Despatches from The Hill




An experience of going through coronavirus
I had originally been due to be away on retreat for most of March.  It was cancelled as the first wave of international cancellations began.  It was fortuitous, however, I found out, that I had been preparing for a significant retreat for many months.  Because now we were indeed plunged into retreat, not just a small group of people in a carefully planned retreat centre with an atmosphere of peace around, but pretty much one third of the whole world in the situation of gradually, but inexorably, being directed to retreat into the heart of our immediate lives, and told to stay there.  And this amongst a fearful and confusing situation being variously reported and analysed by many different experts.  An unprecedented and unparalleled set of circumstances: either a recipe for disaster, or a time of enormous potential for stopping, taking stock and reappraising our lives.

It has led many of us to come into contact with the core values of humanity, as kindness and care for all our fellow people on this earth and in our communities.  A great generosity of spirit has come out in all corners of society, in our health workers and in everyday interactions.  But the nature of humanity is that we also face our basic anger, greed and ignorance and if we don’t take care their patterns will overwhelm the crucible we now find ourselves in.  Which is why I felt the necessary approach was to see it all as retreat and to bring our practice to where we find ourselves now as strongly as ever we could.

It was interesting for me to notice, though, how our ‘retreat’ changed when we really felt the presence of Coronavirus amongst us.  Before that, I felt happy and lucky to have health, a nice home to be in and time to dedicate to practice.  Every aspect of our entertainment and distraction out in the wider world was being shut down, bringing us all to dwell more fully on the simple pricelessnesses of life: the unfolding daffodils and spring’s green shimmering.  I knew where all the birds were nesting and observed the daily unfolding of the chestnut tree leaves.

But then one weekend my husband started coming down with something after work. He is an ‘urgent care’ out-of-hours GP doctor in Oxfordshire, treating seriously unwell patients at home and in nursing homes.  He’d been using all the facemasks and hand gel and distancing protocol, he’d washed his hands till they were raw, but it seems he still managed to contract the virus through treating patients with Covid symptoms.  I think you know when you’re under attack from a virus at close quarters – I started slathering the whole kitchen, door knobs and kettle handles and even the milk in the fridge, with sanitising gel.  I tried to separate us in the house and distance from each other.  But it only lasted a few hours because you cannot live like this.  Fearing hugging your own husband.  By the evening I just looked at him and thought, we’re going to get it.  And we sat down and had dinner together as usual and the next day I started with the symptoms.

As it happens, I experienced mild symptoms, as have our two daughters.  At first, I thought I had a migraine and my daughter thought she had hay fever.  Taken singly, I would not normally have thought anything more about each of our illnesses than I would about some bug or other we get and throw off after feeling a bit rubbish for a day or a few.  It was because we all came down very quickly, within a day or even hours, of each other, with very similar, and some slightly strange, symptoms (like a ‘smoky’ feeling in the throat or a gravely feeling in the chest).

All I know is that fighting this virus in my body, finally, after all the hype and fear and panic circulating around the world, felt like a relief.  I didn’t even know initially what I was fighting, whether I had ‘coronavirus’ or a migraine or whatever else, but just giving in and ‘being ill’ and letting the body get on with doing what it knows how to do, coming into contact with this true and immediate reality was a kind of salvation.  Before we give anything a name or a diagnosis, the body is there dealing with it.  In the end, this is our first, and our last, defence.  It is our embodied reality.  It felt real and like I could deal with it, in a way we cannot deal with unrelenting fear or limitless ideas.  But we can deal with whatever is ultimately real, through experiencing it.  And it was reassuring to watch over my children, if they have to have it, rather than fear them having it some time when I am not there to care for them.

So, the journey of being ‘safe at home away from Coronavirus’ to ‘in danger in our very home, with it being brought right into our midst’ to ‘fighting it in the cells of the body’ to ‘cleansing it out’ has actually felt like a tremendous release, in our case, and has brought a freedom.  Now, people – and surfaces – all look safe again to me.  I don’t need to circle round anyone I meet out walking in the woods – Well, I do, for their peace of mind and because it is currently the law; but I don’t feel afraid of being near someone or like I will henceforth have to banish myself away from people in order not to bring a threat to them.  I feel safe again.

I think it’s really important to realise this point will come, we will all be able to be close again once more.  This virus will move on.  It is the nature of things.  This does not diminish the loss in any death from this virus or otherwise, but it gives us a ground to stand on, to be able to face it all.  We have had models of diseases before, with high predictions of deaths, for Bird Flu and BSE and SARS and Swine Flu, none of which were borne out in the real world to the extent of the predictions.  Viruses have their lifespan too, and life meets these viruses in ways that maybe cannot be predicted on mathematical models.  Perhaps this is the place of prayer or intention or how we can influence things by how we act.  Nature has her own checks and balances, not least the fact that as viruses mutate, they often become less severe.

