We are all feeling the pressure bearing down on us due to the war in Europe. A Vipassana talk on any other topic might seem as if we were ignoring the elephant in the room. Because of its relevancy, the presentation below is a revision of my 2017 lecture “Meditating in Troubled Times”.
In the spring of 2017, my wife Susan and I flew to Europe to give a workshop on non-sectarianism at Dhamma Pajjota, the Vipassana meditation center in Belgium. The workshop was intended to be an opportunity for the European Vipassana teaching community to think about, gain definitions for, and discuss the idea of non-sectarianism and its importance to our meditation tradition. Because we would be nearby, a group of Vipassana old students centered in and around Cologne asked me to give an old student talk. Cologne is centrally located, and could be accessible to potential participants from Holland, Belgium, Germany and even further afield.
At that time, I felt unsure what an old student talk in Cologne should focus on. The city is an ancient trading center for Europe, located on the Rhine River that used to serve as a major commercial highway. Cologne has survived more than a thousand years of European warfare. For many centuries it functioned as a semi-autonomous state, its own little nation that required alliances and defense. It was assimilated into Germany only in modern times. Its citizens suffered severely during World War II because the Jewish population was exterminated, and the remaining populace was bombed.
At the same time, my old student talks had tended to focus on simple common important features of meditation, like how to maintain a twice daily practice, how to make meditation feel attractive and eagerly anticipated, and how to avoid negativities that might inadvertently become attached to it, like feelings of guilt or inadequacy.
Unsure of what to say, I sat down with a group of a dozen or so old students who had arrived early, and I asked them what would be helpful for me to talk about. They were unanimous in expressing their distress, which they felt with the intensity of recurring post-traumatic stress, because at the same time my talk would be given to a room full of meditators, the city was being swelled by an influx of right-wing activists, who were by in large part of a very different world view than Vipassana practitioners. The meditation students expressed ill ease and dismay at what they experienced to be a surge of angry, potentially violent attitudes that were sweeping the world in response to the American 2016 presidential election, and that they felt were awakening sleeping demons in Germany. The attitude of the Vipassana students was: “We know what our parents went through, and we know how bad it can get.”
It was in order to respond to their fears that I gave the talk “Meditating in Troubled Times,” spontaneously and without notes. I later gave variations on this talk at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Yale University. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world in the late winter of 2020, the Cologne talk seemed like the most important thing I could contribute to help my fellow Vipassana meditators, but it was slightly outdated and focused on the wrong trouble, and so I rewrote and reissued the talk with the concept of “troubled times” primarily addressing the pandemic. It may well have retained its relevancy during the summer of 2020 when one more set of troubled times arose during the worldwide outcry for social justice and police accountability. It may have rang true again while global news was filled with accounts of massive fires in Australia and the American West, creeping drought on numerous continents, melting of glaciers and ice caps around the world implying rising sea levels that will eventually flood major sites of human habitation, including some of the world’s biggest low lying cities, Mumbai, Calcutta, Karachi, and Miami, displacing tens of millions of people who will migrate into areas where other climatically challenged people will resent them.
When I was requested to give a talk to old students this year, 2022, I prepared a new essay about problems that some students encounter when they meditate. But as I made my preparations to deliver the talk, bombs began to fall in Europe, and I felt I might sound as if I were looking away from a scene of violence, as if I were denying it. I once again felt obliged to refocus on the topic of meditating in troubled times, and the troubles this time were warfare against civilians, the forceful elimination of independent states by larger ones, huge spontaneous migrations of helpless, hungry, cold women and children, and overt references of nuclear war. I could hardly address a different topic, and so “Still Meditating in Troubled Times” reveals in practice what I had previously described in theory: this problem is a semi-permanent, fluctuating, and recurrent visitor to the human condition.
Helplessness: Many people, possibly a majority of the approximately seven billion people on the globe have been captured by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness as we read or watch the news. These reactions are different than the feelings stirred by the virus pandemic, when most people could feel some small degree of control by taking preemptive health measures like masking, social distancing, etc. Today, however, the mention of nuclear weapons has cancelled any hope for a lifesaving intervention in a situation in which a citizen population is being assaulted by aerial warfare. Without any possibility of halting the bombing, without being able to expect any reasonable impact from a mass protest, we are all forced to observe news reporting about incomprehensible, gratuitous, destruction.
