Plague Practice: Wisdom and Compassion in Trying Times

Church on Fire


I’m writing a few hours before my county joins most others in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and starts a shelter in place program to combat the spread of Covid-19. We, along with millions of others around the world, will be pretty much stuck inside the house.

These are very scary times. A plague scythes methodically across the world, overwhelming our medical infrastructure, and economies large and small collapse as a result. Thoughts of death, starvation, madness, and bankruptcy are difficult to avoid when the media is omnipresent and you are forced to stay home alone, stewing.

How to keep your head on straight in such circumstances? How do you keep yourself spiritually and mentally healthy, and be of help to those around you?

Since I was a teenager I’ve had a number of severe illnesses. I’ve spent literally months on end bedridden, and many more years being housebound or with very limited time out of the house. I’ve lived through floods, earthquakes, and firestorms. I know what it does to you to be alone and worried about very real problems which are largely out of your control.

Focusing on developing wisdom and compassion during these periods has helped me to traverse them with my principles intact. These two qualities are lauded in Tibetan Buddhism, but most spiritual traditions, religions, and philosophies give them high marks. Though they are independent qualities, if you approach them mindfully they feed upon and inform one another. The purpose behind developing these qualities is to use them in your quest to reduce suffering.

Let’s start with wisdom. Now is a good time to become informed about public health issues, disease transmission, symptoms to look out for and how to support your loved ones if they are ill (everyone in the family should have a list of current medications and medical history printed out and ready to go). It’s also a good time to find out how to support homeless and poor people in your area, and how to connect with family and friends online to decrease social isolation. Using this time to learn a new language, investigate carnivorous plants, take up sewing your own clothes, or pursue any hobby or interest will engage your mind and give you something besides the state of the world to discuss with other people.

However, simply learning more facts or skills will not make you wise.

For example, now is not a great time to go down conspiracy rabbit holes about ‘the government’ readying death camps or to spread dark rumors. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person (okay, more), but right now we need to stay level headed and grounded in order to help those around us. Getting so wrapped up in reading online about deep dark doings that you neglect to call your grandma and grill her about her health (because of course she won’t want to bother you) is not wise.

It’s not wise because it’s not compassionate. Developing your compassion will help you to identify suffering and be motivated to take action to lessen it. Wisdom will help you determine which actions will be most helpful. Right now, we all have an ideal opportunity to open our hearts to compassion. We have excellent insight into the anxiety and depression and fear that others are feeling because we are feeling it too.

It’s so easy to become short tempered and frustrated with other people when we are stressed. But everyone is stressed right now. If we take a moment to breathe and remind ourselves that other people may be dealing with similar or worse circumstances than we are, we likely will be rewarded with the sovereign balm of human connection.

Let your compassion guide you to wise use of your time and attention. Let it buoy you up so you can lift up those around you. With so much fear, uncertainty and real grief in the air, even a kind word or silly joke can do much to lighten the atmosphere and give you, and those people you influence, the momentum to keep moving towards the future.

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