Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.
Hopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.
Cells in the same body of life
We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.
To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others, we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.
Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.
Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.
We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.
When we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.
It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”
There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.
Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.
Equalizing self and others
Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The different cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.
The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.
Here is the key contemplation from The New Meditation Handbook:
Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.
“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.
We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.
The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.
What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.
Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.
Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)
What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.
I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.
As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):
We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.
She talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.
The masks reveal who we really are
How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:
We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:
The mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.
With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.
We have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?
Helping others makes us feel better
Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.
Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:
The childish work only for themselves,
Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.
Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:
“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:
“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”
One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”
At a loss as to what to do practically to help?
Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.
And even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.
To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.
We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.
We see all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.
This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.
Last but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.
Here is a short meditation to conclude:
We can do some breathing meditation to get into our heart.
We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere.
We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)
We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.
We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.
We are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.
If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.
Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!