“It’s a paradox. Isolation can be a window to deeper connections with ourselves and others. It can shock us out of a habitual way of living.”
That’s the message from Jonathan Prescott. A resident of Guemes Island in the San Juans, the Buddhist chaplain, pastoral counselor, and ordained student of world-renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Prescott works with patients as well as caregivers in hospice and hospitals both locally and nationally through his organization, Wise Caregiving.
If ever there was a time to seek the guidance of someone who has looked deeply and fearlessly into the human condition, the age of COVID-19 is it. And Prescott offers philosophical pragmatism on how to meet the challenges all of us are experiencing.
“It’s how we respond to isolation,” he said. “Struggling and saying ‘this is screwing up my plans and my life,’ generates one kind of energy. On the other hand, if you decide, I will isolate out of love, to help others, it’s completely different. You’re saying, ‘I will not be part of a chain of transmission,’ and suddenly you’re connected to the entire world.”
One way to do that is to think very specifically of someone you love that you’re staying home for. “Pull up an image of your grandmother, who is vulnerable, you’re doing this for her. Or for health care workers, your cousin who’s a nurse, whatever it takes to make it real,” said Prescott.
And then there is the issue of what seems like endless time on our hands.
“See this as a gift of time,” Prescott said. ”We’re always so busy, in pursuit of something, always thinking about the future, a time when we’ll be happy and satisfied. But in my work with the very ill and the dying, I’ve learned we just throw time away. I’ve had dying people tell me that it’s relief to lay their plans aside and just see every moment they have as precious.”
We have that opportunity now.
“How I handle it, when I’m bored or dissatisfied, is to realize I’m not present for this moment as it is. Go outside in the sun. It’s not intellectual — the sun is out and warm. Feel it on your skin. Feel the warmth just now.”
As many have discovered, there’s also time for long-postponed projects. “I’ve been putting off working on the stairs outside, for two years! But I was out there on my hands and knees, sanding. It was great,” he said.
Another paradox, and Buddhism is full of them, is that we can find well-being and calm because of the current restrictions in our lives, not in spite of them.
It keeps things pretty simple.
“When I first took the Zen precepts — there are five of them — I saw them as not being able to do this or that. And then one day it just kind of popped for me that through these restrictions, my freedom was protected. If I can’t lie, I won’t be caught in a lie. We can’t do things we planned to do. My wife and I were going to Hawaii last month and I was focused on that. I resisted mightily giving up those two weeks. But we did and those two weeks at home were lovely. I could not have anticipated that. I don’t have to sit in the sun in Hawaii to enjoy it. I can sit in the sun on my own porch and enjoy it just as much.”
Even with all the Zen chill in the world, there may be times of sadness, feeling depressed with conditions we have little control over.
“We have come face to face with the reality that we are vulnerable, and that can be scary, but I suggest we lean into it because it allows us to appreciate life,” he said.” If we were invulnerable, like gods, nothing would be precious. Be aware and intentionally look for and see positive things, nourishing and healing things. Even your breath. People ill with the virus have a hard time breathing, so take a breath in complete freedom.”
Another challenge is being cooped up with loved ones who may get to be extremely annoying.
“I suggest re-engagement with yourself when you feel exhausted by your situation,” said Prescott. “You’ve been offering love and attention ‘out there’ and now it’s time to offer that same love and attention ‘in here.’ There will be times when we have nothing more to give, so ask yourself, what do I need? A little space, or some quiet, a snack or a bath? Maybe a nap. Offer yourself that love and kindness, and then you can say, ‘Ok, I’m back.’”
It’s not a given that we will take these hard-won lessons into the future when life gets back to something more normal, but Prescott is hopeful.
“I see things changing, even in my own family, that whole red-and-blue thing. It looks so petty now. What were we thinking? I’m optimistic because I see people calling someone when they wouldn’t have done that before. I see generosity. I see people making do rather than pursuing more. There are so many beautiful things around us, so just stop and see what’s going on.”
For further reading on coping with the mental challenges of COVID-19, see these CDC recommendations and Snohomish County resources through Sno-Isle Libraries.
— By Connie McDougall