The Buddha on Zoom

Dr. Robert Waldinger offers five ways to keep our connection alive in this time of seperation.

Robert Waldinger
1 February 2021
Illustration by Carole Hénaff

Picture the Buddha teaching on Zoom. He meets individually with disciples in breakout rooms, and people unmute themselves to ask him questions. This is unfathomable, of course. Even someone who possessed the Buddha’s radical creativity and imagination would have been hard-pressed to envision this scenario in which we now find ourselves: trying to hold on to a community online.

The shift to online has come with such lightning speed that, less than a year ago, few of us would have been able to envision it either. Yet here we are. And we encounter this new abnormal—what has rapidly become the way things are—as we encounter everything in our lives: through our own personal lenses.

The age-old wisdom that community is a treasure does not change in a world of social distancing.

Members of my meditation group express reactions to online practice that run the gamut from joy to misery to withdrawal:

“I can’t meditate.”

“This online retreat feels so nourishing.”

“I feel so connected to people on video.”

“I feel so alone.”

In addition to teaching Zen, I direct a study of adult life that has been going on for eighty-three years and continues to this day. Starting in the 1930s and following the same people from the time they were teenagers into old age, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked hundreds of lives through the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, and 9/11.

None of these people experienced a pandemic, but they lived through the kinds of social and personal upheavals that fueled the Buddha’s enlightenment 2,600 years ago, and that we are experiencing today. The world continues to burn, and change is the only constant.

We asked our study members what got them through the hardest times in their lives. How did they endure great suffering? The most consistent message we got was their reliance on community. Again and again, they pointed to friends, family, lovers, and fellow soldiers as the sources of aid, inspiration, and courage. That’s what most helped them meet the difficulties life sent their way.

What can this teach us about our current crisis? Our lives have been frozen in this pandemic. If we have housemates, we’re forced into togetherness 24/7 instead of going our separate ways during the workday. If we live alone, we’re more alone. We’re deprived of our friendships and casual connections with those who live outside our Covid bubbles of safety.

The age-old wisdom that community is a treasure does not change in a world of social distancing. In fact, at this time when the world is divided by delusive certainties, we need reminding more than ever that everyone and everything is intimately connected. The coronavirus is our newest teacher. Graphs and charts show us with astonishing clarity that taking care of the greater community keeps us stronger and healthier, while the illusion of separateness gives rise to more sickness and suffering.

So how do the spiritual lessons we learn in relationships manifest in this new world of digital practice? And how can our communities support us as we meet the challenges posed by being physically apart from each other?

Less Distance

The barriers to entry are lower online. Margaret joins our Massachusetts sangha from her home in England, and Curt sits with us from Denmark. People just down the road who struggle with physical disabilities can be full participants in our online sittings, some returning to group practice for the first time in years. People who have never meditated in a group setting before are joining us, and we’re thrilled to have them. It’s exciting that we can now easily tune into each other’s meditation groups and experience different types of practice.

New Intimacy

This week, I met a sangha-mate’s cat. At our weekly sittings we have dokusan—short interviews between a student and a teacher. A woman came to our Zoom breakout room for her interview, and her cat decided to join us. Watching them snuggle added a joy and intimacy to our meeting that was fresh and surprising.

Community members may practice together for years but not know much about each other personally. Now we see bits of one another’s lives—a guitar over in the corner, a child dashing in to ask a question. These glimpses add a familiarity and sense of connection that can enliven what is otherwise a quiet and still gathering.

Spotlight on Our Clinging

A newcomer to our online sangha refused to leave his audio on mute and would sometimes speak to his roommate during meditation periods. When reminded of our custom of silence, he found himself face-to-face with his aversion to following rules.

Another member of our sangha insisted that she was too old to learn to connect via video. To her surprise, she easily mastered the technology and realized that she had been holding on to a fixed view of herself as “digitally impaired.”

Rapid changes in our customary practices shine a light on the places we’re stuck. Often we cling to fixed images of ourselves and others, but our clinging can soften as we work in a new territory.

Giving Each Other Space

This is the time to pay careful attention to community—to what we need in our relationships. Those needs can include everything from allowing greater distance to striving for greater closeness. Quarantining together, we may have to give each other more alone time than we usually require. This might mean letting a partner, child, or roommate have more space. Keep in mind that wanting alone time does not signal a problem in the relationship.

Reaching Out

My shyness in entering a crowded room is something I carry with me, even online. My impulse to join a group and make new connections can get stifled by fear. We can notice the impulse to hang back, but then lean in toward connection.

We all know people who are alone, who are ill or afraid or disabled and who are hard-hit by social distancing. When the thought occurs to reach out, that is the time to act. Such generosity nourishes the giver as well as the receiver.

Turning toward everything that arises, we encounter losses along with opportunities. Online gatherings cannot replace the energy of being together in person. They are no substitute for the warmth of a hug. A hard, flat screen is, after all, just a hard, flat screen. But we can be present for all of it.

Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Covid-19 reminds us that we are always beginners. The constant arising and passing away of each moment of the pandemic brings us stunning reminders that we start over each day, each hour, with each breath. Exploring new territory as beginners, we are less fearful and more hopeful when we do not go it alone. The Buddha taught us that sangha is a treasure that makes us stronger and helps us survive difficulties. History keeps proving him right.

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development. A sensei in Boundless Way Zen, he leads the Henry David Thoreau Sangha.