Can we thrive in the midst of this pandemic? Last year as the Covid-19 era began, Roshi Joan Halifax asked attendees of Lion’s Roar’s “Re-Awaken” summit to consider whether the pandemic — despite its horrors — might offer us new possibilities, new horizons, and more meaningful connections with each other. This teaching has been adapted from Roshi Joan’s “Re-Awaken” talk.
How can we thrive in the midst of this pandemic and in the midst of so much change and loss in our lives? And is what we’re going through at this time a kind of global rite of passage?
Arnold van Gennep, an ethnologist from the Netherlands, wrote in the 1920’s a book called The Rites of Passage. And in that book, he described three phases through which a rite of passage passes. The first phase that he describes is that of separation. Separation means that we’ve separated ourselves from the things of our ordinary life. Separation could mean we’ve entered into a hospital. It could mean we’ve entered into social isolation It could mean also that we’ve been separated from our family, or from our job, or from our home. It means that there’s an experience where there is a loss, a loss of our connection what we’ve been used to. And I think we’re in that now. We’re in it now as individuals. We’re in it as communities. Our workplaces are in it. And I believe the whole world is in it right now, in this experience of distancing, of physical isolation and quarantining, sheltering in place, separation.
The second phase in a rite of passage is that of the threshold, of being betwixt and between. Van Gennep describes this in terms of an experience of being thrashed, of broken apart of encountering catastrophe. And I think we’re in it. We’re in it now. We don’t know how long we’ll be in it. But we are in it. And probably for a long period of time to come. And this refers to not just us as an individual, but I believe the whole planet, our global society, is in it because of this pandemic. We don’t know what’s ahead. And we’re in that experience of not knowing, of radical uncertainty, of being churned.
Van Gennep goes on to describe the third phase in a rite of passage, and that phase is the return or integration. And it’s interesting to look at that in terms of complex adaptive systems. Van Gennep didn’t write about that, but we know from contemporary work that when a system breaks down, and we’re certainly seeing that, whether at this time, whether it’s in terms of our environment, or our economies, or our workplaces, or our family systems, or our medical systems, our educational systems, this breakdown, if we learn from it, and we’re being called to learn from this, can actually produce a higher level of greater integration, of well-being, if we learn from what has transpired. And part of our learning experience has to do with giving ourselves time for deep reflection, for acknowledging and exploring our inner life. And it’s not turning away from the experiences that we’re going through as we journey in this landscape of uncertainty, in this landscape of fear, and in this landscape of loss and possibility.
But I believe that this pandemic 19 is another kind of crisis as well. It’s a crisis of the mind. It’s a crisis of the heart. And the nature of this crisis goes to the very core of how we live as social beings, and how we deal with fear, how we deal with loss, and how we deal with grief.
I remember reading some time ago some words from the storyteller Terry Tempest Williams. She said “A good friend said to me, ‘You are married to sorrow.’” And then Terry Tempest Williams said, “I’m not married to sorrow, I just choose not to look away.” We mustn’t look away. And the fact is that COVID-19, along with climate change, is the first global disaster probably any of us have ever experienced. And this crisis has many facets. It’s a pandemic with an enormous death toll. It’s an economic catastrophe with lockdowns and job losses that are triggering the biggest financial losses that we have seen since the Great Depression. And it’s a social and cultural shock with impacts that we’re only just beginning to recognize, and barely beginning to understand. But I believe that this pandemic 19 is another kind of crisis as well. It’s a crisis of the mind. It’s a crisis of the heart. And the nature of this crisis goes to the very core of how we live as social beings, and how we deal with fear, how we deal with loss, and how we deal with grief.
We know that this pandemic has led to serious illness for over 4 million people today, and the finality of death for nearly 500,000 people in our country and many more to come. And as well, there are other losses. Our daily structure has transformed–the expected wake up in the morning, the cup of coffee, getting in our car, going to work, coming back, and so forth–all this has changed for so many of us. And as well, so many of our social contacts have been lost or are being altered in the course of this crisis. Millions of jobs are gone, probably never to return. People are losing their savings. The stock market is gyrating. People are losing their homes. And we’re only beginning to get a grasp on the extent of the economic losses that we’re experiencing now, probably much greater than the Great Depression of the 1930s. And we’re experiencing other losses as well. For example, our children, our grandchildren not being able to return to school. We can’t attend funerals. We can’t attend marriages. Graduation ceremonies are happening online and not in person. And there’s also a loss of connection, a loss of autonomy, a loss of certainty, of predictability, and of normalcy. With this, I think we’re grieving. We’re grieving for the loss of a way of life as we realize individually, and also as a society, that things will probably never return to the old normal.
