Hello everyone, I hope you’re all doing okay and not going too crazy.
I could start anywhere, so I am going to start by saying “Well done!” for getting this far, if you have. I think that a lot of you, maybe all of you, are dealing with this really well considering. I am noticing that our concern for others is at least occasionally kicking in to override the fears we have for ourselves.
Of course, there are some ludicrous manifestations of our fear and self-obsession, such as the Great COVID-19 Toilet Paper Stockpile of 2020 – but overall I think it’s impressive how quickly people have accepted our interdependence and mutual obligations now that these are staring us in the face. Politics and bickering partisanship are not sucking up all the oxygen, for a nice change. I read this earlier somewhere:
It’s sort of funny how at times the neighbors, including myself, get into petty squabbles about irrelevant topics. They certainly seem irrelevant now. But we so easily and smoothly become comrades! People are essentially GOOD! Just give them a chance to prove it.
Of course this may get old and people may get mean, but right now a lot of Buddha nature is shining.
Literally ordered to stay at home!
I was allowed to drive out just now, despite Mayor Hancock’s brand new Stay at Home Order, because the kittens I am fostering need medication. (They, at least, seem contentedly oblivious to all of this.) Passing a nightclub called “Let’s Get Weird (this is Denver after all), instead of the OPEN sign this is what I saw:
Nope indeed. The world is closed for business.
Thanks to said mayoral order forcing everyone to give up their “non-essential” jobs and stay inside (which, by the way, hardly raised an eyebrow – yet only a few weeks ago would have caused a riot), I also saw long queues of millennials lining up to stockpile the last of the marijuana before all non-medicinal dispensaries are shuttered for the foreseeable.* Toilet paper is one thing, but running out of pot?! Poor under-25s, I can’t help thinking — all those Springtime hormones and nowhere to party. No, it is not as bad as being sent to war, obviously; but at that age it is still no fun to be stuck at home alone, or stuck at home with one’s parents! Not much fun for the parents either.
Let’s Get Weird
This is a very strange time for the two-legged people of Planet Earth. I already know samsara is crazy, but still I wake up and think, “Huh?!?!!? That wasn’t a dream?!!” (Of course, it kind of is a dream — that’s Buddha’s key point). Or you might be having conversations like this one, a snippet of an earlier text with a friend:
“It feels like a strange movie. It’s like none of this can be real.” “There’s no movie that could do justice to this.” “I know, I would switch it off because it would seem so far fetched.”
It is hard to think of anyone who is not affected by this surreal invisible enemy called COVID-19 — a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code. (By the way, I just had to add COVID to my spellcheck dictionary, which — like us only a few short weeks ago — hails from a more innocent age). Perhaps this pandemic isn’t making much difference to those who are already in such dire straits that today is just another crazy day – like people in Syria or Yemen or the 70 million displaced around the world. It also doesn’t make much difference I suppose to a lot of our animal friends – the millions of chickens, for example, who are still being kept in horrifying conditions and slaughtered en masse so that we can comfort ourselves with chewing their wings.
On the plus side, some people may be having a better time than usual right now due to different karma ripening, such as the dogs and cats who have their whole family stuck at home to entertain them, or the person I know who had happily and voluntarily entered a solitary meditation retreat just before any of this started.
But in general this social distancing is ironically bringing us humans closer because we are sensing that we are all in it together – our common enemy is clearly the virus, not each other. We understand a little better what other people are going through because we are going through it ourselves, not just at some point, but right now, at the same time.
Even for those of us who have it the best because we can work from home – that is, we actually have a home and a job that can be done at home or, to be honest, any job at all – these times are no doubt challenging. Most people are feeling at least occasionally insecure and panicky (especially if they’re binge-watching the news), not knowing where this is headed, scared of getting sick and not being able to breathe and dying. A lot of people are feeling isolated and restless and bored, and very worried about their finances and future.
COVID-19 got a bit more real for me yesterday when I was asked to pray for the husband of an old friend in England, who had just been rushed to hospital with lack of oxygen related to COVID-19. He is now getting better, I am happy to say, enough to send a message, ““Improving slowly. Breathing is much better with less shortage of breath. Oxygen levels higher now. Probably another day maybe two still in hospital. Very boring. Keep clear of this bastard illness. X”
Another text came in at the same time from a friend in Croatia, telling me about the badly-timed earthquake in Zagreb — people huddled in the streets, not able to shelter in place as their places were shelters no longer, more like death traps.
If this virus is teaching us anything, it is that far from being isolated separated-out individuals, we are all parts of a whole – and therein we have some obligation to each other because everyone matters. No man is an island. The sanest place to start dealing with this crisis is with this heart of understanding for all these other living beings, including those millions of people whom we know for sure are considerably worse off.
It seems that wherever we look right now there are people in trouble. Practically where possible, and always in our hearts, it makes all the sense in the world right now to take care of our neighbors, family, friends, vulnerable members of our society, people on the frontlines, animals, everyone. And we can take care of our mind through applying the teachings, meditating, and praying so that we can be as strong, fearless, and peaceful as possible.
Let’s actually pray the virus doesn’t hit the refugee camps, for example, where washing your hands even once a day is a struggle. It is clearly concerning that we have such a huge homeless population who have nowhere to shelter in place except the “petri dishes” of understaffed and oversubscribed homeless shelters, as one of them put it. I dread the moment the first case hits the South African townships – as one South African put it, it is a privilege and luxury to be able to social distance.
