Meditating with a mask on

I settle into my cushion, my mind jumping to the 4 days of the retreat stretching ahead of me. I’m filled with the warm, familiar feeling of being back at this beautiful retreat center, surrounded by other meditators who have also taken time out of their regular lives to focus on their practice.

But something is different. We’re all wearing masks.

As if focusing on the breath for 14 hours a day wasn’t enough, now we get to literally smell it, right in our faces.

In the opening talks, the teachers and organizers go over the usual housekeeping. No water bottles in the meditation hall. Communication is to take place via notes on the corkboard only. Teachers leave the hall first. Don’t enter the hall if you’re more than 5 minutes late for a session. Make sure your mask is covering your nose at all times.

As if we needed another reminder of how much the world has changed since we last sat a retreat.

Some people are visibly disgruntled, adjusting the masks constantly. Trying to work out the best airflow situation. Others roll their eyes. They might have been clenching their jaws or frowning too, come to think about it, but all I could see was their eyes.

As if not talking wasn’t enough, now most of our faces are covered.

And sure, grumping about it was an option. But I came to practice, so I figured – this can be a practice too. I guess really this is how I’ve looked at wearing a mask, social distancing, vaccination – the whole bit – over the past year and a bit.

First and foremost, it’s a practice of metta (Pali for lovingkindness). Of wishing well for both ourselves and the people around us. Though everyone on the retreat needed to show proof of vaccination to join, nothing is 100%. I don’t know if the person sitting next to me has an immunocompromised child at home, or an elderly parent they care for. What their personal risk situation is. So yes, maybe me wearing a mask is protecting me as well, but if there’s a chance it’s protecting the people sitting around me, it’s a small price to pay.

That’s the moral, intellectual level, but when translated into practice it can be so powerful. The energy of caring for others. Of being a force for good in the world. Of being part of easing suffering. Really this is what it’s all about, the beginning and end of the practice.

So any time the elastic around my ears got a bit annoying, or the warmth of my own breath on my face distracted me, I brought my focus to this intention instead. Of wellbeing for the people around me.

On a more personal level, I found I was able to integrate the mask into the ritual of wrapping myself up for practice. Just as I draw inspiration from sitting on the same cushion, which I inherited from a dear friend, from getting my body into the right position, wrapping myself in a shawl. Using the physical as a reminder to slip into the spiritual. Like a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), or a Muslim prayer mat. Putting on the mask as I entered the hall became a reminder for me that it was time to go inside. To disconnect from the social and material world and connect to the eternal.

And then after each one-hour session that felt like a million years, the bell would ring, we’d file out of the meditation hall, and the masks would come off. And here was another blessing, another opportunity for mindfulness. The feeling of the air on my face, of release. Freedom.

There are silver linings everywhere. Even in corona masks. It’s just up to us to find them.

[Note] I would have loved to have a photo of the meditation hall filled with yogis in masks, but alas – my phone was off and stored away. So this Buddha statue will have to do instead.

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