Advice for Transforming Fear and Cultivating Kindness in the Face of the Pandemicpaola
Taking Care During a Pandemic – Reflections on Our Mental Priorities
Excerpts from a talk by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Advice for Transforming Fear and Cultivating Kindness in the Face of the Pandemic
We all hope the global upheaval from the spread of corona virus does not last long. Of course, if it does persist there will be devastating effects on many fronts. That will be something none of us have seen in our lifetimes. Considering the challenge and difficulty that the whole world is facing, we must pay heed to the suggestions and advice of the health authorities. We need to get ourselves organized and act accordingly.
In times like this, it is also important to take care of our mental state. On this topic, I would like to share a few thoughts. We are being told that we need to isolate ourselves from others and in some cases shelter in place…yes, this is advisable medically, and, yes, we must do so physically. Yet we can’t let that isolation obscure the fact that we are all in this together. As the virus spreads we are getting a very, very clear picture that we are all connected. We are not just connected locally, but globally. We are all interdependently connected on a global scale. This is a fact.
We all feel the strong presence of care for our own health and for the health of our own family, friends and community. And it is natural for that care to turn into attachment. The movement from care to attachment is normal. Attachment reshapes our sense of care and leads us in different directions. In this moment we can gain a deeper appreciation of how attachment works. On the one hand attachment leads us is to ask, “how can I isolate and protect myself?” Again, this is a natural and sensible response, but if we want a deeper understanding of attachment, we should look closer still. That stance of protecting oneself implies that we are rejecting certain things coming from outside. Whether it is toward the virus or those we suspect may be carriers of the virus (since we simply don’t know), we emphasize a barrier with the outside world.
When we stress the “outside” we mentally separate ourselves from others altogether and especially those beyond the boundary of our primary attachments, such as our own health or those we cherish most. With that separation often comes the second tendency or pattern of attachment, which is fear. Now, some fears are truly healthy. In that regard, we need to be pragmatic and take precautions, from washing our hands and sanitizing our workspaces and doorknobs to practicing social distancing. But when fear leads to aggression or paranoia it may make our actions towards others more hostile. That is not very going to be helpful to them or for us.
As the deeper habits and tendencies of attachment become exposed to us, hopefully, we will also solicit the tendencies of considering others. We need to be kind to one another and compassionate towards those who are suffering. We should act helpfully and be generous. The advice we have received to avoid physical contact and proximity to others needn’t prevent us from simultaneously generating a soft mentality of kindness, compassion, and a sense of global responsibility towards everyone. We do not want to allow concern to become fear which in turn becomes hostility and rejection. In this heightened moment we can continue, or begin, our lifelong training in altruism and compassion. Doing so in the midst of crisis would be a great testament to our values and beliefs and what we hold most dear.
Of course, we cannot expect the whole world to behave this way, but we can still encourage each other to not allow our minds to turn negative during an upheaval such as this. We have to be awake and vigilant. In doing so we will feel a greater sense of solidarity with others, from our immediate family and friends and coworkers, to our larger social networks, our neighbors and neighborhoods, and the first responders and healthcare workers, civil servants, mayors and governors and national politicians, and so on across the world. However challenging it might be, in the end we will emerge stronger by doing so, with confidence that communities will stand together in times of crisis rather than splinter into escape routes of paranoia and fear.
Medically speaking, a cure must be found. That work is beyond the scope of most of us and is the domain of governments and medical professionals. Hopefully, by the good work of our institutions and by the merits of each of us and of all humanity, that cure is found sooner rather than later. In the meantime, what we can all do as individuals is to develop a more compassionate outlook toward the world, toward each other, and toward our personal vulnerability. That will ensure that we don’t lose touch with our humanity. Rather, through this crisis, we can expand our connection to humanity ever more.