And never was there a better time to share what resources we have with non-profits helping human beings and animals, responding in whatever way we can to those emails requesting help – because many of them risk closing down and leaving millions of vulnerable beings in very serious trouble. If you do have room in your home, now is not a bad time to consider helping out the overcrowded animal shelters by fostering some dogs or cats.
We are all in this together, cells of the same body of life. Obsessing about ourself will help no one and only drive us crazy. Love and concern for everyone else will help others and keep us sane — Buddha called love “the Great Protector”.
Four noble truths
I’ve been thinking about which Buddhist teachings might be most helpful for weathering this storm, and have concluded that EVERYTHING he said is tailor-made for dealing with a time like this.
In his very first teaching called the “four noble truths”, Buddha explained the first truth as “the truth of suffering” or “true sufferings”. He was referring to the endless and relentless suffering that comes from still hanging onto these impure minds and bodies, mistakenly thinking that they are “Me”. COVID-19 is the latest wave of the wave upon wave of suffering that inevitably arises from this ocean of self-grasping ignorance.
Some of the sufferings Buddha explained as samsara’s ongoing nature strike a stronger chord at the moment, now that we are feeling a little less sure of ourselves in the collapse of our normal narratives; but those sufferings have always been there, lurking beneath the surface of our distractions, complacency, and routines. These include but are not limited to being stuck in meaty bodies subject to sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth, dissatisfaction, loneliness, no real control or certainty, and constantly unpeaceful minds. We already have a very weird disease, for example – it is called ageing.
The second noble truth is “true origins,” meaning that this suffering has causes that are far deeper than we normally think about, namely self-grasping ignorance, other delusions, and the contaminated karma they spawn.
The third noble truth, “true cessations”, shows that it is in fact possible to have a suffering-free life that comes from a permanent cessation of ignorance and delusions.
The fourth noble truth, “true paths”, is where Buddha explained the practical path to that cessation, 84,000 teachings that bring peace and free the mind.
Point is, Buddha’s whole intention has always been to help free everyone from difficulties and suffering, not just temporarily but permanently. He pointed all this suffering out, but he also came up with ways for us to deal with and ultimately transcend it. And these methods have been tried and tested and proved successful for at least 2500 years. Now is the time to use them.
Even CNN is encouraging people to take up a meditation practice:
So, you’re stuck at home. You’re stressed. Now is as good a time as ever to pick up a meditation practice. Scientific findings from an 18-year analysis on a Buddhist monk found that daily intensive meditation may significantly slow brain aging. There is a slew of other health benefits to the mindfulness and quiet peace that often accompanies meditation. And if you feel weird about getting zen with so much happening in the world, remember that even the World Health Organization warned people this week to take care of their mental health as well as their physical health.
Where the rubber hits the road
Buddha brought suffering to our attention so that we could — and would — do something about it. Moreover, Buddhism in general and Kadampa Buddhism in particular is known for helping us practically to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path by applying the teachings to whatever is coming up for us, not just in the abstract. Dealing with problems is where the rubber hits the road in Buddhism. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:
By training our mind to recognize the spiritual lessons in all our experiences, we can come to view everyone and everything as our Spiritual Teachers, and we can turn any and every situation to our advantage.
Using these circumstances to deepen our inner peace, insight, and compassion means we could end up in a better place than we started, mentally speaking. From that point of view, although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, this pandemic does give us a lot of opportunity if we decide to apply everything we have learned already or, alternatively, get interested in getting started.
Talking of which, before I go any further, I want to point out to those of you who don’t know that Kadampa Centers around the world are now streaming meditation classes to everyone in their local catchment area. This Buddhist TV is a wonderful addition – nay, antidote! – to all the other online channels you might have been binge-watching! There is great stuff going on all over the place that you can tune into. Click here if you want to know where you can find your local center, and then you can find their Facebook page or website and go from there.
“While you just stayed in your room”
The first port of call in weathering this storm is to learn how to calm down a bit and feel more peaceful and happy in our hearts. But who knows how far this burgeoning meditation habit might take us! If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be confined to your sofa (as opposed to heroically risking your own health to save the rest of us on the frontlines), now is the time to find out.
There is a whole world inside us, an extraordinary blissful inner landscape that remains largely unexplored because we are usually so busy wandering around in the outside world. Now is our chance to go within and, from there, re-emerge with very different experiences, in a dramatically improved world. Then we can help others do the same. This song came on Spotify while I was out driving for those kitty meds, most appropriate for these times I thought:
I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
The whole of the moon.
Resources for meditating at home
Someone suggested on Facebook that it would be a great idea if I listed all the resources we have for reading and meditating at home.
I agree. And so I ask you in the comments to please list all the resources you have been finding helpful, as well as links to them where appropriate. I can then add them to the next article.
As well as the live-streaming mentioned above, for now, if you want to start reading a free Buddhist meditation eBook, click here.
If you want some tips and tricks to get you going in meditation, click here.
I will be back soon. I have a bunch of ideas up my sleeve that are relevant to COVID-19, and now seemingly endless weeks in which to explore them.
In fact, the next article is now out, here.
Meanwhile, here are some ideas for what you can do stuck at home …
(Or you could just learn to meditate … 🙂 )
(*That part of the mayoral order was rescinded before it even got started – all marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores will remain open for business. Other shops, not so much.)