There are other breakdowns too that we’re facing now. These include climate change, our economy, and also our ecosystems are going through a profound transformation at this time. And I think these losses are happening really in the early stages. It’s horrifying to think what this world might look like if there’s not a radical change in five years or ten years.Because of this, many of us are experiencing a range of emotional responses, including grief, including fear. And we’re experiencing these emotions, these feelings, at a scale, whether we know it or not. And this time we’re in, the experience of grief and fear are being amplified greatly by social isolation and by physical distancing. I think that around 2.6 million people today are under lockdown. That’s more people that were alive during World War II. And governments have told us mostly to reduce our lives to the smallest possible element. And that’s the household. Now here at Upaya, we’re fortunate. Our household is 24 people and we’ve been sheltering together since the 9th of March. But for some, the household is just one person. And when we leave our homes, we’re told we must be at least six feet apart. I remember walking down Cerro Gordo Road where our Zen center, where Upaya, is located, and a man on a bicycle, sort of panting as he pedaled up the hill without a mask, came toward me, and I remember experiencing some kind of subtle alarm because I had just read that the droplets from not just coughing but breathing can fall on you from runners or bicyclists.
You know, we’ve become in a way like magnets with reversed polarities, we’re sliding off pavements, moving to the side of the path or the road, anything to avoid being close to each other. And just as much as our social and educational life has migrated onto smartphones and into social media, it’s important to realize that death is also something that is happening online. You know, at a time when human touch, when connection, physical connection, is so important. Now doctors and nurses, chaplains, and family members have to limit their time with dying people or actually relate to dying people online. I remember when a physician a few years ago related to a dying person online and there was a huge uproar, telling that dying person that they were going to die through a tele-encounter. Well, now this is normalized.
Buddha didn’t make the third treasure, the Sangha, a treasure because our relationships with each other weren’t important. The experience of our connection is what humanizes us deeply.
So whether we’re sick, or dying, or making our way through our days in isolation, or physically distant from each other, connection these days is mostly through social media. This is what I do now as a Buddhist teacher; usually my texts really rests with the people who are before me, but now I’m sitting in front of cameras and computers and trying to connect with others, be they my students or people attending a lecture I am giving. Nor is it different for someone who’s dying, who is being related to through this medium. But for many, this is the only way that connection can be made at this time. The effects of this extend even further beyond this immediate shift in our behavior, because we are social animals. Buddha didn’t make the third treasure, the Sangha, a treasure because our relationships with each other weren’t important. The experience of our connection is what humanizes us deeply. And in fact, our evolution is built upon our ability to communicate and to cooperate, not just through words, but through our body language, through physical contact, and through our intimacy with each other.
There’s a reason why solitary confinement is considered torture. Because of social distancing and isolation, we’re beginning to understand the deep psychological effects on all of us. Even as our interconnection has been made more visible to us, more tangible to us, than ever before, instead of it being completely wonderful, something that creates a sense of intimacy, many of us have begun to regard the truth of interconnectedness with fear. For example, we understand a single touch, a piece of money, a grocery bag, a door handle, a credit card terminal, put us in touch with so many who are unseen. That person walking toward us without a mask on, or the hospital whose doors we have to touch an enter because we have chest pains or the airport that we have to enter, and the airplane that we have to take in order to fly back to the home of a dying parent or friend.
We have really begun to see how grief and how fear are deeply intertwined. C.S. Lewis wrote upon the death of his most beloved: “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” It would seem, from my point of view, that grief and fear have long been partners. And we have to understand that each person’s grief, and each person’s fear, is personal, and it’s true. And it cannot be compared to another’s grief, to another’s fear.
