Noble Truths: We are always in danger but usually we find ways to keep this unsettling truth at bay. In the legend of the Buddha, he ran away from home to seek wisdom when he understood the pervasive reality of illness, old age, and death, the very factors that compound to make our coronavirus pandemic so powerful. We are current members of all the generations who have had to come to grips with the recognition that illness is intrinsic to existence, and can be perceived either grimly, or can be taken as a provocation to promote the kind of insightful living that life actually demands of us.
When things are close to us, they appear bigger than things of equal size that are far away.
Some historical critics have correctly cautioned against lumping together the various mass tragedies that have affected humankind in different places in different times. Different scenarios of mass murders may contain many different causes, implications, and potential rectifications, and these important nuances may be blurred if all horrendous events are seen as an entity. Also, there is sometimes a tendency to diminish the suffering of one group of people by comparing it to a larger or more recent trauma in another group, as if the author were implying, “You have no right to complain, because I had it much worse than you.” If you are killed or your family members slaughtered, or your civilization eradicated, it hardly matters to you that the same thing once happened elsewhere to a bigger group of people. In this talk, in order to establish the difference between our troubles today and historically hard times I will string together a picture of the human condition with many of its difficulties briefly notated. It should be clear that no common causality, no single historical analysis, and no mutual competition of suffering is implied. It should be very clear that I am not trying to diminish large scale events nor to consign them to a compost pile that induces weariness or banality. My point is to focus on reality as it is.
Violence: Imagine yourself to be a member of one of the First Nations in the Western Hemisphere sometime between 1500 and 1900. During those 400 years, there was massive genocide against the First Peoples of the Americas. Sometimes the genocide was violent, for example in the Spanish conquests of Peru and Mexico in which millions of people were assassinated, hung upside down from trees, burnt alive and exterminated. In the United States violence against indigenous civilians continued right up to the end of the nineteenth century, such as the massacre of Wounded Knee. But most of the time the genocidal extermination of the First Americans occurred through the spread of the European diseases for which the First Americans had no immunological defense. The discovery of America is sometimes referred to as “the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world.” The overwhelming majority of any indigenous group of people died, and in some cases, entire linguistic and cultural communities were eliminated.
The specifics of the death toll in the colonization of the Americas is a subject of scholarly debate. Without making any claim to a particular interpretation of the data, we can safely say that common estimates are that approximately twelve million people died in Mexico, about eight million people died in Peru, and between one to eight million died in Hispanola during the first century of European invasion, for a total in the range of twenty to thirty million people. At the same time, imperialistic conquest and massacre had already led to the destruction of previous civilizations in the Americas when powerful groups like Aztec, Maya, or Quechua, conquered their neighbors during hundreds of years of empire building history.
The Europeans who spread disease through the Western hemisphere tended to be more resistant to both bacterial and viral infections than were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. But European disease resistance was itself a product of life-costing natural selection. Thousands of years of epidemics in Europe, which killed hundreds of millions of people, selected for survivors who were more immunologically robust, and therefore who could pass on their effective immune system to the next generation. Every European who spread illness into the Americas was himself a relic of a mass death event in Europe. For example, the Black Death of bubonic plague in the 1300’s is estimated to have killed between seventy-five to two hundred million Europeans. We have already seen how smallpox has killed either hundreds of millions or possibly a billion people, during thousands of years, mostly in Europe. That means that the relative resilience of the Europeans was bought at the cost of death of cascades of generations of ancestors. Our health is partly determined by where we have been embedded in the history of generations.
Slavery: A similar glance into the magnitude of the hard times in human history occurs when we look at the trans-Atlantic slave trade, where accurate numbers are also debated by scholars, but where reasonable estimates place the gruesome transportation of twelve million people across the Atlantic Ocean during which two million people immediately died. It is estimated that approximately ten million Africans were also transported in the other direction, to western Asia. Considering that African slaves were often the product of lethal wars that occurred before the slaves were even captured, some writers estimate the death toll of African slavery internal to Africa, transported east, or transported west, to be as high as sixty million.
Slavery also existed wherever people were located, as long as history can be recorded. There was slavery in India at the time of the Buddha. The Pali Canon refers to it repeatedly, and the Buddha appears to accept it as a fact of life beyond repair or criticism. Mediterranean slavery was widespread in Greek and Roman times and continued until the Nineteenth Century. Slavery in Europe was also widespread, and as many as two million slaves were captured in areas around the Ukraine and transported south and east over a period of hundreds of years from about 1500 - 1700. If Russian serfs are considered slaves, the amount of slavery in Europe was gigantic. Slavery has not ended and depending upon how it is defined, anti-slavery groups today estimate there are forty million slaves around the world right now.
