress many faced during the pandemic and by the country’s shift to online programming, which has provided greater access to Buddhist teachings and practices than ever before.

Mindfulness apps have exploded during the pandemic – the best mental wellness apps in English, such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer, recorded nearly 10 million downloads in April 2020, 2 million more than January – but so do the 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 virtually attend the founder’s dharma discussion and meditation sessions and author Jack Kornfield – far surpassing the few hundred who attended the pre-COVID in-person sessions.

Many of these newcomers may not consider themselves Buddhists, but the sudden adoption of mindfulness and meditation makes sense, Oakes said, because Americans have long learned that mindfulness is an intervention for the type of anxiety the virus has caused.

Oakes adds that Buddhist teachings have special relevance at this time. “Buddhism recognizes the reality of suffering,” he said. “He’s not trying to push him away. He says it’s the nature to be here – there is suffering. It is deeply heartwarming.

Reverend John Turner. Image courtesy of ocbuddhist.org

Reverend Jon Turner, minister of the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, Calif., And an instructor for EverydayBuddhist.org, said the site offers classes for the uninitiated on how to sing, pronounce certain words, 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 is only five minutes of singing per day.

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

“They like the idea that at least a small area of ​​their home is construction-free,” Turner said. “It would just be a sacred and quiet place where they can sit.”

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Turner said the school has been welcoming more than one new student per day since the start of the pandemic, bringing enrollment to 1,000. Many of the new students, he said, come from areas without large. Buddhist populations or without a temple nearby.

EverydayBuddhist.org, like Turner’s Shin Temple, does not practice or teach meditation; his students come to learn the more physical practice of singing. “If you are upset and anxious about COVID, sitting still may not be the best thing to do,” he said. “When you sing, you force your mind to focus on something else, so that there is nothing in your head other than the song. “

Others have turned to Buddhist practice to combat the isolation brought about by the pandemic. “People say they don’t know what they would do without the ability to connect with others because it’s so steeped in such a tumultuous time,” said Martin Vitorino, deputy executive director of InsightLA, which has seen an increase in attendance since moving. in line.

Vitorino, who heads the center’s transgender affinity group, adds that community benefit is a powerful draw for many members of the trans community, who often suffer from isolation at the best of times. “Going online has been a lifeline for a lot of people. “