When the pandemic started to spread in the U.S., and the coinciding stay-at-home orders began rattling through states, Barry Briggs was not particularly interested in taking his Buddhism practice virtual.
He had been practicing in the Kwan Um school of Zen for 31 years, first with a group in Seattle and, after becoming a teacher, now with his own group in Southern Arizona. Before the pandemic, he practiced with other people in-person twice a week, where they would meditate in zazen — or seated — and chant. On Sundays, about 25 people would practice meditation and then listen to a talk, usually by Briggs himself but sometimes by visiting teachers, and go out for coffee. A few times a year, Briggs would attend and occasionally lead in-person meditation retreats, called sesshins, anywhere from a weekend to multiple months long. Then, the pandemic hit.
“We shut down without knowing what we were going to do,” Briggs said. “We didn’t have a plan. We just closed the doors because it doesn’t seem safe.”
Briggs, who is a member of the American Zen Teachers Association, started seeing that other centers were moving their practices to Zoom.
“I was already having meetings around the world on Zoom, but I thought, ‘That’s weird. How do you do Zen practice on Zoom? This is not going to last too long,'” Briggs said.
“I thought, ‘That’s weird. How do you do Zen practice on Zoom? This is not going to last too long.'”
Now, everyone sits together on Zoom, with their eyes open and computers up. They still meet twice a week, plus attend a bi-monthly discussion group. And Briggs isn’t alone. From his small town of Bisbee, Arizona, to New York City, practitioners have had to pivot their in-person meditations to Zoom. The offerings are still free, or donation-based, and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to log on — just like they would be in-person — which has sparked a similarity between the centuries-old practice and the meditation apps of the internet age. While many practitioners consider the apps to be a net positive, there’s a reason they took up Zoom with their groups instead of downloading an app.
For some Buddhists, they had two options: to practice alone until the pandemic ended, or go virtual, either on Zoom or on an app. Brent Beavers, who works as a Buddhist chaplain in a California hospital, said he was “pretty critical” of the overall dependence we have on the internet, let alone attempting to meditate utilizing it.
“I thought, ‘Oh, we would never have online people come to our sittings. Right? That’s just weird. It’s disconnected, when [our practice] is all about being present with other human beings,'” he said. “But of course that’s sort of turned on its head with the pandemic and now all we do is online. And so I discovered, to my surprise, how effective it can be.”
While he was in his chaplain residency, he was busy, and he found that he didn’t have time to attend in-person meditations as often as he would have liked. So, moving them all online and eliminating his commute, helped him increase the amount of time he spent meditating with a group. Rebecca Kisch, a practicing Buddhist at the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, had a similar experience after being “really skeptical” of practicing over Zoom.
“It felt a little bit strange, but actually I found it extremely helpful once I tapped in and felt really connected, even from afar.”
“I felt that there would be something artificial about opening up my laptop, especially when going into sesshin or some kind of intensive practice period,” she said. “It felt a little bit strange, but actually I found it extremely helpful once I tapped in and felt really connected, even from afar.”
Having a laptop camera shining at your face while you meditate may not seem very Zen, but moving to Zoom had some surprising benefits.
“Now I give a talk or a guest teacher gives a talk, because that’s one of the things we can do with Zoom: We can have guest teachers,” Briggs said. “And then rather than everybody going out for coffee together and having lunch and talking about our dogs, we talk about whatever has come up at the talk that was given that day, and we have a Q&A discussion about that. That part’s been really wonderful.”
That’s because Zoom really excels at talks and discussion — it’s the same reason schools have adopted Zoom. And Briggs has discovered that offering meditation online has opened up the practice to people who live too far away to come in person. His Zen center in rural Arizona is the only one within 100 miles, so it helps people who don’t want that commute. But it also helps those who live in completely different states or countries.
“We have people who used to live in Bisbee or [the nearby town of] Sierra Vista, and now they live in Georgia or they live in Minneapolis or wherever they live, but Zoom has allowed them to come back,” Briggs said. “And that’s really fabulous. So they’ll hopefully continue to practice with us after we moved back into some kind of physical mode of practice.”
But, of course, practicing over Zoom isn’t a perfect option. You can’t chant very well as a group, and you don’t experience some of the distractions that can be so helpful to your practice — like a smelly neighbor, or a snoring practitioner across the room. The same goes for using apps.
“It’s sterilized in that way,” Briggs said. “And we lose the stuff, the aspect of meditation that makes us crazy, drives us nuts. That gets lost, and that’s actually a really important part of meditation is to have to deal with how we make ourselves crazy.”
“There are so many multitudes, unaccountable, sensory perceptions that we can take in, and you lose a lot of them when you’re online,” Beavers said.
