One year ago today my 73-year old mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack while travelling in Mexico. Five days later my 93-year old father died as his vital organs failed. Tragedies in my life continued throughout 2019 as I witnessed my extended family members wage war against one another, my father’s business collapse, one of my siblings agonise from mental illness, several friends and relatives flee wildfires, young friends diagnosed with cancer, my children get hurt from sports injuries and bullies, and intoxicated arsonists mindlessly burn down six barns in my neighbourhood. And now COVID-19 welcomes us into a new decade.
As governments, businesses, and medical professionals try to figure out how to respond to the current health crisis, one thing becomes increasingly obvious to me as a meditator: uncertainty. Even though I am healthy right now—which could change at any moment—I am still faced with troubling questions: Will I get infected? Will I lose my job? How do I protect my family amidst the widespread panic? When will this end? Why is this happening to me?
As I grapple with these thoughts and feel the sensations of panic and anxiety arise in my chest and face, I come back to the awareness of my breath and remind myself that these moments, like all moments, are anicca. And the answer to all these me-centred questions becomes clear: it has nothing to do with me!
The Buddha taught us that illness, aging, and death are all perfectly normal and inescapable human events. In saying this I am not ignoring these troublesome questions or running away from my problems, but I do know that an imbalanced mind won’t help me make intelligent or wise decisions. Most people’s emotional response to the Coronavirus outbreak is that “this should not be happening.” At the surface level of reality, they might be right; but at a deeper level, things have always been this way. The suffering caused by sickness, old age and disease is nothing new. Dukkha is an enduring and continual part of being alive—it is unavoidable.
In moments of clarity, when I reflect upon the Buddha’s teaching on the universal nature of suffering, my own psychological distress about the pandemic lessens. Believing that things should not be as they are is merely an unnecessary assumption that causes me additional and unnecessary pain on top of the inevitable dukkha that is intrinsic to being human. We can’t escape the manifestations of dukkha, but, with graceful non-reactivity, we can certainly learn to cope.
Somebody once asked the courageous Mahatma Gandhi if he ever felt scared. Gandhi replied, “All the time.” Fear is a natural and healthy nervous system response to the very real threat of violence, sickness, and death. At the same time, fear can paralyze us, cause us to feel powerless, confused, and desperate. I feel most anxious and scared about the Coronavirus when I’ve exceeded my daily limit of virus conversations or news feeds, lay awake at night, or stress-shop at Costco. The more time I spend on the cushion, reading Dhamma books, going for brisk walks, and actively trying to remain in sampajāñña throughout the day, the more grounded and secure I feel (and not because I have extra bags of lentils and rice!).
I live with my wife and two children in a rural area where the virus is less likely to strike—for now—if I maintain Health Canada’s suggested practice of social distancing. As a meditator who enjoys the tranquility of the forest, I feel fortunate to live in a place that my son jokingly calls un trou perdu, or a lost hole. Nevertheless, I still need to make trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, and post office. When I return home, I try to be vigilant about washing my hands and not touching my face. While the former has never been an issue for me (although I now wash my hands with greater attention and thoroughness), I have become increasingly aware how touching my face is a deep-seated, unconscious habit (even as I pause to read this sentence, I catch myself touching my lips as I caress my beard). I now increase my effort and determination to notice my hand-related saṇkhāras as my fingers constantly touch things, scratch an itch, pick at something, or massage a sore muscle. I now use the movements and sensations I experience in my hands as a point of awareness that tells me something about my unconscious state of mind, and to bring those unconscious actions into the realm of consciousness. So right now, as I feel an itch on my left eyebrow, I do not immediately scratch it, but observe the sensation and understand its characteristic of anicca. Experiencing the itch fully, and noticing my aversion to the unpleasant, yet impermanent sensations, is not only an opportunity to cultivate wisdom, but also a moment to protect myself in the era of COVID-19, and perhaps deadlier future viruses.
This heightened awareness of what I do with my hands to prevent the spread of the virus is not only an act of self-care, but it’s also an act of caring for my community. The better I protect myself; the better I protect others. The more I understand this, mettā and karuna become increasingly significant to my life practice. In addition to maintaining my daily Vipassana practice, remaining in contact with loved ones has been crucial for resiliency. For instance, rather than allowing the arsonists’ recent destruction in my neighbourhood to make me fearful, suspicious and numb, these tragic events facilitated stronger community bonds, especially with my immediate neighbours. Since last December’s calamity, we started having meals together, listening to each other’s stories, helping each other, and sharing tools. The disaster, it seems, helped reassure our human connection. Similarly, the current Coronavirus trauma is fostering loving connections and compassion among many of my immediate friends, who by a stroke of good karma are meditators. We run errands for returning travellers in mandatory quarantine, the elderly, or those with small children. Transforming my own fear and anxiety into positive spiritual emotions helps me strengthen my equanimity, enabling me to be more courageous and discerning about sensationalist media, and irrational and self-centred behaviour. In other words, cultivating mettā and karuna backed by the force of Vipassana results in less suffering for everyone. Ultimately, I recognize that I am not different from others and that, just as I long to be happy and receive mettā and karuna, so does everyone else.
Although I have been practising Dhamma for more than two decades, it is only within last year that I have truly seen how it has prepared me for the vicissitudes of life. I do my best to stay grounded by keeping my daily meditation practice, exercising, eating healthy food, limiting my daily input of news, and reaching out to loved ones. Simple living in times like these contributes not just to my individual well-being, but to the well-being of everyone with whom I am in contact. As someone who, during the current pandemic, is blessed to have a life infused with Dhamma, practising awareness, equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion—on and off the cushion—is not just a privilege, but a responsibility.
May All Beings Be Happy, Peaceful, and Liberated!
This essay was originally posted in the March 2020 Pariyatti Newsletter.