How my volunteer experience helps me during the pandemic

On March 2nd, Laguna Honda Hospital, where Zen Caregiving Project volunteers have served for over 30 years, announced volunteers would not be permitted on campus indefinitely due to COVID-19. In my third year as a volunteer, that meant I would not gather with my shift mates at 9 AM the following morning for meditation and check-in prior to my regular Wednesday morning volunteer shift on the palliative care ward. Soon afterward, our family’s school district announced that Friday, March 13, would be the last day of school for our three kids meaning we had to manage two weeks of improvised homeschool before the originally-scheduled Spring Break. 

First and foremost I am grateful for our safety and health. In addition to this feeling of gratitude each day since then, I have awoken acutely aware that I and my family members are grappling with how to handle the uncertainty we are facing at so many levels. Will any of us get sick? Will any of our family members get sick? Will we be okay financially? When will this end? Will there be a vaccine? Why aren’t our leaders doing more to protect healthcare workers? If everything is canceled, what are we supposed to do?

For my family, our busyness in our “normal” lives had given us a false sense of control and purpose. Our lives had been filled with non-stop “doing” and whether we liked it or not, we were now being pushed, kicking and screaming, to exist in the present – to simply be in the absence of all of our normal things to do. And it has been really difficult.

One of the precepts that guides our practice as volunteer caregivers is to “cultivate don’t know mind.” The idea is that most of us in our daily lives are strongly identified with our rational thinking minds and that our efforts to impose control and certainty limit the possibilities of what a moment may hold. As Frank Ostaseski, Zen Caregiving Project Co-founder says, “don’t know mind is one characterized by hope, curiosity, and wonder. It is receptive, ready to meet whatever shows up as it is.” 

So in practice, this means that when we enter the rooms of the residents at Laguna Honda Hospital, many of whom are suffering from chronic and terminal illnesses, we leave our ideas and judgments at the door. Being open to what comes when we sit with residents at the bedside means meeting them with an open heart. Letting our rational mind guide us narrows our vision and limits the possibilities of what we will consider. When we meet residents with “don’t know mind,” we can be an open-hearted witness to their experience, whether it is one of joy or suffering. 

While I have had this idea of myself being gradually immersed into a practice of mindfulness over the past three years, the last four months have felt more like a dunking; if there has ever been a time to focus on the present and practice “don’t know mind,” this has to be it. I am practicing letting go of judgment and opening my heart to the possibilities that could emerge. It’s become more clear than ever that the present moment demands our attention, and it is a subversion of our creativity and potential to use our precious human energy to regret the past or worry about the future.

So now as my family and I continue to wake every morning with more questions than answers, I draw upon my training and experiences at Laguna Honda Hospital to be more comfortable saying “I don’t know” when I’m asked when soccer practice will start again, when we can visit Grandma and Grandpa and our friends, and when Coronavirus will be under control. I feel moments, even briefly, of lightness and relief when I am able to experience the freedom of opening my heart to the possibilities. 

When our volunteer community gathers on Zoom to share how each of us is bringing our practice to bear on the current situation, I feel immense gratitude for the wisdom and compassion of our shared community. And being able to bring the openness of don’t know mind to this present moment of conflict, suffering, and overwhelming loss that we are witnessing is how I remain grounded to find hope as I face what the next moment will bring. I don’t know what it will be, but as I’m continuing to learn, despite all of my planning and our always-full calendar, I never did, as none of us ever do.

A Line of Disappearances: Grief and Helplessness During Shelter in Place

By Alistair Shanks

We are living in a time of disappearances. For the most part, we have been stripped of our distractions, our busyness, our schedules, and plans as we shelter in place. We are being forced to reorder our activities, our needs, our lives.

We are in a state of continual waiting,  a perpetual state of uncertainty. Like a dream, we are at the mercy of an alien, inimical force, invisible and unpredictable. The world has come to a standstill. Construction sites are silent, cranes still, businesses dark, the streets empty.

We are grieving the loss of normalcy, a sense of safety and order; everything has been upended. Nothing is normal. Leaving home feels risky, a trip to the grocery store dangerous. People have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods. People are dying alone in isolated units surrounded not by family and loved ones but by medical teams clad in protective gear.

While also grieving the loss of a sense of connection to others — friends, families, our broader social networks, work colleagues — new opportunities arise to connect in different ways, to offer small kindnesses. There are the friendly smiles and knowing nods as I pass masked people on the street, the greetings of strangers who would normally go by unnoticed. A woman offers a bottle of hand sanitizer to a homeless man outside a Safeway. Many people recognize that we are in this together, that we are all struggling to adjust to this new normal.