Lifespans: Technically un-enslaved people may have lived in brutalizing conditions. During the Great Famine around 1300 - 1325 in Great Britain, the English royal family, among the richest and most protected people in the world, died at an average age of only seventeen years. At the time of the American Civil War, the average lifespan was only forty years, and at the beginning of the twentieth century had only improved five to ten years. It was only during the twentieth century that the great health transition occurred, prolonging lifespans around the globe into what can be considered a routine anticipation of old age.
Until the mid nineteenth century in Europe, one third to one half of all children who were born died before the age of five. Many pregnancies ended in the death of the mother. Both pregnancy and birth were circumstances of high morbidity and mortality.
Therefore, not only active violence like genocide and slavery, but also cultural inadequacy and personal helplessness often led to short-lived, diseased populace. Currently, in the United States, the greatest cause of preventable large scale death is not due to either pandemics nor violence but to food. Hundreds of thousands of deaths every year can be attributed to obesity, and related issues like sugar consumed in packaged food and soda. The World Health Organization estimates that about two billion adults are overweight leading to about three million excess deaths per year.
Our Lifetime: When I think about hard times, personally, I think about the world as it was in the ten years before I was born, and the ten weeks after I was born. I was born in 1945, and starting ten years before that, the Second World War killed somewhere between fifty million and eighty million people, the exact number being unknown because many of the people who could potentially count the murders were also killed. Approximately seven million Jews were rounded up like cattle and tortured to death in factories built for efficient killing. In the large war that occurred when Japan invaded Asia, there was mass starvation as well as thousands of instances in which individual women were raped thousands of times. In the Soviet Union, approximately twenty-five million people were killed, partly from warfare, and partly through intentional slow starvation of cities and regions.
This massive toll in Russia occurred as a sequel to four previous mass death events: the first World War; the Bolshevik revolution and its attendant wars; mass starvation in the Soviet Union that followed the collectivization of farms (this famine heavily impacted the Ukraine); and the network of slave labor camps known as the Gulag. This recurrence of nightmarish human slaughter in Russia and the Soviet Union may help to explain at least of some of why the Russian government has remained so belligerently defensive. In the traumatic history of that part of the world, unthinkable horrors are easy to think about. These events also should kindle our awareness about how recent, severe, and vivid hard times are in the traumatic memory of hundreds of millions of people. It’s estimated that more than one million people died in the Armenian holocaust, and possibly as many as two million during partition of India and Pakistan.
Before I was one month old, the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hundreds of thousands of people were incinerated, while four hundred thousand American young men had just been murdered in combat.
Our parents, or grandparents, in Japan, China, Burma, Russia, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Africa, and elsewhere lived through hard times. We should not denigrate the resilience of the survivors of those hard times by comparing our modest challenges to the inferno that they survived and emerged from to recreate the new world that we have inherited.
Health Expansion: This brief, sweeping overview of the violence and brutality of the past is actually intended to highlight how lucky we are today. We are the temporarily lucky new beings who live for seventy to eighty years on average in well-lit, heated dwellings with closed doors and private rooms, with limited mortality for infants and mothers, shorter working days and weeks, and increased discretionary free time.
One of the most important overlooked features of the “health expansion” is the widespread availability of inexpensive and convenient contraception that has made family planning possible, and has reduced rapid population explosions in most countries around the world, and has eliminated the automatic burdensome connection that tied sex to unregulated birth with its subsequent high mortality. Because of these transformative technologies, some married men and women have lives that are unencumbered enough to meditate.
Why is today different than any other day? It isn’t. From the standpoint of the Buddha, every day has the same essential qualities, suffering, and the Path out of suffering.
To face our troubled times we have just discussed the importance of experiencing impermanence through meditation, feeling optimistic that our bodies are built for well-being, having confidence that long term meditation can be at least subtly transformative, overcoming the myth of our historical exceptionalism, and digesting the fact that everyone, including the Buddha, was required to use illness as a springboard towards right understanding.
Let’s keep looking for tools for dealing with maintaining meditation practice in troubled times by returning to another very important feature of Vipassana.