I remember reading a talk given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, it was a talk given at Harvard where Williams said, “The worst thing you can say is, ‘I know just how you feel.’ The most compassionate thing that you can say is, ‘I can never know how you feel.’” And this is, I believe, really true. We each experience fear in a unique way. And we each experience grief in a unique way. Nor can we rank loss, nor can we rank fear or grief. Some individuals will grieve over something that to other individuals seems irrelevant, but still, the grief is authentic. It’s there. It is simply what it means to each of us to go through this time with little or no touch, with minor connection, to be separated from the people and the places that are meaningful for us. To be bereft and to truly not know what’s coming next.
I believe that it’s essential that we grieve. And I also believe that it is important at this time for us to work with our fears. And we need to do this not only individually, but also we need to do this collectively. Yet our society struggles with grief and fear, and often regards both as a sign of weakness, as something to be ashamed of, as something to be denied, something to be hidden away, or something that should be processed as quickly as possible. I think all of this has been made more complicated by the fact that we have lost the myths, the stories, the rituals, and the practices, that support us in transforming these difficult experiences. Stories and rituals were something that was part of former generations; something that has been part of rites of passage. It’s something that our ancestors knew. They knew the stories, they knew the myths, they shared them in their communities. But now how do we do that? We don’t. We have lost the sense of gravity associated with these profound and transformative experiences. I also believe that our inability to face and work with grief and fear in a deep way has other implications. For example, I believe that this inability produces social fragmentation, increases social and psychological polarization, and also gives rise to fundamentalism and even to violence, as we have seen recently.
I think it’s also important for us to understand that grief and fear are human responses to loss–loss of social connection, loss of autonomy, loss of connection, and certainty. When one of my students was talking to me about grief, she said that grief is love that has nowhere to go. It’s the emotional and physical experience of suffering that we have in relation to the experience of loss. And there are certain kinds of psychological symptoms that are associated with grief, and we might be experiencing them now, some of us in very subtle forms, but often in ways that are deeply impactful. And these symptoms include being unable to really concentrate, feeling irritable, experiencing depression, being riven with anger; also anxiety, impatience, being subject to feelings of helplessness, being numb, or feeling basically disoriented.
And what is fear? Fear is a response to a real or imagined threat. And we are certainly in the grip of fear at this time. It’s been said that fear can interrupt processes in our brain that allow us to regulate our emotions, make it difficult for us to actually read nonverbal cues, that fear makes it quite difficult for us to reflect before we act, and often when that happens, we’re not acting ethically. Fear negatively impacts our thinking, our decision making, and leaves us very susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. But I think it’s also important to know that fear is a kind of doorway. My old friend, Joseph Goldstein wrote, “When fear arises, it means that we’re at some edge of what we’re willing to be with, what we’re willing to accept. Right there is precisely the most interesting place of practice because that is where we have set a limitation, a boundary for ourselves. If we can see that and recognize it, then that is the place to work, to look, to explore. That is the place to open.”
We know that in our practice, in a way, we’re asked to move further into the experience of fear, further into the experience of grief. So we can touch the roots of fear, which is about the self. So we can touch the roots of grief, which are about love.
In Buddhist practice, we say that one of the ways that we practice generosity is to give no fear. So our practice is about not avoiding fear. We know that in our practice, in a way, we’re asked to move further into the experience of fear, further into the experience of grief. So we can touch the roots of fear, which is about the self. So we can touch the roots of grief, which are about love.
We also know that in the end, if we avoid this experience as we encounter fear and as we encounter grief, that more suffering will usually happen. Each time that we turn away, we harden our grief. Each time that we turn away, we increase the grip of fear. And also we miss the opportunity to prepare ourselves for what is happening in our changing world.
So going back to Terry Tempest Williams, she said, “there’s deep beauty in not averting our gaze. No matter how hard it is, no matter how heartbreaking it can be, it is about presence, it is about bearing witness.” Then she said, “I used to think bearing witness was a passive act. I don’t believe that anymore. I think that when we are present – when we bear witness, when we do not divert our gaze – something is revealed–the very marrow of life. We change. A transformation occurs. Our consciousness shifts.”
