Lately, John Baker, a Buddhist meditation teacher based in Manhattan, has seen more participants show up to the virtual meditation class that he and his friend Ellen Banash started a year ago. Every morning on his computer screen, people, mostly over the age of 45, join him for an hour of sitting and walking meditation.
With New York’s coronavirus death toll continuing to soar and Governor Andrew Cuomo extending the stay-at-home order until at least May 15, thousands of New Yorkers continue self-isolating at home and socializing with friends and family virtually. During a time full of anxiety and loneliness, many have sought calm in meditation. Buddhist teachers and meditation practitioners who’ve moved their classes online have observed a surge of new participants in their Zoom classes and live Instagram videos.
“People have less distraction because they are isolated in their homes,” Baker explains. “I think people’s response has been more enthusiastic and stronger than before the pandemic. There’s tremendous feelings. I’m very inspired as a teacher.”
Baker is one of three teachers from Westchester Buddhist Center who holds a Dharma gathering every other Sunday online. Before the pandemic, 35 to 60 people showed up to his physical class. Since the gathering moved online, there have been over 60 participants every time. A class that was typically attended by12 people in person has seen double the number online. Participants come from all over the country and the world.
“Before the pandemic, it was really a matter of geography in who’s going to show up,” Baker said. “Now, geography is almost out of the window. It’s a matter of time zone. We have people from Belgium, Australia, and all over the place.”
Though Baker admits that online meditation classes lack the physical presence enjoyed in studios, he feels that Zoom can create a kind of intimacy lacking in physical classes. “When you are in a group, people are further away. But when you’re on Zoom, everyone is the same distance [from one another].”
Michael McSwain, a meditation teacher in New York City, echoed the sentiment. “In a way, there’s a lot you don’t lose, like making eye contact. You are able to have that presence of being with another person.” McSwain teaches a meditation class on joy at Three Jewels, a Tibetan Buddhist non-profit in the East Village. He has found that being isolated during the pandemic can activate people’s “sympathetic nervous system.” The anxiety can sneak in and overwhelm them. This is a great opportunity to practice meditation, because it helps them recognize those feelings. In his most recent class, he invited his students to be “adamantly joyful.”
To practice meditation of a Tibetan Buddhist lineage, McSwain suggested students prepare the space in which they were meditating. The act of preparation and the subsequent meditation create imprints on people’s minds. “This isn’t just a normal part of your day, this is something you want to be special.”
Stephen McManus, director at Three Jewels, explained that certain protocols were suggested to prepare their meditation space. Teachers and students should either face a window so that light shines on them, or buy a ring light. The background should be as plain as possible so that others can see your body. Throw in a plant, if possible, to make the environment warm and cute.
McManus also encouraged teachers to share a “Dharma nugget” with students; perhaps one’s thoughts and feelings at the moment. “We are mortal and fragile creatures,” he said. “I’ve been able to really focus on what’s important. What should we be doing with this precious life and what should we be doing with our minds? How can I start to shift the negative thought patterns and rejoice in the good thought patterns and serve others?”
With the echoing strike of a Tibetan singing bowl, Baker’s morning meditation came to an end. But people were not in a hurry to leave. They stayed behind and caught up with each other’s lives. Peter has been having back problems. Others expressed their concerns. And Fred offered to send a cure that helped last time.
“A crucial point, I think, is that in establishing this group we always felt that community and connection was an integral part of it,” Banash said in a text. “Friendships have been created, which is lovely.