Diligence: One of the keys to the Buddha’s teaching is the word, “diligence.” I would like to describe this master virtue by giving it the name that struck me when I thought about my personal Vipassana practice during the last pandemic lockdown. Our twice daily, diligently scheduled practice of Vipassana became my “skeleton.” It became my “bones.” It was the thing that kept me upright even though the rest of my body was soft. One strength that we can muster to face the surge of difficulty that we may feel in troubled times, is to rigorously devote ourselves to behavioral patterns that give our days structure. When we know that we are going to stand firm, or sit diligently, then every day in troubled times gains importance in our ability to cope by meditating. Adhering to positive habits that are encouraged by the meditators’ lifestyle builds generic components of well-being.
Challenges: If we are meditating seriously and consistently, then our life stops feeling melodramatically overwhelming, and becomes particularly useful. These arduous circumstances are exactly what we have trained for. This is the challenge that can strengthen us. It is like when a sports team, say a baseball, basketball, or football team, has to play the best in an opposing league during the playoff season. That’s when the players are called upon to excel. It’s the excellence of the opposition that makes them reach for all they’ve got. Troubled times create the necessity, the opportunity to expand the capacity of our meditation to guide us through difficulties.
Detachment: But what is the actual link between sitting still with your eyes closed, feeling sensations with equanimity, and then being trapped mostly at home, attending to one news source or another that tells you how many people just died a lonely, and strangling death due to the inability to breathe, or due to the bombing of a city? The equanimity that we cultivate is another way of talking about detachment. By “detachment,” we are not referring to some cold, stoic, “I don’t give a damn,” John Wayne, Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro character. Detachment, in the teaching of the Buddha, means the ability to see our current situation from all its angles and perspectives, so that we are not attached to, fixated on, driven around in our minds by a one dimensional perspective. We are not detached in the sense that we have become uncaring for the wellbeing of other people or even for ourselves. We are detached from single-minded, narrow focused perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. We are detached in the sense that we are beyond views and anchored in reality as it is. Reality is always changing. To learn from it, we have to jettison ideas that we had been clinging to.
The relative equanimity that comes from our sitting practice, and the detachment, that is the other way to describe equanimity, can help us feel our current situation as simultaneously dangerous, one that requires maximum attention to safety, as well as an opportunity, one that demands that we play against a powerful opposing team, as well as a field of growth, where life will induce us to unwrap new attitudes, behaviors, and strengths.
Change Upon Change: When we meditate in troubled times we have a natural tendency to seek answers, to find out when the pandemic or war will end, whether deaths will escalate or decline this week, whether the danger feels continents away, or next door, whether the war will end in a negotiated peace or on the contrary, spread into more countries. These are healthy speculations that serve the purpose of alerting us to new developments and keeping us aware of necessary, cautious ways to proceed. But they are not meditation. As we meditate, experiencing change upon change in the sensations of our body, experiencing the fact that ideas are often distortions, and that even the best ideas become outmoded, we come to the realization that what we think we know is a mixture of some facts, a rapidly transforming world, and subjective perceptions driven by our emotions.
Indeterminacy: Meditating in troubled times is a practice of avoiding conclusions, of keeping an open-ended perspective, expecting change, preparing for something new again. The way we experience our changing body sensations provides us a template for the most realistic way to think about the unstable world. Francis J. Gavin, a distinguished professor of history at Johns Hopkins and one of a leading expert on nuclear strategy, has defined the capacity to remain open-minded as, “…comfort with indeterminacy and multi causal explanations…revealing the unfamiliar in what was believed.” At its best, meditation can help us dwell amidst the reality of uncertainty.
Resilience: The term, resilience, is used by psychologists, medical scientists, economists, and many other social thinkers to describe the ability of a plant, animal, or person to respond effectively and to survive challenges to existence. When we are meditating in troubled times, we see not only the instability of the world, but the fluctuations in our own self image. Although this can be upsetting, the recognition that our sense of self is required to change as circumstances around us do, gives us the opportunity to be more fully involved. Vipassana training may prepare us to reexamine the world and ourselves freshly, a repeatedly activated discipline that may make us more elastic, and able to solve similar problems again and again as they come at us in new situations, and advance against us from different angles.