We find ourselves aware of a capricious truncation of good lives, like ours. The motivation for this attack is not obvious, since it doesn’t either enrich or empower the attackers, and therefore leaves us with the impression that it is the product of psychologically primitive motivations like madness. We can’t escape the feeling that now, or in the future, one psychotically, vengeful leader will have unstoppable power to destroy the world, and any attempt to counterattack will actually contribute towards his nihilistic goals. The sense of danger is augmented by the fact that the nation that is being victimized had already voluntarily gotten rid of its stockpile of post- Soviet nuclear weapons, so that the lesson implied by this scenario going forward is that nations should maximize nuclear capability in the future, an agenda that reverses more than half a century of hope for humanity to go in a more benign direction. Even if this violence ends fairly quickly, its long term impact will be instigation for belligerent ground wars backed up by nuclear ultimatums.
Practical Advice: Many people may face different global traumas in their own personal way. Vipassana meditation was not designed to dictate how people should respond to cluster bombs raining down from the sky. Some people may possess energy, skills, or capacities that allow them to intervene into the turmoil of the world with efficacy, and there is nothing in the meditative mindset that should preclude effective and strategic action. But, just as we do not meditate for health, nor make health care claims for Vipassana, although sometimes good health is in fact a byproduct of meditation, in the same way we may well have hopes, aspirations, and goals about how our meditation might effect a crisis impacting millions of people, but we should be realistic. The claim that meditation will create social and political peace is a cherished dream but not a fact.
Vipassana does direct its practitioners towards certain values and practices. Most meditators have ordinary powers that are quickly overwhelmed by massive historical events. I will try to steer my comments towards practical advice that will help meditators who are struggling with their practice, or that will help meditators who are already doing well, or even thriving under these arduous conditions of political instability, pandemic disruptions, or overt war.
I am going to describe a series of items drawn from Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N Goenka that might help meditators preserve, enhance, and express their Dhamma volition while they are meditating yet again in troubled times.
Sensations and Equanimity: The first and last thing that always defines our Vipassana practice is the equanimous awareness of the sensations of our body, as they manifest the single most important reality of the universe, which is constant change. This is the context of the big picture of the universe in which our temporary lives float. Keeping this in focus was described by the Buddha as the critical element in salvation from suffering, and it is based upon a fully acceptable modern scientific understanding of the way that physics, chemistry, and biology define scientific reality.
Meditating with the awareness of impermanence can help people live their best, through troubled times.If we are facing dangers or even death, that is more, not less reason to pursue our dip into realization of impermanence. At the same time, the focus upon impermanence of body sensations may be difficult or impossible for some people to maintain when an individual meditator’s mind is beset by fear, desperation, or anguish. Therefore, without altering our central meditative focus, in troubled times we can wisely buttress it with other features from our broadly based, rich tradition of Dhamma practice.
Right Understanding: Our first step can be right understanding that re-emphasizes the reason why equanimous focus on body sensations is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. Our right understanding, whether we derive it from meditation, Buddhist texts, or physics courses at universities, is the recognition that the entire universe is a dynamic, self-transforming system. Our bodies, like everything else in the universe, are not fixed entities and never rest for a moment from the processes of fluidity and transformation.
Our bodies will change incessantly until they cease to exist, and there is nothing we can do to stop this. This same non-sectarian law of nature, this Dhamma, is taught in Vipassana centers and in medical schools. Just realizing change, however, is not enough and Vipassana adds its central attitude: equanimity. Equanimity is the method by which we observe and the goal of our observation. We are practicing a new habit, we are etching into our nervous system a new gestalt, we are inculcating systematic repetition of awareness of changing sensations with equanimity.
Evolved for Wellbeing: Another comforting realization to place into our right understanding as we meditate in troubled times is that in spite of the dread or anxiety we may feel, our bodies are also adapted to experience relaxation, comfort, and peace. We are all born with a set of physiological mechanisms that were selected as adaptive through the long course of evolution in order for us to optimize our feeling of well being. We survive better when we can feel well. For example, our parasympathetic nervous system can be activated into self-regenerating relaxation. Another physiological system, the hypothalamus in our brain, facilitates sleep, which maximally diminishes anxiety, yet we remain alive and breathing. Another physiological set of peaceful states can be triggered in our body through the activation of chemical signals that are already present in our nervous system. These beneficent neurotransmitters have familiar names that have entered popular culture, like serotonin, oxytocin, or endocannabinoids.
