Speaking at a virtual meeting on April 23, Venerable Miao Guang began her remarks by expressing her regret that she had been unable to travel from Taiwan to join the MIT community in person, but shared her joy that technology enabled us to “meet in heart and mind at such a special time.” She emphasized that this moment in history is not “just a difficult time, but it's a rather special time for us to start thinking differently and to see life and the world in a different light.”
MIT Global Languages hosted this event, “Mindfulness in a Time of Pandemic,” which included a guided meditation and talk. Venerable Miao Guang of the Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism is the deputy chancellor for international affairs of the FGS Institute of Humanistic Buddhism and the director of the Fo Guang Dictionary of Buddhism Translation Project. She is also the personal interpreter and translator to Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order.
Leading the group first in a guided meditation, which encouraged the audience to come into the moment and develop awareness of the body and mind, Miao Guang then spoke on what the practice of mindfulness can offer us in a time of global pandemic. Asking the audience to consider this a “special” rather than “difficult” time illustrated the mindset shift that our guest speaker offered as vital to mindfulness at this time. Miao Guang next led the group through a five-step mindset shift exercise:
“If you're thinking: 'I'm stuck at home' … think instead ... 'I am safe at home with my loved ones. I'm healthy. And breathing. Life is still going on. And I'm okay at home' … If you're worried that 'if I go out, if I come in contact with anyone that I will get sick.' Now shift the mindset to thinking, instead of 'I will get sick.' Now 'I will practice safe social distancing. Safe self-isolation … And I can take any necessary precaution to prevent getting sick' … If you're worried that 'I will run out of items I need during self-isolation.' A shift of mindset will be, 'I have everything I need for now. And I will learn to use each item wisely.' 'I am okay for now.'”
In order to cope with the uncertainty in our world at this moment, Miao Guang emphasized that whereas we cannot control the situation, the one thing we can control is our thoughts and actions. The mindset shift exercise reminded us that we have the power to change our minds, and when we have the power to do so, “our world will be different.” At a time when so many of us are sheltering in place, while first responders struggle to flatten the curve, she offered the insight that the disruption of our normal routines provides a perfect opportunity for self-reflection and reconnection: “If we cannot go out, we can always go in.”
“In the past month we have seen drastic changes in the world,” Miao Guang said, “and we have experienced drastic changes and differences to what we have regarded as the normals of our life. And so when these things happen many thoughts and feelings will cross our minds. And added to that, the situation continues into an unknown future.” Mindfulness, she showed, “can come in to give us some direction and help us see this change in a new light … Mindfulness gives us this realization of the powers that we have, this power of a remarkable kind as human beings for us to see that as human beings we have a high degree of freedom in choosing what we do. In choosing the way we respond to this world. But ultimately, the responsibility for the kind of world that we're living with the rest of us.”
Miao Guang further spoke on the Buddhist teaching of compassion. This moment of global pandemic is one in which we must open ourselves to “feel empathy and kindness, not just for ourselves but for others, too.” Kindness, empathy, and compassion, she taught, are powerful sources of calmness. Although we often view mindfulness as a tool to help us clear out our own troubles and worries, it is just as importantly a means of allowing calmness and compassion to surface. Drilling deeper into our minds and reconnecting enables us to find we have more choices in how we respond to our worries and panic and anger.
A second lesson Miao Guang emphasized is the interconnectedness of all beings and things. “You're never alone.” Any thoughts of what we can do for ourselves, what we can do for our friends and family and for our communities, become opportunities to discover our minds opening up, and freedom and creativity coming forth. “The second thing mindfulness can help us to do,” she continued, “other than seeing clearly, we are more able to see calmly.”
A third important Buddhist teaching for this time is the lesson of impermanence. “Basically, impermanence means that nothing whatsoever stays the same. Everything is always changing … But why don't we look at impermanence as a lesson that allows us to learn to deal with change? Before, all of this has happened. We have wished for the convenience to stay. We have wished for the interconnectedness between ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, and the community to stay the same. We had wished for this safety and security to stay the same. But then there's a question: When we wish for the good things to never change … why do we only want good things to stay and bad things to go away?”
Miao Guang noted that change happens equally to the good and bad. Even as we feel the need to have all the conveniences of our “normal” lives, she called on us to “remember the price of convenience.” The price of convenience, she reminded us, on the day following Earth Day, is the exploitation of our natural environment. And while we are now wishing for the convenience of interconnectedness, this change “allows us to come together again to remember that this is something we must cherish and be grateful for,” a reminder that was especially poignant for the 50 members of our community gathered together over Zoom. The inevitability of change, as we have learned through this most unexpected but “timely lesson,” teaches us to be humble, but also to be willing and ready to “face all of this with confidence.”
She closed her remarks by reminding us: “Remember, we're all in this together. Eventually all of this will pass, and we should emerge as wiser and stronger persons.”
Preceding the talk, Professor Mark Bathe shared some thoughts on the importance of mindfulness for the MIT community, a topic that has been under discussion on the Committee on Student Life, which he chairs, this year. The event was sponsored by the T.T. and W.F. Chao Distinguished Buddhist Lecture Series, which aims to engage the rich history of Buddhist thought and ethical action to advance critical dialogues on ethics, humanity, and MIT’s mission “to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.” This was the third in the annual lecture series, and the first virtual event. The evening was cohosted by Emma Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and Director of Global Languages, and Mark Bathe, associate professor in the Department of Biological Engineering and co-chair of NEET.