HDS Class Offers Example of How to Build Community Online

May 20, 2020
Jane Tuohy
Jane Tuohy / Courtesy photo

The following essay was written by Jane Tuohy, senior partner at Cambridge Hill Partners, Inc. Jane audited the HDS course, "Compassionate Care of the Dying: Buddhist Training and Techniques," co-taught by Cheryl Giles and Chris Berlin, in spring 2020.

Xianfeng is joining our Zoom class from her temple in Quincy, Mass., where tiny Buddhas form an intricate design in seemingly endless semicircles behind her.

Andrew’s Cambridge apartment looks somewhat stark. He shares that his roommates both have COVID-19 and he expects that he and his girlfriend will become infected soon. Professor Berlin pauses the class check-in long enough to make sure Andrew has someone who will be bringing them food and supplies. A classmate who lives nearby volunteers.

Allison Rosen has lost her job and returned with her wife to her parents’ home in North Carolina.  

Allison Bolles is alone in her apartment in Cambridge. She wonders aloud about coming back next year if classes are online and she would be spending so much time by herself in her apartment.

ChewLin seems remarkably energetic and awake as she smiles in at us from Singapore where the local time is 1 am.

Shane, after six years at HDS will not have the experience of completion that graduation brings.

How did my classmates experience the moving of HDS classes online? How did Professors Chris Berlin and Cheryl Giles turn our class, “Compassionate Care of the Dying: Buddhist Training and Techniques,” into a true refuge, sustaining the engagement and connection of their students with one another and with them through the worst of the acute pandemic disruptions?

Xiangfeng Shi shared her experience of seeking shelter in her temple and having to balance expectations of picking up monastery responsibilities and still keeping up her studies, despite disorientation, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Xiangfeng Shi
Xiangfeng Shi / Courtesy photo

“I moved into the temple during the spring break, just as everything was being closed up physically. While this was my gesture of taking refuge, I found it quite challenging balancing multi-tasks. There was living in a temple with the monastic schedules and tasks, while trying to keep up with the schoolwork. On top of that, sad news with the pandemic just poured in. It was for sure a lot of weight coming all at the same time, and it challenged how I shifted among sources of the weight. With limited time and diluted productivity, where do I set the boundary between performing in the community and holding my student identity? How far should I push myself, and how much self-care do I deserve? It was very, very hard to be clear and certain about anything, and that was depressing.

“However, being in class itself was a way to relieve that stress. In this particular class, we have a check-in session where I could just spit out my burdens. By virtue of spelling them out and having people bear witness was helpful. Moreover, it turned out that I was not alone! I was not the only person who have trouble focusing outside of campus. I was not the only one who struggle with boundary between duties. And I was certainly not the only one who was feeling disoriented. Doing the check-in session was such a great relief and affirmation for me! Meanwhile, I was able to hear what others are going through.”

Prior to the online transition of classes, Professors Giles and Berlin had taught us to use Council Practice, a practice of deep listening and speaking spontaneously from the heart. The quality of sharing that had been supported by the use of Council Practice had contributed to building very strong bonds of trust among students prior to the transition.

Professor Berlin almost always started class with meditation, which certainly contributed to a relaxed environment and the sense of the class being a respite from the very busy days of HDS students. Tea and snacks also added to the sense of class being a hospital and relaxing environment. 

How important will it be in the fall that faculty have the commitment and skills to generate and sustain student engagement and motivation? ChewLin Kay, MDiv candidate, speculated about the emotional state that might characterize HDS campus this coming fall.

ChewLin Kay
ChewLin Kay / Photo courtesy

“I suspect that the emotions might be less spikey come fall and be more in the disappointment camp, which might need a different response. It's an interesting question to consider—the idea that classrooms also meet a social need is something that is perhaps not immediately obvious, so what is the story that needs to be told (and how)? Because for some people it will feel especially ‘more, extra work’ to plan for, since they had in their minds signed up mostly to teach. It's perhaps less ‘more’ work than it is something implicit that has been made obvious and now needs more intention.”

After the disruption of in-person classes were canceled, I experienced the bonds of connection and sense of community actually strengthen in the class.

Professors Giles and Berlin did not abandon the planned curriculum, but rather, made the well-being of each one of us their top priority, taking however much time was needed to really listen to each of us and fully understand our circumstances. They demonstrated through their actions what it means to extend compassionate care, to drop everything and attend with full attention and compassion to whatever is arising in the present moment.

I was auditing this class as a non-traditional (older) student. In March, I was troubled by how some of our class texts now seemed unrelated to the global pandemic and the horror I was watching unfolding on the nightly news. New Yorkers were dying in unprecedented numbers, hospitals overwhelmed, patients on cots in parking lots that had been hastily made into COVID-19 shelters. Those patients were alone, surrounded by healthcare workers in full protective gear.

I asked Professors Berlin and Giles to help us understand how Buddhist teachings could help us understanding the meaning of suffering of this magnitude. My classmates came from many different religious traditions, and I sensed many of them were also struggling to find in the teachings of their religious traditions principles or beliefs that would help us understand this global tragedy and this level of suffering.

Professors Berlin and Giles demonstrated through their teaching what it means to bear witness in troubled times, to accompany those who are suffering without trying to fix, and to accept the pain we were witnessing and experiencing. They directed our attention back to our shared aspiration as students of Buddhist chaplaincy: to aspire to reduce suffering.

For my classmates who experienced the trauma of losing their jobs, many having suddenly to move, leave behind their friends and faculty with no sense of if or when they would return, no opportunity for an in-person graduation ceremony, and great uncertainty about the future, the community continuity we experienced became a real refuge.

In the fall, students who do return will undoubtedly being spending more time online in their apartments, alone or with a roommate or partner. Issues of isolation and anxiety will still be there.

Faculty who wish to contribute to their students’ wellbeing by building and sustaining community can and do make a tremendous difference. Professors Giles and Berlin demonstrate that it is possible to build community online. This tremendous impact supports and sustains their students’ community through turbulent and troubled times.

—by Jane Tuohy