When these chemicals are stimulated by feelings like loving kindness, they create a positive cycle and fill us with a chemical flood of love and peace from within. We are born with bodies that have the potential to be vessels of gladness for ourselves and for those around us, and the heart of Vipassana meditation is to let go of the negative reactivity that suppresses this natural capacity. When we cultivate equanimity through Vipassana practice, we are employing a biological capacity to live a more peaceful, calm, and harmonious life.
Relearning Equanimity: We can also comfort our troubled minds by reminding ourselves that Vipassana has an even deeper layer. As we meditate, we may occasionally, sometimes intermittently, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes more consistently contact inner peace and let go of inner agitation. But as this process is practiced across a lifetime, it reorganizes the nervous system. The pathways of peace are practiced and amplified while the synapses carrying suffering are given less importance. Meditation gradually alters the minds and bodies of meditators. It can often transform maladaptive past learning. Establishing peace in the present moment, repeatedly and systematically, can undo at least some of the painful past. For each of us, to a greater or lesser extent, Vipassana lets inner peace grow by re-learning and re-integrating equanimity in the body, nervous system, and mind.
Fear: In the same way that our nervous system has inbuilt mechanisms for inner peace that we can learn to activate through meditation, it is also true that our nervous systems have evolved to scan the environment, absorb new information, evaluate danger, and feel adaptive fright that leads to survival-dictated flight. In times of danger we quickly become survivalists, animals built to protect ourselves by fleeing, fighting, emotions that drive us far beyond the reach of inner peace. Many of us today feel we are facing uniquely disorganizing and threatening circumstances, and this overwhelming fear may make us feel that it is very difficult to meditate now. The enormous learning curve that we go through when we take our first ten day course of Vipassana, and even many subsequent courses, does not necessarily resolve all the problems that a meditation practitioner may face under the recurring assault of political threats, epidemics, and wars. We should be careful not to condemn fellow meditators who are caught in difficult positions, and who may be too overwhelmed and upset to meditate.
This Second of Time: The importance of right thought is indicated by some beautiful passages in the writing of the famous historian, Will Durant, who lived through World War I, the great economic depression, World War II, the Cold War and who wrote until his ninety-fifth year. He left these comments about a life spent studying history,
“History is a laboratory rich in one hundred thousand experiments about the road by which we came…One who knows this record is protected in a large measure against the delusions and disillusionments of his times…He knows the limitation of human nature and he bears with equanimity the fault of his neighbors and the imperfections of states…He shares hopefully in the reforming emphasis of his age and people, but his heart does not break nor his faith in life fade out when he perceives how modest are the results, and how persistently humans remain what they have always been…The present is the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time.”
Historical Exceptionalism: During recent decades we have had relatively safe and prosperous conditions throughout much of North America, Europe, and many countries in Asia, but even in this era, the majority of human beings have not had the kind of situation that facilitates a life of meditation. Our relatively good times have led to an intellectual distortion in the minds of many participants within these privileged economies, including many meditators, that our state of affairs is the new normal. Historical exceptionalism refers to the idea that our times are unique, a series of days or months or years that do not fit with the ebbs and flows of human history. The fantasy that this belief has generated is that we have attained exemption from the laws of nature. This feeling is hard for us to shake.
Intensely engaging the present, after all, is one of the hallmarks of the meditator’s mind. It is natural that as people who cultivate awareness of the moment, we feel uniqueness of every day. But I want to dispel the misperception of historical exceptionalism. No matter how compelling, or gripping, this feeling is a delusion created by our overvalued self. In fact, historical exceptionalism is a form of the egotism that Vipassana is designed to overcome. Before we entered into the Buddha’s way of life, we had a tendency to exaggerate the importance of everything that happened to us. Each one of us usually feels that we are the center of the universe and that whatever happens to us is about the biggest thing that has ever happened. It’s only a few hundred years since the vast majority of humanity believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. We always feel we are the center of the action. Self important individuals extend this feeling to their group, so that religions, sects, and nations, frequently indulge in self referential importance, as if their tribe is going to define a new era. In recent generations, in the lucky corners of the globe, this feeling of being exceptionally important and exempted from the laws of suffering and its relief has led billions of people to imagine that it is a given for them to expect a long life in the pursuit of happiness.