Advice to Practitioners
The instinct to isolate ourselves and reject others, the fear and paranoia…any of the negative aspects of our human mind can, of course, come up. Its not really bad if it comes up because we all have seeds of potential for such things to arise. But we want to recognize them for what they are when they do come up so that we don’t succumb to them. That is the practice of self reflection and altruism, and practice has to be practiced. Practice does not happen on its own. Whether your practice is the four immeasurables, or patience, or meditation, or prayer this is the moment to apply it to what arises in your mind, for your benefit and the benefit of others. Everyone is finding their sense of wellbeing to be challenged by all they read, hear, see or experience first hand. Through the practice we can stabilize our own sense of well being and share that experience with others.
It is also important to emphasize that whatever comes up in our minds is natural. What we do from there, though, is where we have choice. When fear and paranoia arise don’t let it turn to aggression. Allow your mind to soften and expand a bit in that moment. Allow your compassion and kindness to arise, knowing that we are all in this together. The whole world is effected. In my lifetime I have not seen anything like this. This has had a deep world-wide effect. It amazes me, because it also shows how much we are connected. We often make that statement, but the unfathomable degree of our connection is illustrated profoundly by this crisis.
Some of the attachments, the tendencies to protect oneself, whether it be about procuring enough food or toilet paper in this time of crisis, are not bad. To whatever degree people want to do follow those, that’s up to them. But the main thing is to not turn hostile towards anyone and to not get aggressive with anyone. Don’t separate yourself as “the one” in danger and, therefore, in need of protecting yourself with a sense of aggression toward others. Even if you succeed in protecting yourself through aggression in the short term, it won’t really work out favorably in the long run. We need to understand the bigger picture. When paranoia and fear emerge it does not genuinely serve us to turn in their direction and succumb to them. The principal of altruism should remain in place. We should be willing to extend to others within the limits of personal safety and not further spreading the disease.
The Vulnerability We All Share: Expanding our Care
On one hand, this pandemic shows our human vulnerability and mortality, and that’s really very interesting. It has always been there, but in this current situation it is in our faces. As a Buddhist, I find the heightened awareness of our vulnerability to be a helpful reminder of the truth that is always there.
When we hear report after report it tends to influence our mind. It can make us a little more fearful. It can heighten our concerns for ourselves, our families, our communities. It is really interesting how it goes for me… I am living in Colorado so I have concern for Colorado, but then Colorado is part of America, so I have concerns too for all of America. That is good. It’s all coming from a place of care and it shows me that I really care. But I can’t limit my care to where in my personal attachments or immediate instinct takes me.
Instinct directs our care to our community, to our country. Naturally, we don’t want our country to suffer so much. But, simultaneously, what’s happening right here in your mind: your hope that your country does not suffer the effects of this crisis, know that the exact same feelings can be found in the minds of everyone everywhere else. They too are concerned for themselves, their families, their communities and their countries. Think about your personal care and concern and then acknowledge that everyone everywhere is experiencing the same feelings of care and concern. In that, we begin to see the truth of the vulnerability that we’re all facing.
What I’m trying to work with at this time is to have care that is not limited to my immediate family or country, but rather care that is extended toward the whole world. Thinking like this, we begin to see that many of us are quite privileged. We have good support systems, generally easy lifestyles and access to benefits that we tend to take for granted. In some third-world countries, millions don’t even have access to a local clinic. Also, those who have been in severe lock-down in China and other countries, I try to think about what they must be experiencing.
When I see my own vulnerability I try to reflect upon that by considering others who have more challenging circumstances. How are they really feeling? It makes me open my heart, gives me a sense of loving-care, brotherhood, sisterhood, or at the very least a sense that we are all here on this earth to face this together with compassion. From this understanding we can offer prayers that this crisis is resolved as quickly as possible and without excessive death tolls or suffering. We can offer prayers too for those who have already died. There are many, from China to Europe and now all the way here to America.
This is how I’ve been relating to this situation, this crisis. I utilize whatever makes me more aware of my own vulnerabilities, anxieties and uncertainties as a means to open up to what is happening everywhere for everyone. This reflections opens you up. It opens your mind and your heart to move towards others. That is what I find to be a truly beneficial experience at this time.