‘Things will never be the same again.’ Talking to family & friends from my country of origin (The Netherlands) and elsewhere in the world, I continue to hear this. They feel the current pandemic of COVID-19 changed the world in unforeseen and irreversible ways. Two friends – sisters – from Tel-Aviv (State of Israel) half-joking and half-serious spoke about ‘B.C.’ and ‘A.C.’. They did not refer to ‘Christ’ but to ‘Corona’. As we were ‘hanging out’ on ZOOM we compared, like so many, our current situation (Seattle & Tel-Aviv) and wondered: how will the future look like? They both expressed their wish we will learn from the disruptive power of this novel virus and build a better global society. Though I notice similar thoughts & feelings, I can not help but wonder: what does the situation teach us? Will we take it to heart? And how do we decide what to do ‘A.C.’?
Heart of sadness
Not long ago certain things seemed almost unimaginable. Traffic in big cities like New York coming to a standstill. Almost no airplanes flying over in Seattle. Being able to see a blue sky in Delhi when people look up. While politicians all over the world have claimed that the economy must keep running, governments everywhere started to invest trillions of dollars to maintain the essential fabric of society and support those in need. Clearly we find ourselves in a different reality now. As a global society. As a nation. As individuals.
We might have thought that our lives were quite stable. Our work. Our relationships. Our physical & mental health. Plans for the future were made accordingly. Deep down we might know things will change, but each day we wake up assuming the world will pretty much be the same as before we went to sleep. Yet life is extremely vulnerable. If we are not careful, a virus like this might cause our death. As it continues to do throughout the world. Everyday.
Perhaps we thought that our job, the things we possess, the friends & family in our life and being able to go on a holiday, gives us happiness. Then this pandemic is extremely upsetting. None of all that lasts forever. And though most of us will survive this virus, eventually we will die as well.
In short: COVID-19 is reminding us about some essential truths about reality that now seem very difficult to ignore. First of all that everything is changing – impermanent. Secondly, for that reason, nothing ‘out there’ can give us (sustainable) happiness. Thirdly, at some point in life, our lives will end.
Now, assuming you are a little bit like me, realizing this might give a sense of sadness. I certainly feel this. My whole body trembles, tears come to my eyes and my heartbeat quickens when I am reminding myself of these essential truths. In the buddhist tradition it is said that this way we give birth to the ‘heart of sadness’. Which, perhaps counterintuitive, is considered a blessing rather than a curse. How can this heart of sadness actually be good news? Thus, subsequently, this pandemic might have a positive side to it as well?
In a way, I realise, that asking these very questions is a sign of being in a privileged situation. This became even more clear to me when we were discussing the book In love with the world, written by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, in our Fresh Minds group ‘at’ NalandaWest – well, ‘at’ means ‘in the online world’ currently. Mingyur Rinpoche, a Tibetan-buddhist tulku – a recognized incarnation of a spiritual adept – writes about him leaving the comfortable safe life of his monastery. He decided to be a wandering monk to add wood to the fire. Meaning: to intentionally seek uncomfortable situations to learn more about ourselves and the world. Though everyone in our group agreed that Mingyur Rinpoche writes in a very open, honest way about his experience – there is also consensus: the very possibility of going on such a journey, and choosing to add wood to the fire, is coming from a very privileged situation.
For many people in the world life is already challenging enough. Also now, as the novel coronavirus continues to infect people, cause death and disrupts life as we knew it, many are focused on survival. This goes for those who lack access to clean water, food and / or healthcare. It goes for those who lost their job, find themselves without money or at least struggle to support family-life. Yet it also goes, a former-student reminded me, for those who might be relatively in a safe and comfortable position, but face disturbing emotions in trying to cope with staying at home. I was her tutor some years ago and we exchanged wishes for good health & safety. She wrote how she realised she was in a luxury position, but added, “that does not mean the current situation is pleasant for me.”
In the online space, where many of us can be found these days, a lot of messages circulate. I experience joy that many are good-hearted – trying to support each other in these ‘strange’, ‘difficult’ times. At the same time, that does not mean they are all equally helpful. I am a little bit wary that my writing is just as unhelpful as many things shared ‘out there’. Seeing my own privileged position in life, it might be a lot easier to say: all things change, no need to worry and we will all die at some point in life. I would not only dismiss the experiences people go through. It would also mean that I walk away from another essential truth: our lives are interconnected and therefore we have a responsibility. We owe something to each other. Acknowledging our own experience, that of others, and how they are intertwined with each other, is therefore always an important starting point.
What is the next right thing to do?
At the same time, we do know that everything in life is impermanent. Seeing this shows also that there is a lot of potential to change things. If economic systems, governments, the power of multinationals and our own life as well would be permanent, there is no way to transform it. Yet, this pandemic, clearly shows the potential to do exactly that. The question then becomes: how? This very much depends on our views about life and the world. So the question we should ask, but we are often not, is perhaps: what makes life truly meaningful?
Hearing about the situation in Israel / Palestine from my friends in Tel-Aviv made me realise that there is nothing I can do to stop the virus there and change the political that seems everything but helpful to all. The same goes for the situations in the United States where many people lack access to healthcare and especially the poor and underprivileged are disproportionately affected by this pandemic. I notice that if I focus on the big picture, like following all the short-term news items about it, I feel a little bit overwhelmed. Not knowing what to do. Lost.
At the same time, I feel a deep responsibility to act for the benefit of others, including myself. I personally take all beings to be equal. Like me, trying to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Keeping the essential truths this pandemic is pointing to in mind, I try to see what it is I can do on the very small scale of my direct environment. Mingyur Rinpoche refers to an expression Tibetans have that his teacher Guru Vajradhara Tai Situ Rinpoche often repeats: Keep the view as vast as space. Keep your actions as fine as flour.
I do not know the future. Plans I had might prove to turn out quite different than I imagined. Combined with the pandemic I examine my views and life every day. And I started to ask myself: what is the next right thing I can do? Whatever our situation, we continue to have a choice and responsibility. This week. Tomorrow. Today. In this very moment. Focusing on this question gives me a new sense of direction. Not just for A.C. – after corona – but also D.C. – during corona. I can make mistakes, and am even more limited in what I can do than B.C., but I will try, as Mingyur Rinpoche stresses, to “discriminate between actions that intend to relieve suffering for ourselves and others and those that intend to cause harm.” To keep my actions, as fine as flour. Is this the natural expression of the heart of sadness?
The Fresh Minds group at NalandaWest focuses on discussing the application of buddhist teachings directly to our own lives and experiences, whether we follow a buddhist path or not. It uses a book as a tool to guide the conversations, currently this is ‘In love with the world’ by Mingyur Rinpoche.