Skillful Transit: I am going to make one point with an extended reference to historical information: troubled times, and hard times, have not been eliminated. They have recurred continuously throughout history, and there is no reason to believe that they will not recur now or in the future. By listening to my brief recounting of the difficulties that all of our families faced in previous generations, we can come back down to reality, which is that every person needs the ability to deal with and survive hard times. We are not exceptional. Our historical moment has been relatively benign, but that is guaranteed to change according to the laws of the universe. Meditation is not best understood as a way to avoid the enormity of circumstances, but as a way to skillfully transit through them.
Pandemics: In service of the effort I am making to dispel our shared fantasy drift to believe our own historical exceptionalism, let’s take one last look at the Covid 19 virus.
The most exceptional thing we are living through now is the relatively constructive, relatively proactive, relatively uniform health-oriented response to the virus that has been applied in many countries and societies via vaccines, masks, distancing, and other public health strategies. The thing that is not unique is that we are facing the death of millions of people from infectious diseases within a short period of time. Pandemics of different sizes occur every year and have shaped human history.
Coronavirus seems to spread more easily, and more stealthily (that is to say, with many asymptomatic carriers) and is more fatal than the flu. But we face an influenza pandemic every year. In typical years influenza kills between 300,000 and 600,000 people worldwide. A rough calculation led me to the stunning conclusion that since I was born, (long after the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918) about twenty five million people have died from influenza. In comparison, the coronavirus pandemic has killed an estimated six million people in approximately two years, and has been responsible for excess deaths (cases where the virus contributed to death in people with preexisting conditions) as high as eighteen million. On the other hand, there are sometimes complicated effects to large scale events, and restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus have also reduced morbidity and mortality from other illnesses such as flu, or dengue fever, which declined by many hundreds of thousands of deaths during the coronavirus lockdowns.
The most devastating pandemic of relatively modern times was the 1918 influenza, “Spanish flu,” that infected approximately 500,000,000 people, which was about twenty-five percent of the total population of the world. Estimates of the deaths during this pandemic varied from 17,000,000 to 100,000,000. The large variations in these estimates are based upon the fact that only one hundred years ago, modern communication, reporting systems, and medical care, did not exist in large parts of the world. Whether we take the larger or smaller estimate, they both drive a similar implication: widespread illness and death affecting tens of millions of people.
I was even more surprised to discover that smallpox, before it was eradicated in the second half of the twentieth century, was a chronic viral killer that in the first half of the twentieth century alone may have killed an estimated 300 million people according to some authors. According to other scholars, like Michael Kinch, an expert in medical innovation including vaccination, smallpox may have only killed 150 million in total, once again showing us that even when estimates, which extend back thousands of years to capture the total long term effect of a single disease upon worldwide population, may vary, they nevertheless contain the same basic awe inspiring message about the magnitude of death due to infectious illness. The environmental writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, in contrast, estimates that smallpox has killed a total of one billion human beings over thousands of years.
Perspective: Without diminishing the magnitude of the threat to us of Covid-19, we should see it in perspective, and understand that today’s pandemic is a repetition of events that have happened many times before. Even such relatively banal illnesses as measles have been responsible for millions of deaths throughout history.
When we understand that we are living through normal circumstances, as overwhelming as they feel to us, we can maintain the dual perception of difficulty without exceptionalism. If you are stuck alone in a small apartment, if your economic viability has been damaged, or if someone important to you has died, if you yourself have age and health issues that put you immediately closer to death, if your community is unfairly denied access to medical care, or even if you have only lost treasured and anticipated plans for the future, like a college graduation, these are troubling times. The striking feature of our current circumstance is that we are descending from relatively easier times into relatively more troubled times and we fear that we may be entering hard times, but we are far away from the worst of times.
As soon as a living being dies, it begins to rot. There are vast numbers of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that are continuously attacking us, and it is only because of our immune system that we can live more than a few days. All of life, not just human life, is in a constant struggle to survive the onslaught of microorganisms that are attempting to use our bodies as sources of energy, materials, and sites for replication. There has never been a time in human history when disease did not have some formative impact upon the evolution of human culture, economics, and society. Some historians consider that the two most important events in the history of Western civilization, which might have been the fall of the Roman Empire, and the end of the Middle Ages, were caused primarily by the impact that epidemics of smallpox and plague had upon previously existing social institutions.
We need information but we don’t need inflammation. It would be foolish to deny the power of our current coronavirus pandemic, but it is just plain wrong to see it as unique.