So we see that fear and grief have great gifts to offer us. Hard as it may be to see them when we’re in the thick of the experience of grief, or when we’re in the grip of fear, both can be deeply humanizing, both can deepen our empathy, and both can increase our capacity for compassion and insight.
Our ability to face our fears and grieve can be supported when we draw on the myths, the stories, the rituals, the rites, the practices that help us make sense of life as we’re going through these changes. Healthy grieving and integrative fear often involve the support from our community, the support from those close to us, from our coworkers, our mothers.
I wrote recently, “I look at grief as an opportunity for us to, in a way that is not easy, to have our hearts break open, not simply break. And I also look at grief as an opportunity for us to touch into feelings that are calling to be explored in a way that is tender and courageous.”
So I’d like to share some ways that I think might be helpful for us to navigate through this time of loss, grief, and fear. The first thing I think that is really important is for us to know how important it is to accept that grief and fear are present in our lives right now. To not deny, but to be in touch with. I think we must move further into grief and fear rather than avoiding these experiences. And if we turn away from them, there will be more suffering, because of our turning away.
I think we also have to accept that things could well be worse before they get better. You know, after disasters, after big catastrophes, there’s a phase that can be kind of fun, challenging in a positive way, a honeymoon phase, where people come together and there’s a deep sense of solidarity and hope. But sometimes after this moment heroic inspiration, there’s a phase of disillusionment. And it’s good to know that this might happen. And that exhaustion might occur. And feelings of stress and abandonment. It’s important to have some sense of the potential landscape, the contours of the landscape, that we’re in now. It is inspiring to see people coming together. We are moved by acts of compassion. At the same time, we could even become numb to acts of compassion. And what is important is for us to stay in touch with the fact that at the beginning, the fear’s there, but then the heroic or the inspirational will happen, and then disillusionment can unfold. I think it’s also important that we could experience more collective grief and fear. And that’s because we’re facing not only and in the midst of, not only the pandemic but as well we’re looking at climate breakdown and mass extinction events. And these are just gathering apace right now. We might well be in a much deeper process of devolution than we recognize at this very time.
I also believe that it’s really important for us to grieve not as individuals only, but to grieve together as communities, and also to acknowledge our fear as communities.
Insight is important as we look at the truth of what we’re facing. And also to understand that the experience of fear, and the experience of grief, are not equalizers. What we’re seeing now are powerful new forms of inequality and a historical inequality that has been there for generations; this is becoming more transparent. The experience of social injustice is becoming more visible to us as the pandemic continues and as well, the devastating effects of the economic crash on those who are not “privileged.”
I also believe that it’s really important for us to grieve not as individuals only, but to grieve together as communities, and also to acknowledge our fear as communities. You know, in a way grieving is a collective experience. And in other cultures, in former times, grieving, mourning, and even fear, were expressed as a collective experience. I think it’s important for us to do that now. Not to reify, but to identify. And in a way, at a certain point, to objectify. In other words, not to be always at the unconscious or pre-conscious level a toy of grief and fear, but to make grief and fear visible, and to allow grief and fear to be liberated from our own subjective experience, and also from our interpersonal experience through insight and through compassion.
I think it’s also helpful to explore how our ancestors grieved. You know, every culture has its own rich and deep history of rituals acknowledging loss. It’s like a kind of treasure house that’s waiting to be discovered. Every culture has rights and practices for dealing with fear. And so it’s helpful at this time to look into the way other cultures have worked with grief and fear, or our ancestors have worked with grief and fear, or the practices in the religious and spiritual traditions that touch many of our lives, how grief and fear is worked within these different religious and spiritual traditions.
I think it’s also interesting to explore creating new rituals and practices to deal with collective and individual loss, and also to address and facilitate the transformation of our fears. You know, myths can’t be designed or created from scratch, but rituals can, practices can be invented, appropriate to particular situations. For example, Sharon Salzberg, myself, and others have crafted phrases for forgiveness, or for going through grief, or for encountering death, that really reflect the knowledge and care that is important right now in our Western culture. These phrases are influenced by Buddhism, but they’re not specifically Buddhist, but they reflect our experiences in our contemporary culture. These practices, these rituals, that we do, like for example hat Upaya Zen Center, the Kan Ro Mon, or the Gate of Sweet Nectar, they remind us of what we care about, what values are important to us, what principles we’re living by, what our priorities are, what our motivations are, what our intentions are, what our aspirations are. They’re about what gives our communities, but also our own lives as individuals, a sense of honor, dignity, and meaning.
