Theda New Breast, a member of Blackfeet Nation, one of the 10 largest Native American reservations in the United States, has a lot on her mind as she walks around St. Mary Lake in northwestern Montana. The night before, she lost a good friend—and the first person in her tribe—to COVID-19. Normally, this would call for a spiritual ceremony during which the tribe could grieve together and help the lost member's spirit cross over from one world to the next. But because of the pandemic, all tribal ceremonies, which require people to gather in groups, are on hold in accordance with social distancing guidelines.
While congregating for a physical ceremony is impossible amid this pandemic, New Breast—a master trainer with the The Native Wellness Institute, a nonprofit protecting the well-being of Native Americans—knows nothing can take away her long-held beliefs or the spiritual intentions guiding the ceremonies in which she'd usually take part. She wasn't able to say "see you later" to her friend at a tribal ceremony ("the Native American language actually doesn't have a word for 'goodbye,'" she says), but she did practice a new personal ritual of walking by the lake, praying for his spirit to cross over, and singing out into the mountains.
For some, like New Breast, leaning into an existing sense of spirituality during COVID-19 can provide a great sense of comfort. In fact, even people who don't typically dedicate much if any thought to a belief system may find themselves reaching out and clinging to certain rituals now. For others, though, this public-health crisis is bringing up a number of messy emotions—uncertainty, anxiety, confusion, grief, anger—leading them to question their belief systems and the faith that something good, or bigger than their earthy existence, is at work.
Below, spiritual leaders of varying faiths and religions share what spirituality during COVID-19 looks like for them.
Forced time for soul searching
Hector Marcel, Buddhist teacher, meditation teacher, and nonprofit yoga and mediation community Three Jewels president, says that, for him, the pandemic has strengthened his spiritual practice. He's felt a similar level of spiritual connection to the way he does on retreats, thanks in large part to the space for solidarity and introspection that quarantining at home has allowed for. "People pay a lot of money to be secluded on a meditation retreat where you're stuck inside and no one can talk to you," he says "When you shut out all the distractions, you're left with just who you are, and confronting the deep feelings within yourself can be truly liberating."
Madi Murphy, a trained shaman and the founder of The Cosmic Revolution, echoes Marcel's experience of feeling more connected to her spirituality during COVID-19. "It's forcing us to just surrender to the unknown," she says. "Something that's deeply part of shaminism is holding space for yourself to feel whatever it is you feel; there's no bad emotion." As a spiritual healer, she's held this space for herself as well as others, with whom she sits (virtually), allowing them to feel and identify their emotions in their body, and helping them to accept whatever feelings comes up.
"People pay a lot of money to be secluded on a meditation retreat where you're stuck inside and no one can talk to you." — Hector Marcel, Buddhist teacher
Murphy says the rituals central to shamanism have become especially important to her following the passing of her grandmother from COVID-19 this spring. "Sometimes when I think of my grandma, I'll light a candle and sit with my grief as a way to honor her and what I'm feeling," she says. "Rituals feed the soul. They're grounding, and feeling grounded is especially needed in times like this."
Pastor James Roberson of The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York, says a spirituality-affirming lesson he's learned amid his time in quarantine is to slow down and be still. "We're so used to always being on to the next thing, but [without] 'the next thing,' it's forcing people to reprioritize their lives. I know that's happened for me," he says, adding that the pandemic has strengthened his faith, because despite so much having fallen apart, he can still hold onto his beliefs.
Connecting to community in new ways
Community is a common cornerstone of various faiths and spiritual practices, and while the pandemic has certainly changed the ways in which people connect and congregate, spiritual connections are absolutely still happening. Like many other churches, the Bridge Church's services are now all streamed live on YouTube, complete with a running chat box which congregants use to converse as the service is happening. (For once, talking during the sermon is encouraged!) Roberson says he's geared his sermon series to focus specifically on topics related to the pandemic, and going virtual has allowed him to share that message far beyond Brooklyn.
Marcel has also expanded his reach digitally, which he says has made him busier than ever, now leading double the amount of meditations as he did before the pandemic. "Hundreds of people have meditated with me since the beginning of COVID-19 and, often, we've moved each other to tears because of the compassion," he says. "At the beginning of some of the meditations, many are consumed with anxiety and worry, but part of the meditations is training the mind away from being selfish and not focus on 'what's going to happen to me.' Compassion is very powerful."
Connecting to spirituality during COVID-19 to find the good
The spiritual leaders agree that focusing on the positive has helped them, personally, navigate the pandemic's challenges. "When you turn off the news, take time to disconnect from the world, and focus on your life, you'll see that there is actually a lot of good," Roberson says, caveating that this isn't intended to minimize or ignore all the pain and harm swirling but to serve as a reminder that there is still more than only pain and harm. "Maybe you've had more time at home to see your kids, or can even just appreciate the simple fact that you are breathing and alive," he says.
Gene Tagaban, a storyteller and mentor who works with New Breast at the Native Wellness Institute, says that for him, finding the good comes from spending time in nature, which is a major part of his spirituality. "Nature is always talking to us, but often we are too busy to notice," he says.
Tuning into nature to look for signs from the universe is also a shamanic practice, according to Murphy. "You might be experiencing deep grief, wondering if you'll ever feel happy again, but then a red cardinal swoops down and sits right in front of you," she says. "The universe is orchestrating these positive messages to send you. Look for these signs."
While spirituality during COVID-19, and all other times, for that matter, can clearly look different for everyone, what's clear is that tuning inward provides an opportunity to shift perspectives in such a way that better supports a positive outlook. That positive outlook can then lend itself to a more fulfilling outlook on life itself—even during challenging times—that can keep an eye toward a promising future. "Who are you going to be when this is over, and how are you using this time to become that person?" Marcel asks. "You choose."
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