Our separation has only made more obvious our dependence on one another, our interconnection. We breathe the same air, share the same sidewalks and streets, depend on invisible supply chains to provide our food, our medications, our consumer goods. We are interdependent in every way, a fact that is easily lost in the daily tumult of overbooked lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, the cycles of life go on unperturbed. It is still spring and trees and flowers continue to bloom, only to disappear in their own time. The days become longer. In the absence of human activity, nature offers signs of reasserting itself: wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, mountain goats taking over a town in Wales, whales in Mediterranean shipping lanes, baby turtles in Brazil surviving in higher numbers due to deserted beaches.

And there is the fear, the vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, for once unable to distance ourselves from the world’s tragedies. It is no longer just an image of suffering on our TV screen. It is here and we are not in control, our lives moving in an arc out to the horizon, a line of disappearances. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I often point out to our volunteers that a lot of what we do as we sit with those suffering near the end of life is to also sit with our own sense of helplessness. We are simply witnesses to the pain and struggles of our fellow human beings. Our volunteers learn to be with discomfort, with uncertainty, helplessness, the unknown. In many cases, it is all we can do and it is no small thing. I have seen the impact of a single steady, mindful presence transform a room.

What can we do with our helplessness? In this time of upheaval, we have been shorn of our assumptions, our certainties. In our helplessness the only sane, rational response, as ever, is love. Maybe our task is, as the poet David Whyte writes, “To love and to witness love in the face of possible loss, and to find the mystery of love’s promise in the shadow of that loss.”

We all need self-care in times like this. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers are trained to practice self-compassion, to acknowledge doubts and difficulties, and hold them with tenderness and care. As Jack Kornfield has said, “In this moment we can sit quietly, take a deep breath, and acknowledge our fear and apprehension, our uncertainty and helplessness…and hold all these feelings with a compassionate heart.”

We can embrace our interdependence. We can turn to the person next to us and ask, “What is your experience? What is it like for you? How are you doing?”

And listen.
Listen deeply.

Webinar on Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers

This is a recording of our Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers presented on April 8, 2020 by Roy Remer.

In this free, online session for professional caregivers, Roy shares mindfulness-based tools to reduce stress and increase resilience and discusses ways to easily integrate these approaches into daily life.

The live online session was offered to support professional caregivers while they support so many others.


Online Resources During Shelter in Place

We’ve curated a list of resources to help you keep busy and maintain your peace of mind while the shelter in place order stands. Below are helpful links related to music, mindfulness, education, exercise, art, and nature. If you have resources to add, feel free to add them under our social media post for these resources.


Livestream from the Metropolitan Opera – Free livestream of Met Operas

Livestream classical music concerts – List of concerts


Headspace App – Mindfulness Meditation app

Self-retreat – Resources from Spirit rock teachers

San Francisco Zen Center – Access San Francisco Zen Center Online Learning wherever you are, anytime.

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review – A series of live-stream meditations to help ease anxiety amid our social-distancing efforts.

Marin Sangha – Marin Sangha is a mindfulness meditation group in Marin County that puts special emphasis on living the dharma in daily life. All Sunday meetings start at 6:00pm PST.

Insight Timer – Many free meditations, can connect to others meditating at same time for sense of community online


Online courses – Free online courses from Ivy League schools: business, social science, programming, Art & Design, Math


Peloton – Yoga, strength training, at-home workouts free for 90 days

Yoga with Adrienne – Yoga for all levels + meditation, always free

Eckhart Yoga – A range of different yoga classes (some paid for but lots free)


Art museum virtual tours – Best on a laptop or computer, 12 tours of some of the world’s most famous art museums

More museum tours! – Virtually tour world-class museums from home

Eastern European Movies with English Subtitles – Free streaming foreign films

Nederlands Dance Theater – Free streaming contemporary ballet


Georgia Aquarium – Webcams at the Georgia Aquarium

Gardens Around the World – Virtually tour famous gardens around the world from home


Mo Willems “Lunch Doodles” – Children’s author teaches drawing on YouTube

Caregiver Resources

Caring Across Generations – Sessions sharing mindfulness-based tools and approaches to help you manage stress and anxiety and build your emotional resilience and self-care.

UCSF School of Medicine – Coping with Dementia Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic webinar series

Zen Caregiving Project – Four sessions sharing mindfulness-based techniques that you can integrate into daily life, to help reduce distress and increase self-care.

Family Caregiver Alliance – Family caregiver webinars are for family members, partners, and friends caring for a loved one living with a chronic or disabling health condition.

Let’s ReImagine – Each Daily Dose of Togetherness includes a reflection from a guest speaker and a chance to connect in small groups with your digital neighbors from around the world.