At some stages in this journey I have also been filled with an intense tornado of fear, quite unmanageable and literally ‘petrifying’ (specifically thinking of my husband having to see patients with this ‘terrible’ disease).  In fact, for a while, I noticed I was subtly (and not-so-subtly) angry – frustrated, irritable and a bit all over the place.  Until one day, through practice and meditation and basically just coming into the body and accepting where I was really at for once, I woke up in enormous fear.  And I realised I wasn’t really, underneath it all, angry, half so much as I was afraid.  Of course I was, you only have to watch the news for 20 minutes and you must be afraid (or not listening).  This ‘real’ fear only lasted an hour or two and then was gone, but it had been bubbling under there this whole time.

And so I have relearned the value of coming into the body: of feeling the earth, of widening my awareness so I feel grounded and whole and broad and connected; so that nature is holding the whole of me and I cannot be afraid, I cannot be anywhere other than okay in myself, just breathing and resting on the earth.  The practice of ‘shammatha,’ calm abiding, saves us, even in this moment, even when nothing else has changed.  And then, I think, to have this enormous care and concern for our wide society, and especially the vulnerable, which is the good side of what is being brought out everywhere; then it is so much easier to bear and probably more help too.

We are all learning that we need to give ourselves space and time to stop inwardly and rest and calm (turning off all the news and information stream from that connection was important for me).   Whatever we are dealing with, there is no better way to prepare to face it than to look after ourselves and cultivate good health.

Meditation-wise, I found it invaluable to spend time taking awareness step by step through the body, easing out the mind and tensions found along the way, (actually I always find spending time on this helpful).  Visualising refreshing and cleansing white light permeating through to all the parts of the body can potentise this and I found it calming and healing.  I think it’s important we bring our usual practices to this situation and not feel they are separate from it.

Lastly, the great value of nature as a healer and holder of anxiety.  So many people have been commenting on this in their lives I think, whether it is the woods or countryside or just a flowering tree in a nearby garden.  Even a nature programme on TV, I have found, can bring a relief like diving into a deep clear pool of refreshingly cool water, nourishing us.  We can all feel the deep restorative power of nature and yes, it does fire up in me a desperate urge to protect whatever of it we can.

And, for whatever reason we may have been plunged into ‘retreat’ at home, truly stopping and reflecting on life can only be a good thing.  And so, my next question, was how to use this time well, this very unusual opportunity it brings us all.

[  Note: Perhaps I need to qualify my approach to turn off the news etc, by mentioning that the other half of our family-isolation here includes a pretty full-on effort on the part of my husband and his research team, collecting and interpreting evidence to understand Coronavirus, Covid 19 and the current health, social and NHS implications.  It is his job as Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, now located in a hut outside our back door, buzzing with phone calls and interviews from morning till night.  Every family conversation includes mention of the latest updates and how they should be understood.  I am not suggesting turning away from the suffering in any way, but taking care to understand things in context.  There are many aspects of what is unfolding we need to stop and analyse more clearly before we really know what is going on.   See:]

Retreat in Spring – The Wood Element
However, we have come by this situation, it is in our hands to make as best we can of it.  The more consciousness and light and clarity we can bring out now, as always, and maybe particularly now, the better.

I am trained as an acupuncturist, and in particular a Five Element acupuncturist.  This form of acupuncture takes as its model of health and well being, the theory of the Five Elements – five phases of emery that make up nature’s archetypal and fundamental ebbs and flows, that create and underlie all of life.  So I turned to this theory for inspiration at this time.

An acupuncturist is interested in diagnosing and facilitating the balance of the five elements in a person, through the phases of their life and the challenges they may encounter.  Thus any symptoms that arise are treated at their very foundation, through encouraging the balance and healthy interplay of all five elements in a person.

These elements also make up nature that is all around us, in just the same way; nature that we are made from and nature we are held by.  One way we can get in touch with the different strength and expression of each of these elements is by observing the flow of nature through the year, each season embodying a fundamental ‘flavour’ or expression (at least in temperate climates with several seasons).  So, wintertime expresses particularly nature coming back to her essence, the quiet hibernation that replenishes us and puts us back in touch with our deepest resources and essential nature.

           Bluebell Woods

Once this phase is completed, the next phase naturally arises out of it, the beginning of the expression of that fundamental hidden nature out into the world: springtime and the ‘Wood Element.’  This will lead us on toward the blossoming of full maturation in summer, the nourishment of harvest in late summer and through to the natural letting go of autumn, so that we would once again return full cycle to the essence in wintertime. Or at least, these ebbs and flows give us a chance to follow these natural cycles (although we do tend to over-ride them a bit, us silly old human beings, don’t we?)

The ancient Taoists taught as a great fundamental of their approach to life that, if we can live in harmony with nature, and these flows of the elements of nature, we experience health and well being, the elements naturally balancing within us.  And of course, the cycles described by the elements don’t just happen over a year; they are happening for all of us in myriad ways all the time.  They happen over a lifetime, over a day, in relationship with others, over the course of a project or endeavour, anything that has a natural organic lifespan.  So this is a way of looking at our lives and consciously bringing out the best, the harmony, the wholeness, inherent in life’s potential.

