I don’t know a single person right now who is not emotionally effected in some way by the recent COVID-19 outbreak. As a Buddhist priest and community mental health worker, I have counseled many people in the last week who are anxious about family members contracting the virus. This is perfectly understandable; I have also felt the anxiety and fear. Fear is a natural response to the existential (and very real) threat of death. But the people I talk to also feel powerless, confused, and are desperately searching for a feeling of agency in the face of potentially overwhelming tragedy. I believe these secondary feelings of powerlessness and confusion are perhaps more painful than simple fear.
In times like these, I am grateful for my many years of Buddhist practice. After initially feeling anxious about the virus myself (and doing my share of stress shopping… yes, I did buy dried lentils and canned food), I have started to feel more grounded and hopeful — or at least, equanimous — about the state of the world. And so I would like to share with you a few things that have been helpful for me in gaining equanimity.
1. Old age, sickness and death are inevitable
Buddhist wisdom points to the reality that suffering is an enduring and continual part of being alive. There is one foundational Buddhist parable that explains this beautifully. Before the Buddha was enlightened, his name was Siddhartha, and he lived as a prince in India (“Buddha” means “one who is awake”). Siddhartha’s father had received a prophesy that his son would be either a great ruler or a great sage, and so he kept his son enclosed in the palace, surrounded only by lovely people and beautiful experiences, to prevent him from encountering the spiritual life. However, well into his early adulthood, Siddhartha had a longing to see what was outside the palace. He convinced his attendant Channa to take him in a chariot and drive him through the city.
When he finally entered the city, Siddhartha saw many wonderful things, but he also saw a man who was hunched over and wrinkled with age. He turned to Channa and asked, “What is that? Why is that men hunched over and wrinkled?” Channa answered, “That is an old person.” Ignorant of the ways of the world, Siddhartha asked, “Who becomes old?” His friend answered, “Everyone in the world is young in the beginning but grows older with time. None of us can escape old age.”
Siddhartha continued driving, and eventually saw a beggar lying on the side of the road, wheezing and coughing, with a pale face drenched in sweat. “What is wrong with that man?” Siddhartha asked Channa. “He is sick,” Channa answered. “Who becomes sick?” Siddhartha asked. Channa answered, “Everyone who lives long enough will become sick. There is no one who can escape that fate.”
Next, Siddhartha encountered a corpse being carried away on a stretcher. He asked Channa the same questions, and Channa explained that everyone who is born will inevitably die. Siddhartha was shocked and horrified. Luckily though, the last thing Siddhartha saw on his trip through the city was a holy man. Channa explained that many people, when faced with these inevitable sufferings, choose to devote their life to spiritual practice. This experience inspired Siddhartha to leave the palace, become an ascetic, and eventually achieve enlightenment.
I love this story because even though it might seem ridiculous that someone could be so sheltered as to not understand old age, sickness, and death, the truth is that we are very much like Siddhartha in our naivety and ignorance. We are often sheltered in our own kind of psychological palace where we are shielded (for a time) from things like illness. Yet this kind of suffering can ultimately not be avoided. We will all, everyone one of us, face old age, sickness and death. The fourth sight — the holy man — reminds us that we can chose the way we respond to this suffering.
Personally, one of the most distressing things to me about the COVID-19 outbreak has been a feeling that “things should not be this way.” In reality, though, things are and always have been this way. While there is a certain contemporary, American, capitalist flavor to the suffering caused by COVID-19 (our abysmal healthcare system, corporate greed, governmental incompetence, lack of sick days for most part-time, exempt workers, etc.), the suffering caused by illness and death is nothing new.
There is one more Buddhist parable that I want to share. According to legend, once there was a woman who lost her baby to illness. She sought out the Buddha, crazy with grief, and asked him for medicine to bring her son back from the dead. He replied that he would give her this medicine if she brought him back a white mustard seed from the house of a family that had never experienced death. The woman went door to door, searching for a family untouched by grief and death. Of course, she could never find one. She realized that death touches everyone. In realizing the universality of grief and death, her suffering lessened.
This story shows us that the feeling of “things should not be this way” is an additional and unnecessary pain on top of inevitable suffering. We cannot avoid old age, sickness, and death, but we can remove the unnecessary assumption that things should be otherwise, and the psychic pain this assumption causes us.
2. Recognize interconnectedness
Another important piece of wisdom, though not exclusive to Buddhist traditions, is the recognition of interconnectedness. Nothing lays bare our interconnectedness like a literal global pandemic. Humans depend upon each other for survival, and we also impact each other in large and small ways.
Take, for example, the now ubiquitous (I hope!) advice to wash your hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At first glance, hand washing is an act of self care. Frequent hand washing protects us individually from contracting the virus. But it is also an act of community care; we help protect others when we help protect ourselves. So too with the recommendation to stay home when sick. Although there is definitely a level of privilege in being able to take time off work, it is clearly important to take care of our communities by preventing the spread of illness. In these simple hygiene practices, our understanding of “self” and “other” start to break down.
Where do I end and you begin? We breathe the same air. My survival and happiness depends upon yours. As the Dalai Lama points out, “Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Even tiny insects survive by mutual cooperation based on innate recognition of their interconnectedness. It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others.”
Without catastrophizing too much, I think it is important to consider a future reality in which there is insufficient government response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and our healthcare systems become overwhelmed by illness. This is when community response will become crucial. In fact, the CDC recommends talking to your neighbors about creating a community crisis plan. But I don’t think we need to despair too much. Human beings are actual quite good at taking care of each other, especially in the face of natural disaster.
In his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger documents how mental health actually improves during times of war and disaster. This, he theorizes, is because we have lost touch with our natural proclivity to form community (i.e join “tribes”), and disaster necessitates building community. During World War II, he writes, psychiatric wards were “strangely empty,” and suicides decreased. Despite the horrors of war, social resilience actual increased, because people depended upon each other more.
One member of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Charles Fritz, intrigued by the resilience of citizens during the blitz in London, conducted further research into community response to disaster. According to Junger, Fritz was “unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves… Disasters, he proposed, create a “community of sufferers” that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”
The months to come will undoubtedly bring pain, suffering, and fear. My wish to you, gentle readers, is a recognition that “things should not be another way.” This is all the stuff of human existence. It’s beautiful and traumatizing and it’s life. Additionally, I invite you to open up to your surroundings and to your community. This can be a time to get to know neighbors, care for the most vulnerable, share resources, and build connections.
If we can convert our individual suffering and fear into compassion for others, we will suffer less. This is because you and I are not separate. We breathe the same air and touch the same subway poles. As COVID-19 spreads, fear and grief are perhaps inevitable, but so is connection and care. We are all of these things.