I think it’s also important for us to understand that loss is a natural part of the life cycle, as is letting go of fear. In our Buddhist practice, we know that one of the important realizations that we have as practitioners is to penetrate into the truth of impermanence, to understand that, in a funny way, we can count on nothing, that our lives in actuality are completely unpredictable, and we need to to be able to ride the waves of birth and death like the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and not to find ourselves falling off the great surfboard of wisdom and drown in the waters of suffering, but to allow ourselves to be supported by wisdom, insight, compassion, and care.
We also know as Joseph Goldstein said, that when we’re standing on the brink of fear, it’s also an invitation for us to understand that we’re at a doorway, we’re at a threshold, we’re at a limit, a limit that we need to explore. As my student said, grief is love that has nowhere to go. We grieve because we love. If we avoid grief, in a certain way, we avoid love. It is important for us to grieve. When we experience fear, we then are able to identify a wall, a barrier, a limitation. And when we are able to face that wall, that barrier, that limitation, the place where we do not want to go beyond, this is an invitation for us to actually, as Aitken Roshi said, drive through that mountain, to go through that wall. It is an extraordinary time for us to actually work both of these processes in our lives, so that our wisdom can grow, so that character can be strengthened, so that compassion can be nourished.
I’d like to explore some practices that are very simple for addressing grief and fear. And some of these are, just out of Western culture, the kind of thing that we do as a person with a Western education, but they’re also reflected in the practices of other cultures. I talked about the importance of acknowledging our experience. For example, writing a letter to another where we are sharing our experience of grief, or making a list of the losses that we have experienced. Doing the same around fear: writing somebody or writing yourself, journaling about what I fear. It’s like bringing fear out of the dark, acknowledging it, and then exploring how substantial are those fears and asking what can those fears teach me?
Another practice involved in the art of working with fear or loss is to make an altar or a memorial corner, or a place in your garden, that actually marks loss or honors that which has been lost. Or that marks fear and that acknowledges those fears which have been transformed. Naming grief or naming fear can take the power to harm out of them, and let the power of what they can teach us become stronger in our lives. Often fear and grief freeze us in place. So moving into an experience of, one way or another, physical practice, for example, walking, a walk with another, or by ourselves, that affirms our appreciation for even just our ability to take a walk, even if it’s around our tiny space, or into our living room or into our garden. Because it’s understood that movement can open up things in us that thinking alone cannot.
So often our experience of fear and grief feel so unique. Why did this happen to me? And being able to actually be in connection, whether it’s online or with a family member with whom you’re sheltering, it can be so helpful to be borne witness to’ it can be so helpful also to bear witness to the story of another. We can find deep comfort in this connection as we share stories with each other.
Of course, our meditation practice is fundamental as a means of transforming fear and grief.
One practice that I really have benefited from has been music, listening to music, making music in our Zen center. We chant every day; we chant the Heart Sutra, the Maka Hannya, and it is not only the chanting itself, but it’s the experience of solidarity in a community of chanting words that point to who we really are. Sometimes I will listen to Mozart’s Requiem as a way to open the door of grief in my heart. The Requiem has been a piece of music that has moved me for many years, and returns me to tenderness, returns me to the experience of loss.
Of course, our meditation practice is fundamental as a means of transforming fear and grief. Just the experience of concentration, of grounding ourselves. For many grounding through the experience of attending to our breath, or bringing our attention to the sensation of our feet on the floor. Then affirming our motivation, which is our aspiration to wake up and be of benefit to others. Our practice should be grounded deeply in the experience of insight, insight into the truth of impermanence, insight into interconnectedness, also insight into our own triggers, the things that create reactivity in us. Practices, for example, that enhance concentration, or enhance compassion, like Tonglen, of giving and receiving, bringing in the truth of suffering, of ourselves or another, and letting it break our heart open. And then on the exhale, allowing ourselves to send a breath of healing, of well-being, to another. A practice of exchanging self with another, being able to actually slip into the experience of another, and to recognize not only in the experience of empathy and being in compassionate connection but also bringing appreciation into our own lives that we have the resources that we do have. Practices that are non-dual, that are about dropping into an experience of deep connection, of deep samadhi, allowing us to stabilize in a mental experience of open presence, of reflectivity, non reactivity.
