Human life as we’ve known it has ground to a halt, and we’re faced with an unprecedented crisis—and an unprecedented opportunity. Covid-19 is the guru who won’t leave us alone, who taunts us at every turn to acknowledge our ignorance, pulls the rug out from under us, and forces us to learn the lessons it’s come to teach.
For those of us with a (nondual) spiritual orientation, here are a few of the potential teachings of
Most of the structures we’ve come to rely on—supply chains, infrastructure, health-care system, immune system, and above all our intimate contact with others, so ordinary and previously predictable as to seem beyond question—have crumbled, and if we’re not feeling queasy, shell-shocked, grief-stricken, or at the very least uneasy, we haven’t been paying attention.
The teaching here is the timeless one of impermanence and constant change, writ large, and the invitation is to take refuge in our deepest ground, our boundless, timeless spiritual nature, which is unshaken by the catastrophes and pandemics to which human life is prone. On present evidence only, without consulting the mind, is anything missing from this moment right now? Is anything incomplete or problematic? In the silence beneath all the noise, the stillness in the midst of the turmoil, where is the crisis?
Of course, this nondual spiritual nature is not a state or thing we can hold on to, but rather the essence of constant change itself, groundless, empty, and unfindable, yet always peaceful, luminous, and filled with love. In the words of Chogyam Trungpa, “The bad news is, you’re falling through space without a parachute. The good news is, there is no ground.” With our long-held illusions of reliability and predictability stripped away, we have an extraordinary opportunity to let go of our reliance on an imaginary ground and surrender to the groundless.
Many of the great spiritual traditions teach the value of withdrawing from the world into an ashram or monastery and focusing exclusively on the spiritual life. But true renunciation has nothing to do with shaving your head or living the celibate life—it’s about renouncing the belief that anything outside ourselves can bring us lasting fulfillment. As Jesus said, “Do not store your treasures on earth, where moth can destroy or rust decay, but store your treasures in heaven,” where moth and rust cannot touch them. This is the essence of renunciation.
If you’ve been relying on your job, your material possessions, your stock portfolio, even your intimate relationships to fulfill your deepest longings, meet Covid-19, the equal-opportunity pandemic, that has distanced us from our loved ones and friends, sent the world economy into a tailspin, and stalled the express-train of progress in its tracks.
The principles on which our capitalist, consumerist economic and social structure are based—constant (self) improvement, the promise of a bigger and better future, the belief that technology and human ingenuity will make everything right—are being shaken to their very foundations. As long as we depend for our happiness, even to the slightest degree, on external circumstances, we’re going to feel disappointed and hopeless. Now that the spiritual rubber has hit the road, we’re being called upon to turn inward to find the true source of fulfillment in the eternal simplicity of the here and now.
At the other end of the spectrum, if we somehow felt we could hang out in a kind of aloof and ethereal peace enabled by spiritual bypassing and denial, we may find that we can no longer hide from the realities our brothers and sisters are facing. Even a dear friend of mine who’s on solo meditation retreat in the mountains of Colorado has been deeply affected by the pain and hardship she hears about from close friends and reads about from occasional forays into the latest news. Indeed, because she’s so open and attuned to the collective, the love and compassion is even more profound.
Although we share an inviolable and undivided spiritual nature, Covid-19 reminds us that we’re also human beings with tender human hearts that reverberate to the ephemeral circumstances around us unless we forcibly keep them closed. In these times of global suffering, confusion, and privation, we can take the opportunity to open our hearts and embrace the emotions that are inevitably evoked—fear, compassion, empathy, grief, anger, powerlessness, love, and all the other nuanced feelings in between. The heart is not only the center of personal feelings, it’s the energy center where we attune to the collective, not my heart, but our shared human heart.
As we welcome our feelings, it’s important to avoid the extremes of identification and distancing. On the one hand, we can embrace the feelings just as they are without believing the negative stories and beliefs that perpetuate them: Nothing is ever going to be the same again. The world is falling apart. I’m never going to be able to put my life together. On the other hand, we can avoid the understandable impulse to sidestep painful feelings and retreat into detachment and indifference, maintaining the same distance from our emotional experience that we’re forced to keep from one another
If the coronavirus hasn’t reminded us of our inseparability, nothing possibly could. Not only has the virus ignored national borders, religious differences, ethnic divides, language barriers, and socio-economic class and threatened us all, wealthy nations as well as poor, its spread has revealed how our interconnectedness at every level has made us more vulnerable to pandemics and other global health crises. As we all know, the virus began in China and was carried to Italy by Chinese workers in the garment industry there—and continued its spread via the airplanes and cruise ships that seamlessly join us. As an illness we share as a species, Covid-19 reminds us of the other major crisis we face as human beings, regardless of borders or boundaries: climate change.
The speed of its spread and our struggle to contain it echo similar concerns about impending environmental catastrophes like coral bleaching, large-scale releases of methane in the Arctic, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Covid-19 may turn out to be the test run for a global catastrophe of more epic, and irreversible, proportions. As many writers have suggested, we’re being asked to reassess and rebalance our presence on Earth with our interconnectedness at heart. There is absolutely no question that the premise of endless progress for eight billion human beings is simply unsustainable for the planet. Those of us who are attuned to our nondual spiritual nature can be the prophets of this rebalancing, sharing our insights and concerns with others and urging us to pay attention.
The coronavirus has finally stopped us in our tracks, just before we hurtle inexorably into the abyss. During this fleeting pause, we have an unprecedented opportunity to turn inward and reevaluate our trajectory.
In the wisdom traditions, human life is often depicted as the intersection of the horizontal—our movement through space and time as individuals and as a species—and the vertical—the timeless, boundaryless, radiant dimension of spirit. Each of us embodies this union of the two dimensions in every moment. If we ignore the horizontal, we get stuck in an ethereal realm and have difficulty functioning in everyday life. But if we forget the vertical and go about our business as if the eternal truths of groundlessness, impermanence, and interconnectedness did not apply, we end up where we are now in the third decade of the 21st century. Covid-19 tells us that the time for a reckoning has come.
This blog was first published on Stephan's website