To Survive, We Needed Quarantine. To Thrive, We Need Sanctuary | Opinion

Two months into the pandemic, Americans' mental health is fraying, both for those quarantining at home and for workers on the front lines. Support systems have moved largely online as psychologists, social workers, places of worship, retreat centers, and meditation groups reinvent themselves. Finding ways to offer their services virtually, they tapped into a big, unmet demand. People naturally miss their communities and want to reconnect somehow, but there's also something deeper going on.

Many are discovering an opportunity to find sanctuary in quarantine, to turn the sense of isolation into an awareness of interdependence, and managing anxiety with a sense of resilience and presence. Online meditation tools can help people in lockdown cultivate calm and inner peace, and help frontline workers deal with daily exposure to trauma and stress.

There is an emerging term for the phenomenon: virtual sanctuary. "Sanctuary" is a complex concept with a long and layered history, related to "asylum" from the Greek asylos, or "no violence." An ancient asylum seeker might have crouched beneath a statue of Athena to claim sanctuary. Later, as Christian churches became recognized as sacred spaces, people in danger took physical refuge inside them. Hospitals are connected to this tradition, and so is asylum status for refugees, though these are getting disrupted. Churches that offer sanctuary to immigrants in the US have a rocky relationship with ICE. Hospitals in the pandemic may no longer seem like places of refuge. But many wisdom traditions including Christianity speak of an inner, non-physical sanctuary found within ourselves.

With outer sanctuaries less accessible, there's evidence of a growing hunger for inner sanctuary. When the Garrison Institute began offering virtual sanctuary programs like online mindfulness meditation sessions and interactive webinars with contemplative teachers, it expected 100 participants. Thousands signed up.

In one of them, "Transforming Pandemic Panic into Receptive Presence and Growth," psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes how contemplative practices help us process loss and trauma, build resilience, and cultivate a sense of openness and presence to the realities of challenging times (they can also improve brain, cardiovascular and immune function, lower stress and inflammation, and even slow aging).

"This critical moment in our human family of being all together like this is actually an opportunity to cultivate our resilience," Siegel said. "Rather than a trauma that leads to PTSD and unresolved grief over a world you wish you still had," he spoke of "turning this big moment of collective shift, this big planetary pause," into one when we "realize the truth of our deep interconnectivity."

So while sanctuary is something we can find within, through contemplation or reflection, it doesn't isolate us. On the contrary, it reveals our "interconnectivity," making online practice aids all the more apt.

This is true not only for those stuck in quarantine at home. It's especially important for those working on the front lines of the pandemic, such as health care workers, social workers, and humanitarian aid workers. No one needs sanctuary, interconnectivity and resilience more than they do.

Working long hours on heavy caseloads, often under stressful or dangerous conditions, they are constantly exposed to the traumas of those they serve, putting them at risk for chronic stress, loneliness, depression, burnout, vicarious traumatization and PTSD. The problem was widespread and urgent before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has compounded it.

In the pandemic, social workers are coping with spiking domestic violence as well as more death, loss, anger and fear. Healthcare workers deal with all of that plus daily exposure to the virus, and the stress of planning for the care of their children or their partner if they get the virus (or even if they don't.) The International Rescue Committee anticipates that many humanitarian relief workers, who work in environments where social distancing is impossible, will get it. In already vulnerable and conflict-ridden countries, they face the twin prospect of not only a massive public health crisis, but also a massive humanitarian crisis from the political and economic fallout.

These are heavy burdens, but empirical research shows that contemplative practices can help. Contemplative-based resilience (CBR) programs combine psycho-social education with secular mediation and movement practices, teaching frontline workers to recognize their own symptoms of vicarious trauma, shift their response to stressors, practice self-care, and stay connected to each other and support networks via online tools. This can mean the difference between succumbing to burnout vs. continuing to provide their life-saving services. As COVID-19 redoubles the need, new online resources are becoming available for them, like flexible virtual CBR courses for social services providers, and free online videos with contemplative teachers specifically designed for front-line workers.

The pandemic is a time of trauma and loss, but it can also be a time of resilience and growth. Taking the opportunity to seek and share inner sanctuary may do more than just help us cope; it can help us serve others and prepare us for a different, more resilient, interconnected future. It could cultivate, in the words of one participant in virtual sanctuary programs, "the empathy [and] compassion....we need to smash through our biases and assumptions [and] rebuild our communities."

Jonathan Wiesner is CEO of the Garrison Institute and chairman emeritus of the International Rescue Committee.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​