There isn’t likely anyone out there who needs a reminder of how difficult the year 2020 was for humankind. The COVID-19 pandemic brought suffering on a global scale, causing mass illness and death while wreaking havoc on our economic systems and putting tens of millions of people at risk of falling into extreme poverty.
We may be in a new year, but we’re still dealing with the same hardships and loss, the same challenges, as we were before the ball dropped over a mostly empty Times Square on New Year’s Eve. With 2021 upon us, we want to take the moment to reset and consider what each of us can do to heal in the year to come.
To learn more about how to think about this moment, and cope with the difficulty it poses, we spoke with Rabbi Ken Hahn of the Baystate Health Spiritual Services department.
What does it mean to be a part of a community in this moment?
One thing that’s become evident during this pandemic is something that healers of all kinds have always known: human beings are interconnected. Our actions affect one another whether or not we’re aware. Because our safety, health, and well-being are so impacted by those around us, being part of a community means acknowledging the needs and desires of other people in addition to our own.
“You gain a lot from being part of a community,” says Hahn, including safety, love, well-being, and the capability of doing more than we can do on our own. Hahn says that we can look at our head, heart, and hands as a reflection of how interconnection works. We have the head for thinking and judging, the heart for love and courage, and the hands for taking action. “All of these things work best when they are working together.”
Mask-wearing is another illustration of our responsibility to our fellow humans. “It’s about protecting the other person,” says Hahn, “and mask-wearing works best when the action is mutual.” Of course, the community’s needs can sometimes seem at odds to individual preferences – and that can cause conflict.
When faced with conflict, Hahn suggests appealing to compassion rather than lashing out. Compassion is also an approach recommended by behavioral economists, who study “problems that arise when humans choose not to do things that are in their own best interests” (more on this from NPR).
In the hospital, we see this collective effort clearly every day. Hahn points out that every team member has a critical role to play. “All of the people, from supply chain to facilities and environmental services to nurses – all take on a massive effort to ensure people get the care they need.” In order for the systems to work, and for us to provide the best care possible, everyone needs to recognize that if one part fails, we all fail.
How can we all serve as “healers” in small ways?
In simple terms, the answer is this: we can all serve as healers by seeking opportunities to be present. Most people aren’t involved in physically healing others as nurses and doctors are. And yet, every day, we encounter situations where we affect other people (whether we are aware or not) and our actions always have the power to hurt or to help.
One practice the Spiritual Services team offers to medical staff is the “Blessing of Hands.” In the optional blessing, a chaplain places their hands over the caregiver’s hands. They do not necessarily touch hands (especially during COVID-19), but rather “transmit energy” to the receiver (caregiver).
The Priestly Blessing, a Hebrew prayer, is one common version of hand blessing in which the Kohanim (Hebrew priest) raises their hands with fingers separated so as to make five spaces between them, with palms facing outward (like this). If that hand gesture looks familiar, it’s because it is: Leonard Nimoy famously devised the Vulcan “salute” on the original Star Trek TV series after the Priestly Blessing.
“When it’s offered, it’s about blessing the hands of people who do holy work. We all can do holy work at any time in any moment, regardless of our job,” Hahn explains.
As Hahn sees it, “holy work” is not defined by a specific religious practice, but rather by the work or practice that resonates to you. Hahn says we all have a role in healing, no matter what our occupation may be.
“The point of a blessing, in a certain sense, is to stop for a moment and get reflective and very conscious of something – to bring an aspect of the sacred into the commonplace.”
The act of stopping for a moment out of your day, and focusing on something that brings you calm or makes you feel centered, is one step toward healing yourself in small ways so that you can offer compassion to others.
How can we learn to be more compassionate?
2020 was an especially trying year, but struggle and grief are always part of being human. Cultivating a daily practice to stay present within yourself can help prepare you to be more compassionate to others.
“When we talk about grieving, what we’re trying to do is create a physical space or sanctuary within us,” says Hahn. “We want to cultivate a sense of peace in our internal existence.”
The next step is to practice compassion toward others. But acting in mutually beneficial ways does not always come naturally. Compassion is a skill that takes work. Here at Baystate Health for example, the Compassionate Connections program offers workshops for team members to learn how to create caring connections with patients and their families.
There are many resources out there for learning to be compassionate to ourselves and others and for learning to understand others better through empathy. To get started learning about compassion and empathy (which can be helpful to anyone!), see the “Six Habits of Highly Compassionate People,” published by the University of California Berkley’s magazine Greater Good: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life.
Greater Good also offers this empathy quiz to help us learn how empathetic we are (meaning how much we are able to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling). Research shows that empathy is connected with personal well-being, among other benefits.
What are some rituals or practices people might try to reduce stress and feel more at peace?
Whether we are caring for a sick patient, working on a computer, or taking out a bag of trash, we’re doing important work. “We do sacred things all the time, and we forget that what we’re doing is really a sacred act,” says Hahn. “Your hands are always doing important work, no matter what your work is.”
Here are some opportunities for bringing your attention to the present:
1. Make Handwashing a Ritual
Collectively, we have never focused so much on washing our hands as we have this year. Hahn points out that handwashing is actually an important ritual – a way of purifying before going on to do something else. You can use the recommended 15-20 seconds of washing your hands to slow down and focus on the present.
“I could disinfect my hands 100 times during a shift,” says Hahn. “A lot of hospital chaplains will do a centering practice while handwashing, especially before going in to see patients. I would suggest that this is a great thing for anyone to do because it’s just about a 20-second clearing process to get yourself present, calm, and available.”
2. Focus on Your Breath
Breathing has long been known to help with relaxation and healing. Deep breathing slows your heartbeat and can lower blood pressure. “Your breath is your best friend. It’s the one thing that will be with you until the moment you die, says Hahn” It makes sense, then, that deep breathing is a good activity to incorporate into a mindful daily practice.
Of course, our ability to breath is notoriously at stake because of COVID-19. Interestingly, deep breathing can help increase lung capacity and aid in the COVID-19 recovery process.
3. Find a Practice that’s Meaningful to You
Everyone has a different preference or tradition—some people go to church, some people practice yoga, some go for a walk in the woods. “You can do something for 20 seconds and that can be a spiritual practice. When you bring your conscious awareness into the present by focusing on anything that centers you, that is a spiritual practice.”
Here are some short rituals to get you started:
- Read a stanza of a poem.
- Get up and stretch every half hour and take a few deep breaths.
- Recite the Buddhist Metta (lovingkindness) prayer (May I be safe, may I be happy).
- Follow a morning ritual or gratitude practice when you first wake up, on your way home from work, or before you go to sleep.
- Recite a familiar prayer or words of comfort as prayer “All will be well, God be with me”(Psalm 23).
We're Always Here for Help and Health
One blessing that Rabbi Hahn says informed his regular practice is called Mitakuye Oyasin, and it comes from the Native American Lakota tradition. The phrase means “All my relations,” and can also be translated to mean “We are always here for help and health.” Hahn speaks this phrase in moments of pause, like when he is washing his hands in between patients.
While there are many different ways to begin to heal over the year ahead, awareness of our interconnectedness—and compassion for one another—seems like a perfect way to start.
Learn more about Spiritual Services at Baystate Health. We are always here to support everyone in their spiritual health and well-being.