So I put my thinking cap on, at the beginning of this strange time we find ourselves in, to see what the theory suggests would be good things to include in a way of life, or retreat, at this time of year.  The Wood element is all about going forward in life: direction and planning, creative expression, guided by an over-reaching vision for our life.  As winter turns to spring it is a natural time for us to go forward and start being more active in the world again.  So, all the more challenging that it is just at this moment we have all needed to turn back and go within, into our homes.

But that need not stifle the natural Wood movement.  We just have to be a little more conscious and creative at finding ways to express this healthfulness.  What nourishes and supports the Wood in us all is things like:

  • Structure, a daily plan or direction, as in the way a trellis gives a climbing plant a structure to grow through
  • Regularity / rhythm, of meals and sleep and so forth
  • Exercise and movement, whether its outside in nature or stretching / yoga at home
  • Artistic / creative expression
  • Direction / Intention, we can still contemplate these and consider them, even at such a time of openness and uncertainty. They may be even more important for us to shine light on at such a time.

So it may be that devising a lifestyle in our new way of life involving these will help.

[  Theoretical note: The Five Elements as I talk about them here are as they are taught in acupuncture theory and practice in the west in current times, taken primarily from ancient Taoist classical texts, but informed also by Japanese approaches, and brought through the ages in this way.  Seeing the world in terms of Five Elements is a basic philosophy common to Eastern philosophies in general and has an important expression also in Tibetan Buddhism.  I find the two systems totally compatible and, in some ways, fully informing of each other, but they are given slightly differently.  The Chinese / Taoist system talks of Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal (corresponding to winter through to autumn, as given above).  The Tibetan Buddhist teachings talk of Water, Air, Fire, Earth and Space.

Sometimes the Taoist system is drawn with Earth in the centre of the other 4, as a pivot, and I think the teaching is somewhat more like the elements are presented as grounded in the medium of Earth.  Sometimes the Tibetan or Buddhist system talks of the ‘Four Elements in Space’ (Space as the fifth element), i.e. they are presented more as grounded in Space as their medium.  To my mind, they are different ways of looking at the same thing, but entirely compatible.  However, I should make clear, the Tibetan Buddhist theory of Five Elements does not map them onto the seasons.  They are given as the feminine consorts or counterparts of the male Buddhas which are the heads of the Five Buddha Families.

It would no doubt all be the same in the end (experientially), I think, but I find the way the elements are talked about in acupuncture theory more accessible to share with people, for us to use as a day-to-day understanding of the elements and how they shape our health and lives.  Whereas, it seems to me, the Tibetan Buddhist five elements, especially as the consort Buddhas of the Five Buddha Families, is a very subtle and refined theory and requires quite a lot of prior understanding before we can even start to grasp its reality as a description and expression of life.

See, for example, ‘Everyday Consciousness and Primordial Awareness’ by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche for a definitive description of the Five Buddha Families and the corresponding Five expressions of Primordial Wisdom which manifest as the Five Elements and constitute thereby worldly appearances.]

Looking ahead, Transition and Integration
Although no one is really in the space of working out how we are going to go forward from this strange world we find ourselves in now, a friend commented to me how it would likely be ‘like a cork popping out of a bottle.’  I thought, ‘No!’ and realised this stage to come will be important too.

How we integrate what this time brings us and how we move forward, whenever the time comes, I think we should be aware of this, contemplate it while we can and take care how we come out of this place, so we bring our hard-won treasures with us.  I think it is just about staying aware, taking care, going gently but being present and open to what is always arriving.

These were just some thoughts I had at this time.  Apologies for any mistakes and well-wishing to all.


Mary Heneghan
Mary Heneghan is an acupuncturist, writing here from atop a hill on the edge of Oxford city where she lives with her family, a city she continues to love since coming here as a student 30 years ago.  She teaches meditation and kum nye yoga and has two daughters who are at university and just finishing school (or would be if they weren’t at home painting, applying facemasks and heading out to stack shelves at supermarkets).  She has followed Ringu Tulku’s teachings as a heart practice for many years and is one of the Directors of Bodhicharya Publications.


Oxford lies as if under a spell,
deserted and quiet, with only sunshine to fill the streets.


        These photos taken at midday on a Thursday on my daily walk …
        It feels as if a princess somewhere has pricked her finger on a spindle,
       and all the world has fallen into a deep, deep sleep…

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), a Chilean poet, wrote this poem in the 1950’s:

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve

And we will all keep still.


For once on the face of the earth

Let’s not speak in any language.

Let’s stop for one second

And not move our arms so much.


It would be an exotic moment

Without rush, without engines,

We would all be together

In a sudden strangeness.


Fishermen in the cold sea

Would not harm whales

And the man gathering salt

Would look at his hurt hands.


Those who prepare green wars,

Wars with gas, wars with fire,

Victories with no survivors,

Would put on clean clothes

And walk about with their brothers

In the shade, doing nothing.


What I want should not be confused

With total inactivity.

Life is what it’s about;

I want no truck with death.


If we were not so single minded

About keeping our lives moving,

And for once could do nothing,

Perhaps a huge silence

Might interrupt this sadness

Of never understanding ourselves

And of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us,

As when everything seems dead

And later proves to be alive.


Now I’ll count up to twelve

And you keep quiet and I will go.


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