It’s not just dealing with body odor and snoring that makes in-person group meditation a desirable challenge for Briggs and Beavers and so many others — it’s also the lack of choices, whereas the apps are full of tailored programming.
“There is something powerful for people, I believe, in having your likes and dislikes taken away from you for a while,” Briggs said. “I sometimes describe the physical Zen center as a preference-free zone. In fact, we don’t even practice according to my preferences because I’m just teaching the way we teach at the Kwan Um school of Zen, which I didn’t create. So it truly has a preference-free zone.”
The apps, in comparison, offer tons of different options. For instance, with Headspace, you can choose guided meditations specific for relieving stress or focusing at work or going to sleep; BetterMe has meditations based on how long you want to spend on the app, from three minutes to 30; MyLife Meditation: Mindfulness has personalized mindfulness activities. But in a specific Buddhist practice, you don’t get all those options: You have to practice the way the teacher tells you to for the few hours a week you do so. At home, you can do whatever you want. But being in a situation in which your opinions don’t matter can be “quite refreshing,” Briggs said.
“The metaphor I use is it’s like, you’re thirsty and you need water. You can drill a lot of shallow wells and maybe you’ll get lucky and hit some surface water. And if you’re really lucky, the water will be portable. Or you can drill one well really, really deep, and eventually you’ll hit pure clear water. Of course you’ll have to go through lots of layers of rock and clay and mud and whatever, it’ll just be really unpleasant for a lot of the time, but eventually, you’ll hit water,” Briggs said.
It’s not that he thinks his technique is superior to others, or the style you might see on an app, but it’s the consistency, longevity and endurance of the practice that matters. And continuing to find the “best techniques” is a feature of “our consumer mind, shopping for the right practice, the right technique, the right teacher,” Briggs said. “And if we throw all that away and just do it for the rest of our lives, it’s no problem. We’ll really get something from that.”
Another reason Briggs thinks so many Buddhists are dedicated to in-person practices, which have now translated to Zoom, is because of the accountability and help offered through a Sangha, the sanskrit word for community, something you might not immediately find on an app.
“Meditation practice, whether we want to or not, causes us to confront our mind habits… And so people resist that.”
“Meditation practice, whether we want to or not, causes us to confront our mind habits,” Briggs said. “They’re mostly unseen, but through meditation practice, they begin to be revealed and that’s not much fun. And so people resist that.”
Ultimately, Briggs said, many people find it difficult to develop a practice on their own. “Even with apps — and there are a number of really wonderful apps available today — and all the online support that’s available, most people need to practice with the group and most people need some contact with a teacher in order for their practice to really flourish and be a benefit to themselves. So a lot of what I focus on now is helping people develop their practice or sustain their practice using the Zoom and Skype and whatever else is needed.”
Some meditation apps, like Tap in or Headspace, offer live group meditations, but while you can see how many others have joined alongside you, they’re represented by anonymous digits and the classes offer only one-way audio from the guide’s end. You’re also often told to close your eyes during the group sessions on apps, unlike zazen meditation which is usually done with your eyes open, staring softly down or at a wall.
Most meditation apps also don’t offer the same kind of teacher-student relationship that you’ll get in a Sangha, wherein you’ll learn from the same teacher for years, sometimes decades. And that relationship can fundamentally change the way you interact with yourself and the way you practice meditation.
“Regardless of the techniques that people use and, if they practice in a tradition, regardless of the tradition in which they practice, ultimately they begin to see aspects of themselves that are usually unseen and are not very pleasant,” Briggs said. “Because we all have that in us and, and people back off when they do that. So we have teachers and we have centers to help support people in that work, which is both terrifying and also fragile.”
Now, looking into the future, many practices are going to have a hybrid model of Zoom and being physically together once the pandemic has subsided.
“I’ve heard our teachers say that we are going to incorporate this somehow somewhere,” Beavers said. “So there’s going to be some sort of online aspect, whether it’s every time we sit, or there will be online sits or whatnot. I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s here to stay.”
“It’s a way to bring people together in a way that we haven’t before,” Beavers said. “It’s definitely going to stay.”
Kisch is already on the other side of the camera, in a way. She’s living in the Zen Mountain Monastery with other people who have quarantined ahead of time. Since the pandemic, they’ve started a livestream of the center for anyone to watch online. And she says it isn’t nearly as distracting as you might think.
“It doesn’t really feel intrusive,” she said. “There’s a small camera at the back of the Zendo and we are aware that it’s there. For example, at the end of the night, when we are doing our final bows, we bow to the altar and then we turn and bow to the camera before we bow to each other and end the night. But for the most part, it doesn’t really impose any kind of sense of self-consciousness. I think it feels, especially at this point, just part of the scene.”
“It’s a way to bring people together in a way that we haven’t before,” Beavers said. “It’s definitely going to stay.”