The world is made of silly putty
The coronavirus pandemic is causing a lot of us to think about how we have lived our lives, about our values and what we would like life to be after this is all over.
The response to the pandemic is also making clear that it may be quite difficult to go back to the lives we had. The economic toll may end up being devastating. Besides killing a lot of us, the virus may also pose a danger to our civilization, or at least to parts of it.
And more: the blithe early reaction of countries and leaders around the world—with the exceptions of China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong—may serve as a warning about other existential threats we are brushing aside. Climate change and the danger of nuclear was come to mind first and foremost. Here too experts have spent many years warning us in as clear language as they possibly can, only to be largely ignored and at best relegated to the least important corners of policy making.
Besides more pandemics to come, we are in for potentially even worse, unless we wake up to our reality.
It is a reality we have created.
Our treatment of the natural world and each other—the encroachment into ecosystems, the destruction of wildlife, the disruption of the climate system as well as the gross inequalities we have allowed to develop between people—have put us on a path of self-destruction.
The pandemic is a wakeup call.
It is also a grim reminder of our mortality, and of the fragility of all phenomena, including and especially human institutions.
Our sense of permanence and stability is a delusion. It has always been a delusion.
In Buddhism there are the four thoughts that turn the mind—turn it towards the practice of dharma, that is.
One of these thoughts is the deep contemplation of impermanence. The way in which not only we ourselves, but all creation, all that is, is just dust in the wind.
Sounds kind of morbid.
Yet a deep realization of the reality of impermanence can be liberating. It can reorder our priorities. It can help us turn away from a life preoccupied with fleeting material things and conventional success, and towards one of contemplation, greater joy and compassion.
Whatever your dharma, whatever path you are on, contemplating impermanence can be a great aid in securing your commitment and focus.
Padmasambhava*, the mythic (but not therefore necessarily unreal) founder of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, lists the following as part of the preliminary practices that will help prepare the mind for achieving enlightenment:
1. “Go to a deserted place, broken-down ruins, a field of dried grass rustling in the wind, or en eerie place, or else go where there are pathetic ill people, beggars, and son who were previously prosperous and later fell on hard times….Then with your mind ponder the sufferings of the cycle of existence…”
2. “Go by yourself, with no companions, up to a remote region where there are no people passing by, a disagreeable and depressing place where there are dark, craggy peaks of piled up rock and bits of rubble as your companions, where the wind makes a rustling sound in the grass, with the sun rolling down from the sky, and mountain creeks thundering downward. Or else go to a charnel grounds where there are lots of human corpses lying around, with little fragments of legs and arms, flesh, bones, and skin, where foxes are howling, ravens are stalking around, owls are making their rattling calls, the wind is moaning, and foxes and wolves are pulling back and forth on the corpses…..for by going to such a spot and meditating, an awareness of impermanence will automatically arise.”
Awareness of impermanence. We are, of course, aware of impermanence, but for the most part almost all of us live as though we were not. Padmasambhava wants our minds to become saturated with the awareness of impermanence so that we never forget it. With such a mind we have perspective. We are open and receptive to wisdom, to dharma, and our minds find a natural equilibrium in which compassion and gratitude and love more easily arise.
The human world around us may increasingly resemble a deserted place, broken-down ruins and a charnel grounds. It is an opportunity to meditate, to ponder the nature of impermanence and of existence itself.
The pandemic is a tragedy. It is also a reminder of how fleeting life is, how precious is the time we have to practice dharma and develop wisdom and insight, and to practice love and compassion towards our fellow beings on this planet.
Take time in meditation to imagine the scenes now unfolding around the world. See the suffering and the termination of life. Picture your own self in the hospital, fighting for breath and life. It could happen to you, to me, to any of the people we love. Remind yourself that none of us has a get out of jail free card. Our time can come at any time, now more than ever.
What, then, is of true importance?
*Quotes are taken from Natural Liberation: Padmasambhava's Teachings on the Six Bardos, Translated by B. Alan Wallace, with commentary of Gyatrul Rinpoche, published by Wisdom Publications in 1998.