Zoom, Zen, and the Art of Staying Mindful During (and After) a Pandemic

Zoom, Zen, and the Art of Staying Mindful During (and After) a Pandemic  

Of the many adaptations that we’ve made to accommodate the need for social distancing, perhaps none are stranger—in a good way—than Buddhist teachers and students transitioning their group meditations to virtual environments. While these sessions would typically take place with all the participants in a single room/space, that centuries-old approach had to be abandoned when novel coronavirus started to spread across the globe. Now teachers lead sesshin from the comfort of their own homes, coordinating group chants and other aspects of practice over teleconferencing apps like Zoom. In fact, the pandemic has done quite a bit to expand interest in and access to mindful practice—not just for Buddhists, but for all those who engage with mindful activity.

The Rise of Mindful Apps

Calm. Headspace. buddhify. The list of meditation apps that appeared during and/or grew because of the isolation of the last year goes on and on—and that’s a net positive for spreading and advancing mindful practice! Clearly, more people have become interested in inner balance or peace, and guided meditation apps are a great way for practitioners of all levels to discover new techniques and experiences. These are especially nice for people seeking a specific kind of meditative experience (stress relief, creative inspiration, better sleep, etc.) because the sessions are generally organized by purpose. These apps also tend to offer sessions from a broad range of teachers, so you can pick and choose which ones work best for you as you become more familiar with them.

On the downside, most (if not all) apps are intended for individuals and not group sessions. There’s no interaction with other students or the teacher since you’re following a prerecorded meditation, so group activities are inherently not included. For some practitioners that won’t be an issue, but those who value the social aspects of group meditation may find the experience incomplete in some way. There’s also the issue of payment; some of the apps charge for content on a one-time or recurring basis, and there are teachers and students who find that element distasteful. In short, meditation apps do have some downsides—but the weight or impact of them will vary widely from one practitioner to the next.

Meditation and Teleconferencing

Of course, as we’ve already mentioned, many Buddhist teachers have brought their group sessions online and had tremendous success. It’s another unconventional approach to mindful practice that’s grown over the last year but is probably here to stay. Barry Briggs, a Buddhist chaplain from California, has been adamant that taking his students online is mostly a net positive; he can reach more students across a larger slice of the world. However, he does believe that losing some of the more annoying elements of in-person practice—the wafts of body odor, the sound of snoring or chatting students, and so on—is a double-edged sword.

Many teachers also believe that the freedom granted by meditation apps—that is, the ability for the student to choose their own experiences so readily—is problematic, because students fall into set patterns from which they rarely deviate. Teleconferencing offers most of the same convenience as apps, but it brings more of the social aspect of meditation into play. Students who place a greater value on those interactions will likely find this to be the best balance between safety, ease of use, and their own experience.

No matter how you choose to engage in mindful practice or what you prefer to get out of it, there are technologically supported options that will undoubtedly appeal to you as a student. While the pandemic has caused much sorrow over the last year, the emergence of these new tools (and the plethora of them) is a small silver lining. Meditation is easier to adopt and practice than ever before. More to the point, mindfulness is more culturally relevant now than it ever has been. Don’t let the opportunities pass you by without at least trying them.