Lessons from the Pandemic - Part I

Aug 04, 2022

Suffering is an inevitable part of being alive. While no being wants to suffer, we often learn our most important life lessons, including compassion and tenderness, through our experiences of suffering.Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous saying, “No Mud, No Lotus,” reminds us that the compost of our suffering can serve as fertilizer for the garden of our hearts and spirits.

And so with the last few years of living in and with the pandemic. I use the term “pandemic” as shorthand for many simultaneous pandemics - not just Covid, but also the pandemics of climate change, misinformation, gun violence, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, anxiety, depression, moral turpitude of people in power, among others. We are living in challenging times. What is there to learn from them?

Many spiritual traditions hold the epitome of spiritual learning and evolution to be awareness of the Oneness of all of life. In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh expounds on the teachings of the Buddha: “The cause of suffering is ignorance, a false way of looking at reality… The path of liberation is the path of looking deeply at things in order to truly realize the nature of impermanence, the absence of a separate self, and the interdependence of all things. Once ignorance is overcome, suffering is transcended… All things depend on each other for their arising, development, and decline. Within one thing exists all things. In this life you depend upon many other beings for your existence. These other beings are part of you. If you can see that, you will experience true understanding and love.” In summary: awareness of our interdependence is the way out of suffering, and suffering is caused by the illusion of our separate, isolated self.

Eckhart Tolle says, “The evolutionary goal for humans is ultimately to realize the oneness of everything that arises in consciousness, is really an aspect of consciousness. And the time would come when humans, once they’ve left ego behind,” we realize, “we are the one being, the one consciousness. Then, names and forms become almost irrelevant. There’s only the one consciousness, disguising itself” as all the manifestations of this world. In summary: For humanity to survive, we need to shed our egos and become more conscious that we are all part of the one.

Despite the suffering these times have wrought, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to recognize these profound spiritual truths in direct ways.

If you’ve ever watched an ant farm, it’s amazing how ants work separately yet together. Ants don’t just travel on their own separate, independent and individual ways. Each individual is part of the collective, and the collective moves as a whole, with each member doing their part. The same can be seen in schools of fish, or bees in a hive.

Here in the West, and especially the US, we have a cult of independence and individualism. We tend to live our lives believing that it’s just us, out for ourselves, maybe our nuclear families as well. But the pandemic put into relief how interdependent we truly are. When we masked, stayed home when sick, got vaccinated, or when we didn't - when stepping back and watching patterns, we saw how our individual behaviors impacted the whole community. We saw how traffic patterns changed due to changes in school and work schedules. Supply chain issues also revealed our interdependence: when a slow down in production happened over here, we did not get the goods over there. We saw how reliant we are on “essential workers'' - those who grow, harvest, deliver, package, and sell our food, those who maintain the infrastructure of our streets, our trash and sewage systems, our healthcare system. Ironically, in late stage capitalism, a time when people generally feel more isolated and individual more than ever before, we are actually more reliant on each other than ever before: on systems that get us the goods and services and infrastructure that allow our lives to function.

Climate change affects us all. How we care for our home, Mother Earth, directly benefits us. We are not separate from the Earth. While we know that one person’s actions don’t make a huge difference, many people’s actions collectively do. And changes in our collective thinking, values, and ways of doing things ultimately change systems, which are the most difficult to change. The most powerful change comes from the bottom up, from people moving in a certain direction, until more and more of us, and eventually all of us, go in that direction. It doesn’t take everyone to make systems change. It only takes a critical mass.

Ants don’t go their separate ways until there is a big disruption, like when a person or large animal steps on an anthill. Then they go hither and thither. But after a while they regroup, and move together again, for their colony as a whole. I believe that we are currently in that phase of going hither and thither. When the social fabric starts breaking down, when we no longer share a story of reality, it’s as if the ants are running all over the place in various directions. It’s not a great situation. But disruption also allows for change to occur, whether positive or negative - and we can’t know how it will turn out until much later.

The more of us wake up to our interdependence and interconnectedness and start behaving as if we are part of a collective, like we are in it for the survival and well-being and happiness of the whole rather than just for ourselves, the happier we will be as individuals, and the more our collective can be well. To me, all we do to connect and be in community is key: remembering that we are in it together, and caring for one another.

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