Wakeup Call as Dangerous Opportunity

Zen and Buddhist teaching is intended to address the existential fears inherent in uncertainty by developing our inner resources.  Strong inner resources are more reliable than anything we do to manipulate life externally. 

Falling through the thin ice…my teacher often says we are all only 1 doctor’s visit away from falling through this thin ice. Because we fear this uncertainty, we build a veneer of certainty around us, protecting ourselves from the existential anxiety that is at the very root of our being.  Today with the Covid 19 pandemic spreading around the world, this veneer has been stripped away. The sense of impermanence and change has been thrust into our awareness front and center.  Death maybe just 5 feet away.

Reality of Wake Up Call

Can we regard this Corona virus as a wakeup call? 

Times of crises are times that put us in touch with the vulnerability of life and ask us to orient ourselves toward compassion and kindness toward ourselves and others.   Compassion can also be contagious, it too can spread and become a powerful resource that strengthens our being.  By practicing presence, there is the possibility that we strengthen our compassion, rather than the agitation and anxiety we too easily default into.   May we use this time as a choice point to look more carefully and bring wisdom to the situation, remembering  how when we look back over our lives, at those moments of greatest crisis, we can see the benefits that have resulted from whatever challenged us so at the time. 

The Chinese word for crisis is translated as dangerous opportunity.  I like this definition because it highlights that what life is really offering is an opportunity to expand.  But the expansion, the change, must originate first internally. This kind of inner expansion does not happen to the same degree when things are going well.  It is human nature that when things go well we tend to relax and become complaisant.   I pray this virus jars us out of our complacency and into heeding this for what it is, a global wakeup call?

As contemplatives we aspire to train our hearts and minds to meet life’s greatest challenges with wisdom and compassion.  Crisis such as this virus underscore why we practice.  Let us remember our practice is training for dealing with adversity.  Wisdom is training.  Compassion is training.  It is training for when challenging times meet us, we can greet them with grace, kindness and wisdom, enabling us to respond out of compassion and self-control, rather than with the greed and panic reflected in hoarding toilet paper. 

At this time of self-isolation and social distancing, technology is giving us many opportunities to reach out  and extend compassion for someone who is in physical or emotional pain.  There is much neuro research to point to the benefits of altruism.  It is good for our own mental health to take action to assist another.  It strengthens our own compassion and sets kindness in motion to spread in others.  Let us focus and look for opportunities for the practice of kindness so that this too can spread as a social contagion; the social contagion of compassion.  Because we become good at what we practice may we practice creating the silver lining? 

Of course it is normal and natural to feel daunted and burdened by the enormity of this crisis.  As a dangerous opportunity this one is profound.  We should not hold the expectation that we can listen to the news and not feel the ripples of anxiety.  But at the same time we know that the more we can just feel the bodily sensation of anxiety,… that quiver in the chest without getting caught up in the thoughts that those feelings generate,…the better we will be able to steady ourselves and respond from the depth of our better selves.  This training is not about denying our natural human responses.  That would not be true wisdom.  True wisdom is always supported by compassion towards our natural human responses and that means being able to stay present with those very human responses without judgement for the desire to push them away.  Remember when these feelings of despair, powerlessness, depression, grief, anger or numbness arise in you, meet them with kindness; show compassion towards yourself first.  The more compassion I can show to my pain and suffering, the more compassion I can show to another’s.

What benefit can come from this? 

We can see how dramatically the environmental pollution has been lessened by self-isolating and sheltering in place.  By halting our frenetic activity our environment has benefitted enormously, resulting in greatly reducing the consumption of resources.  Just as not caring for the planet, not caring for the plight of the poor and most vulnerable among us is finally coming into focus, if only because it is increasingly obvious that by not protecting the vulnerable we hurt ourselves.  I believe it is possible that this entire situation become a reset for humanity and hopefully change the course of our development to move in a less destructive way.  After a moment of bewilderment and fear, an inner strength can arise.  This crisis we are facing if we recognize that we cannot go back to the way things have been…this dangerous opportunity…holds within it the possibility for a new way of being to arise.  Rather than an apocalypse this very crisis, because it is calling for our greater wisdom and compassion in order to collectively survive, it holds within by its very necessity… also the seeds of a new beginning.  [PT[3] 

Change begins as a changed pattern of expectations.  Sometimes it is precisely the break with routines and the familiar that releases the sense of the future again.  The idea has begun to set in that everything is now going to be completely different.  May we this time make it better.  Every deep crisis leaves a story, a narrative that points into the future.  One of the strongest images of Italy is of the Italian’s making music on their balconies.  Another image has been of Italy and China free of smog.  In 2020 carbon dioxide emissions will drop for the first time.  That very fact will do something to us.  If a virus can do it, can we too possibly do it?  Is the virus a messenger for the future?  The message being that human civilization has become too dense, too fast, and overheated.  It has been heading headlong in a direction that can have no future, racing too fast into the direction of its own demise.  But it can reinvent itself.  System reset, cool down.  Music on the balconies…this how the future works.

This a reading from the service book of the San Diego Zen Center

                                                           KEEPING QUIET

Pablo Neruda

Now we will count twelve

And we will all keep  quiet

For once on the face of the earth,

Let’s not speak in any language;

Let’s stop for a second,

And not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment

Without rush, without engines;

We would all be together in a

Sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea

Would not harm whales

And the man gathering salt

Would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,

War with gas, wars with fir, victories with no survivors, would walk about

With their brother

In the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused with total inactivity.

Life is what it is about…

If we were not so single-minded

About keeping our lives moving,

And for once could do nothing,

Perhaps a huge silence

Might interrupt this sadness

Of never understanding ourselves

And of threatening ourselves

With death.

Let us reinvent ourselves.  System reset, cool down.  Music on the balconies…this how the future works.

 [PT[3]Not completely understand what you mean