A Note on Grief and Action

Will Kabat-Zinn
6 min readMay 29, 2020

Dear Sangha Friends:

I am sitting in grief and deep sadness with all of you as I read the news this morning. I am thinking about the history of slavery and oppression in our country, of discrimination and sanctioned and tolerated violence against our brothers and sisters of color. Consciously or unconsciously we are all living with the legacies of social forces that live to this day in our institutions, our collective culture, and each of our own hearts and minds.

As a teacher I notice impulse arise to offer a teaching or share some wise or helpful perspective. As I sit here this morning I notice how unsatisfying that impulse feels, how incomplete. And yet I also feel the need to say something. The following thoughts are just that, my thoughts and reflections, fairly unfiltered, arising right now. I am writing so that you can know that I am paying attention, that I am here with you, struggling with you, and feeling with you. My domain of knowledge, my “scope of practice” is the domain of meditation and working with the mind. I am acutely aware that many of you have a much deeper knowledge of and insight into our collective societal conditions and the realities of living with racism and its effects than I do.

I am reflecting on our conversations in the Sangha recently about COVID and how different people’s perspectives can be about the dangers, the deadliness or immediacy of the situation, and the felt need to take action to protect ourselves and each other. We have talked about how and when each one of us had our “moment” of realizing what is at stake when it comes to COVID, and how close to home this is for all of us. These moments of waking up often come from hearing compelling information from someone you trust, when a loved one, a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a partner or former partner gets sick or dies or when you suffer from a preexisting condition and feel acutely that you are risking your life when you leave your apartment building, enter a grocery store, or have to go to work to feed your family. For some of you, your “moment” came from reading vivid accounts from people on the front lines. For so many of us, the perceived risk and stark reality of COVID was distant as recently as February or March. It was distant until it arrived at your door.

We spoke together about how abstract the threat of COVID can seem to people who don’t know anyone who has gotten seriously ill or has died, who live in areas with low infection rates, who have not had the virus and the conditions that it gives rise to reach into your life or livelihood and tear down everything. When you can look around and see the sun shining the spring blooming, have your health and well-being, and are not feeling threatened it is easy to think to oneself that maybe everything is ok, maybe things are not as bad as people say. This kind of denial is not simply a moral failing, it is a very real limitation of direct perception, a limitation that can have deadly consequences.

For those of you directly affected by COVID, with parents or partners, friends or loved ones who are sick or dying, or in the hospital, or for those of you working in ER’s or patient care, who have lost jobs, or fear losing your housing, and your capacity to house and keep your children safe and fed, this is the only thing that is happening right now, or at least the main thing. It fills your mind completely when you are dealing with physical and psychological survival. All of the non-urgent thoughts and concerns vanish. It is hard to think or talk about anything else.

Similarly, it can be easy for those of us who are white and not intruded upon daily by racism, to minimize its pervasiveness, its deadliness, its constant lurking threat to sensitive, feeling bodies exactly like your own, like your own children’s bodies. I have noticed this in my own mindstream. The examples of what we don’t have to deal with when we come from protected or privileged communities are too numerous to count.

Like COVID, racism is decimating communities and taking lives. Like a virus, racism can be hard to see if you are looking for the mechanism of the disease itself, but its effects, its symptoms, are naked and deadly, expressing themselves daily and are here to be seen.

Like a virus, racism can be transmitted invisibly, unconsciously, and despite our best intentions or the fact that we self-identify as “good people”. It is easy to minimize or ignore something when it does not decimate or threaten your parents or children or livelihood when you can go out for a walk without thinking about it. All of us are carriers of this racism virus, mostly without being aware of it. We can infect others with what is unconscious and help to spread a disease that kills, simply by living our lives, by not being willing to change our lifestyle or do something inconvenient, to say something when we see racism being perpetuated in our community by a beloved teacher or dear friend, a parent, or neighbor. It can be inconvenient to change what you are doing to protect your friends, family, lovers, and neighbors who are vulnerable. But when it comes to COVID none of us question this new necessity in taking care of those we love. COVID has helped us to feel these stakes acutely and see our own capacity to change much more vividly. It is amazing what we can do when we are motivated by love and understand consequences.

Unlike COVID which has just come on the scene, the racism virus has been with us since the founding of our country and long before. It has adapted to live within us. It has been good at surviving, going underground, or staying unseen (for some) just long enough to convince many that it is no longer a problem while still killing, restricting, terrorizing, and hurting. Just as many media channels now dismiss COVID statistics or it’s severity, in the service of politics or wanting to open up or going back to normalcy, there is a desire to sweep under the rug what we don’t want to face.

If our beautiful country is like a body, racism is a dangerous virus that affects the whole. But since it directly harms a minority of cells or organs without killing the whole organism, the body can limp along without addressing the causes. In that, it is a successful virus. It can survive, propagate, and spread. As Dharma practitioners, acceptance means accepting that something is happening, but it does not mean not taking action. Action that comes from clear seeing is wisdom in action. Accepting unnecessary suffering without attempting to change it is abdication and a symptom of ignorance, a lack of clear seeing. The whole path is about the alleviation of unnecessary suffering for ourselves and all beings. We don’t need to accept (allow to continue) what we have the power and capacity to change. Unlike a body, our country is just an idea, a collective idea, an “imagined community”, and yet this imaginary body is made up of living breathing, sensitive, vulnerable, feeling bodies. We are sentient beings. Most of the country only chooses to face this virus when there is an inconvenient flare-up; when it gets “in our face”.

As we have learned to do with the harsh consequences of COVID, we need to grieve together, be together, take in the enormity of the situation and feel helpless and powerless (in moments) together. Let us also feel the urgent need to act to affect change but not let the size of our outrage prevents us from seeing clearly and taking action that moves us toward treating the causes of harm.

Let us act in our daily lives here and now, in our daily habits, practice, and consciousness. When we see racist behavior in word or deed, from a friend, a teacher, a colleague, or a stranger, let’s take action. We need to help each other to see clearly especially when we are well-meaning carriers and potential spreaders of a virus that threatens the health and lives of others.

Most of all, let us love each other, feel each other, connect with our shared humanity and vulnerability. We are not all equally vulnerable to COVID, but we can feel into what it is to be vulnerable and we can act out of love to protect our fellow beings. When it comes to racism, let’s not be complacent when it comes to what we carry, what we participate in. Let us not underestimate how much we can do to support, love, and help liberate each other in the face of great obstacles.

Yours in the Dharma,