Realism: Most of us would not like to be part of a way of life that can be used to deny danger and grief over the losses that are pounding the lives of many innocent people. If meditation is the practice of realistic perceptions, then it should not be used to turn a blind eye towards violence, cruelty, and sadism. There is nothing that will contaminate the attractiveness of meditation more than a smug or callous self-satisfaction under situations of mass anguish and trauma. Most meditators feel they should not pretend that they are unaffected or have risen above situations that are harming multitudes.
Comfort: Nevertheless, meditation provides us strength and comfort which we want to make known to those who may lack it, and who may feel the attraction of meditation amplified during circumstances of distress. To the extent that we feel grounded to some degree in a certain percent of equanimity, that state which we have cultivated may become visible to other people who surround us as being both valuable and worth learning.
Widespread Gratitude: Around the world, everyone is feeling awe and gratitude for the widespread heroism among healthcare and other critical care service workers, like doctors, nurses, nursing home aids, police, and delivery people, as well as communion with the heroism of ordinary people facing the bombardment and destruction of their cities and their way of life. We are constantly made aware of unnamed exemplary individuals who personify universal exalted values, like the citizens who take battered war refugees from other countries into the safety of their homes. Compassion and heroism are in no way limited to meditators. Paraphrasing Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, many have gone before us and we know that we’re not new.
It is helpful to retain in our attention to the world a pattern of refocusing on the fact that everything beneficent around us is the product of someone else’s wise or courageous intervention. Our gratitude should penetrate back through the centuries. Small handfuls of people who belong to the “saving fragment” improve life for all of us. All of us are indebted to the small numbers of people who discovered electricity, reduced infectious diseases, increased literacy, or amplified faltering democratic institutions.
Today I am thinking of Paul Farmer and Rosa Parks. There must be a few million others in the same category. Our traditional attitude of gratitude can help to keep us aware of how much we have received, how many gifts we have been given, and how small acts can echo positively down through the ages. In troubled times, we learn more about how great deeds are like threads of gold in the fabric of life.
Neutral Observation: At the same time, there is a trending belief that people rising up together can transform the world for the good, and while this is sometimes true, it is also sometimes only a self-soothing fantasy that denies the reality of helplessness in a fraught circumstance. Try promoting this myth to civilians whose city is being bombed from thousands of feet in the sky. Not every protest for empowerment is effective. A “can do” attitude is often a helpful motivation for protesters who topple cruelties and archaisms, but can also be simple-minded denial of the magnitude of enmities and vengeance. From the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to the pro- democracy movement in Myanmar, many groups who rise up for dignity and self-empowerment, are mowed down.
When meditation lights up its vision of a continuously fluid universe, then its practitioners will learn to seek power and competence where these are available through group cohesion, and will also learn to simply observe passing events without reacting to them when no other effective strategy exists. Neutral observation sometimes contributes to the preservation of sanity and empathy under harsh circumstances where effective action has been exploded by overwhelming odds.
Reactivity: It has been shown repeatedly that mass traumas due to natural events like pandemics or fires are less psychologically traumatizing than mass murders that are due directly to people, like invading and destroying a country. When we feel we have been harmed by an impersonal force of nature we do not add into our perceptions desires for either justice or revenge. When we feel we have been harmed by human beings we can easily compound the trauma by our wish for retaliation. It is often difficult to remember, but it is an important additional perspective to keep in mind, that conquering countries and armies are also being put through traumas that will scar their lives. To the extent that our meditation helps us gain compassion for wrong doers, it may help us moderate our own unhealthy reactivity, which, when it happens, only increases our burdens.
Riders on the Earth: An unintended consequence of pandemic and war is the inescapable recognition that we are all, as the poet Archibald MacLeish said after the launch of the Apollo 8 mission to the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, “… riders on the Earth together.” Like wrestlers, we are in the same ring as people who we are grappling with. We are one humanity in close proximity. This has a similar effect to the time when Carl Sagan and his colleagues established through chemical, physical, atmospheric analysis, that a large scale nuclear war between major powers would cause a “nuclear winter” from which no humans could survive, and that therefore nuclear war could not be won. Due to Covid-19 we now understand that we are all one cough and one handshake apart. As the Grateful Dead lyrics by Robert Hunter describe, in a moment of Dead Head ebullience:
“Strangers stoppin’ strangers just to shake their hand, Everybody’s playin’ in the heart of gold band, heart of gold band.”
Today we have to feel the same camaraderie but without the handshake. The Buddha first expressed this attitude of us all being in the same basket together, with his emphasis upon respect for all of life.