Even with the things that I’ve just talked about, I don’t think we can anticipate that things will return to how they have been before. But in working honestly and courageously with grief and fear, we can bring a quality of courage and presence into whatever is ahead of us. Father Richard Rohr, who lives just South of me down in Albuquerque in his Center for Action and Contemplation recently wrote, “What if we can choose to experience this liminal space and time, this uncomfortable now, as a place in a state of creativity, of construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation? I wonder whether it is, then, also the realm of the Holy Spirit, our comforter, who does not take away the vastness and possibility of this opened-up threshold time, but invites us to lay down our fears and discomfort to see what else is there, hard is that may be…In liminal time and space, we can learn to let reality–even in its darkness–be our teacher, rather than living in the illusion that we are creating it on our own. We can enter into the liminal paradox: a disturbing time and space that not only breaks us down, but also offers us the choice to live in it with fierce of aliveness, freedom, sacredness, companionship, and awareness of Presence.”
Father Rohr’s words have their parallels in trauma psychology, which emphasizes healing from trauma, including trauma associated with loss. And this trauma doesn’t mean that we’re going to be returned back into the situation of wholeness that we experienced before. But people who experienced trauma that use it in an integrative way, realize that suffering has in fact made them more resilient than more vulnerable and that they have a greater ability to live in the present, rather than to be constantly overwhelmed by the past.
This suggests that beyond the ending of the old way of life, that we can’t expect life to go back to what it was before, but it’s also helpful to imagine that there’s a future in which our wounds are still there, but also those wounds are there in a form that makes it possible for us to be more connected with presence and the present, and that nourishes greater wisdom and greater compassion, as well as humility.
The Japanese author, Haruki Murakami in his Kafka on the Shore wrote, “And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
So I believe we can thrive in the midst. I think of people like Nelson Mandela, decades in the prison on Robben Island, coming out of prison a more empathic, compassionate, and wise person. I think of Malala who took a bullet in the head as she worked for the ending of oppression of girls and women, and supporting the education of girls, and how she has become a global spokeswoman in relation to how important it is to educate girls and women. I think about Jimmy Carter, cancer, old age, still showing up at Habitat for Humanity, nailing the boards, still speaking truth to power. So many who have been through incredibly difficult lives who have actualized deep and courageous character in the midst. And I think we have that opportunity as well, to thrive in the midst. Because thriving includes not only resiliency, not only being pliable and resilient but also to thrive means to improve, to have an enhanced quality of life previous to the trauma that we’ve been through or the trauma that we’re going through now.
Thriving means that we experience growth beyond survival, and this includes deeper connection, a more meaningful connection with others. It means new possibilities, new horizons for ourselves.
Thriving means that we experience growth beyond survival, and this includes deeper connection, a more meaningful connection with others. It means new possibilities, new horizons for ourselves. It means the cultivation and actualization of greater strength of heart and mind. It points to spiritual transformation. And it leads us to a much greater appreciation for life as it is.
You know, I recently read some words by Dr. Vivek Murthy who was the surgeon general of the United States under Barack Obama. He wrote, “In the final moments when only the most meaningful strands of life remain, it’s really our human connections that rise to the top. That’s the clarity that we get at the end of life.” Then he said, “But it was my parents who taught me from the earliest ages that we don’t have to wait until the end of life in order to recognize and act on the power of connection.”
I hope these words in some way have been useful or have served you. I hope we’ve come to have some sense of how grief and fear can be allies as we make it through this threshold experience of the pandemic. I do not know what is ahead of us. I do know I have this feeling that I was born for this time. I think that we have an extraordinary opportunity to use the adversity that we’re experiencing as individuals and as a global society to reshape what it means to be in a world that can be just, sane, and compassionate.
This is the heart of our practice. This is what I hope to see in my life. And in what unfolds in our shared future.
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