This too shall pass: Practicing mindfulness in this pandemic

A version of this article by AUT doctoral student Renu Sikka previously appeared in Ako, the journal of the New Zealand Educational Institute. It is adapted here with permission.

When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.

Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been three weeks since New Zealand’s four-week coronavirus lockdown officially began.

For me personally, it all began with one phone call. I was enjoying teaching my Year 3-4 class of students how to make a terrarium as part of our integrated writing and STEAM project, when I got a call from my daughter and son about a complete lockdown across the whole of NZ from 25th March.

Life for me as a school teacher here in NZ involved me driving to school every morning, interacting with all my colleagues, and teaching in the classroom. This has now become an online, virtual experience in the form of emergency remote learning and teaching from my home.

I know for sure that when schools reopen for this emergency remote learning from home, by day my 40m3 apartment will become a studio. The place where I relax and watch TV will soon become a place for Google Hangout to check in with my lovely students about their learning.

I am used to this place being my haven, where I prepare meals together with my family and reflect with gratitude on my day gone by. Soon, it might become a space to produce props for my remote teaching and learning. 

My personal life and work life are no longer separate – a fact that has been made all the more obvious by the closing of restaurants, shops, cafes, and almost all else except supermarkets, which are now one-in, one-out, with staff wearing PPE.

Thankfully, I live with my children, so we have each other’s company. I know a lot of my close friends who live all by themselves are finding it hard to isolate. It’s quite an anxious time and will be taking a toll on people’s health and well-being, including teachers and their students. 

As a doctoral student, my main concern is the wellbeing of all other students – particularly our international migrant / refugee students – who, like me, are either working on their PGR9 submission or on other aspects of their research at such difficult times.

As a follower of Nichiren Buddhism and a Sokka Gakkai Buddhist by practice, I notice how some of the practices of my faith are useful for staying mentally well through this coronavirus pandemic.

My advice to all students out there is we can choose to live in fears, worries and confusion, or choose to centre ourselves and be the ones to model values like compassion, kindness, and mindfulness; now more than ever.

Turn off the news, meditate, turn on some Mozart, walk around your house, listen to those in your own bubble more deeply, and let go of everything!

I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the lineage that supports me in this time of mass uncertainty and fear. I don’t know what is going to happen, and yet what I do with my thoughts, words, and actions can impact everyone around me.

During this time of uncertainty, on my yoga mat, I simply take a deep breath, inhale, exhale, rock my body to the right and left, and settle into a steady, unmoving sitting position. With mindfulness! I simply notice that I am not present, and I am courageous enough to return to my own breath, in the midst of this spinning world.

As I write from my home quarantine in NZ, I’m reflecting on how our current global situation presents an opportunity for all of us as a community to come together in intensive self-exploration. We now have an opportunity to find all those alternative ways to think, feel, and act and doing so, the first question that comes to my mind is, “Who am I in relation to the current situation?”

This coronavirus is moving; its nature is to penetrate the boundaries. Most of us in our current lifetime have never experienced such a phenomenon. This movement is unsettling, uncertain, and shocking. In contemplating this movement, what do I feel?

Firstly, I need to become aware of my own inner process. During this uncertainty around health, wellbeing and the economic upheaval, am I aware of my own thoughts and my deeper feelings? If this is possible, only then can I stay in a place of vulnerability. Only then can I have a clearer perspective on what’s happening around me. If I don’t move through this layer within myself first, I might project my own fears onto others around me.

In this time of heightened emotions, we must deepen our own sense of presence and grounding within ourselves. We all need social/physical distancing but also social solidarity.

The simple act of washing hands has become a matter of life and death for us in such difficult times and so paying full attention and being mindful can not only protect us from coronavirus but bring our meditation practice off the yoga mat to our own daily lives.

If we are going to survive this coronavirus pandemic, we need to convert our own individual suffering and fear into compassion; and by doing so, we will suffer less. We need to remember that you and I are not separate. I feel like sending deep Metta (loving-kindness) to all those affected by this coronavirus as we are all interconnected with one another on this planet. We all breathe the same air.

As coronavirus spreads around the world, fear and grief are inevitable. But so are compassion, kindness and care. We are all these things!

About Renu Sikka

Renu Sikka is a senior leader at Henderson Primary School and won an award for ASG National Excellence in Teaching (NEiTA). She is currently studying toward her Doctorate at AUT, on the role of digital technology in exploring the culturally responsive teaching practices in schools at a global level. She is also a founder of non-profit social enterprise Our Stories On Plate, which empowers migrant and refugee women and girls through cooking and creative writing.

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