(for the advanced, happy Dhamma practitioner)
Introduction – Buddhist body-mind philosophy
Let us look for a calm space and try a few perceptual experiments around this situation with the virus to see if we can find something that can help us see it all in a skilful way. Given the gravity of the situation, at the outset it may seem a bit strange or even crazy to even consider thinking as a way of finding a refuge and protecting ourselves from the virus which is so real and so scary. It could seem like claiming we could think away a bus bearing down on us or a storm raging above. It could seem mad to think we can escape without taking any action. Surely it is all about washing our hands? Yes, it is certainly agreed that it would be mad not to do that. Buddhism does not advocate such passivity as ignoring those kind of things, but instead it encourages us to be acting in a wise way on every level – body and mind.
In this article we will be assuming that we are already doing whatever can be done in terms of the body, and will be considering only the mind here.
We will begin with an outline of Buddhist philosophy related to finding a mental and ultimately spiritual refuge within body and mind, then go on to apply this to the current situation with the coronavirus. Note that we are not looking for a refuge just in the mind but within a mind that is aware of the body, its realities and its needs. So all the way along this is a path that has both wisdom and compassion. It is also one that is aimed at the highest goal of the Buddha’s teaching, of liberation, of spiritual enlightenment.
The Buddha teaches us to protect our minds by seeing, realising that we are not our bodies and letting go of our attachment, our identification with our bodies. The mind then realises a state of detachment from the body which it sees and experiences as not-self. This is not to deny that there is, of course, a connection between body and mind on the objective level (we will be underlining the importance of seeing this later in this article). The Buddha’s view is not a dualistic, Cartesian view. What the Buddha is pointing to is that within our subjective experience of ourselves, in the calm mind, the experiences of body and mind can be separated. We can hence find ourselves an inner refuge from the ups and downs of the body. This is achieved in one way by withdrawing the mind from the senses, entering samādhi, and then continuously letting go of the body within this state. In this way we discover a mind that remains aware of but detached from the body, without the need to withdraw. We find a true refuge, one within the world not separate from it and therefore a refuge in which we can still function. This is the path of meditation taken all the way and integrated into our lives.
We can use wise reflection as well as meditation to calm the mind towards such samādhi. Through wise reflection we can gain a clear objective view of a situation, like a scientist or doctor, and the distance of seeing something in an impersonal way. And yet impersonal does not mean uncaring. This view pays off both in our efforts to survive and in our efforts to transcend. In the truly wise mind these two are not separate or opposed to each other – our ability to operate externally relying in turn on an inner surrender or acceptance.
Such contemplation is an art. Depending how we reflect, the process can either be scary, we feel out of control; or we detach from the world, looking on from outside. So it is very important we look in the right way. Our objective view needs to be brought in to a clear, calm subjective experience or perception in the present in order to form a refuge. This is the purpose of a phenomenological philosophy such as the Buddha’s teaching, to grasp a complex system in a way that we can understand it without abstract thought, forming a picture or perception rather than a concept. In this way we can remain with our experience and not get lost in thought. We can empty the mind in the face of phenomena (not merely through withdrawal) and we find a refuge stable in all circumstances. We can remain calm and clear.
Reflecting on the pandemic
So let us take these principles and try to apply them to the case of a life-threatening virus entering in to our world, looking for perceptions of this situation that may help us.
It is interesting, first of all in terms of the situation as a whole, that when we talk about people who are researching or dealing with the virus, we always use the word ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. This distances us from the whole situation. We are not taking responsibility and doing what we can but turning to the experts or the government. This is unhealthy. If we say or think ‘we are fighting the virus’ this has a completely different feel. We can even be doing our own research in our own way on how best to deal with the situation and share this with others. Then we are on board with the situation, grateful for others’ help and slow to be angry or demanding with ‘them’.
It can also be valuable to always refer to the body as ‘the body’ rather than as ‘me’. To relate in impersonal language gives us already a healthy sense of distance. We can take the body for a walk, wash the body, feed the body to try to stay healthy. This can be just like we take the favourite pet dog for a walk, shampoo the dog, feed the dog. This is fun, which is very important to keep the mind light.
Then we can reflect on how we see or think of this thing called ‘a virus’, noting that viruses are invisible to the naked eye or even the microscope. This is one reason a virus is so scary. (Or this is also reason why we can forget and/or ignore the situation.) Hence we will have to have the courage to imagine the virus instead. Another reason the virus is so scary is, of course, because it is making a lot of bodies go wrong very quickly at the same time. But as we cope with our own personal situation, we need to focus in on our own body and not make our own personal problem bigger just because it is part of a larger problem in the world.
Entering in to this personal sphere we need to then not let this mean that we take the situation personally in an unhealthy way but look to see what is happening instead as part of the impersonal operation of nature. To consider that the virus is not a living thing can perhaps be our first step towards an impersonal view, a step which will make us less likely feel personally attacked or victimised. It is not that we have an aggressive living foe. The self-reproduction of the virus looks alive and can make us feel like it is a living being, but is the manufacture of body fluids, as a comparison, really life?
This opens for the philosophical question: What is life then? Perhaps growing something a little more lasting, like hair or bones? Where is the line here between the alive and inert parts of the body? When we start looking it’s not so clear. I would suggest information or meaning integrated into a physical system is really life, not merely growth or new material or information that cannot be integrated – that is destructive to the organism and that has no independent life of its own.
So life, in my view (and I would say also in the Buddha’s view), is more to do with this aspect of mind, (lets try calling it the ‘biological mind’), than the body. Material can be consistent with the meaning, codes or blueprints of the organism, or inconsistent. To reproduce the virus is not what the body means to do. The virus is not part of the information of the body or mind, but code from outside. It is particularly hard for us, perhaps, to see how genetic coding can enter so far into a system, that we see subjectively as an integrated whole and so much as part of our identity – our genes. The virus is entering into the body’s chemistry, beyond the influence of our mind. It is taking control, not through a mere chemical reaction but a process involving a passage of information, something that we normally associate with the mind.
We can also have underestimated the degree to which the proliferating mind is caught up with physical systems – this aspect of the ‘biological’ mind or computer is in fact like the servant of the body, as neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio so clearly argue. The mix between chemistry and information is then very dangerous, it is like the ultimate mix between mind and matter bringing wild local code into a wider informational system. In this way we see a virus as so invasive into what we see ourselves as being part of; we have to step back a long way to escape it, seeing it as not-self. Yet this can be to our advantage in Dhamma.
This can be a disturbing mix up of our two subjective worlds, mental and physical. This can be scary if we identify with the body or with the automatic, computer-like ‘biological mind’ – if we cannot also see the difference between the biological mind, the automatic mind and our subjective consciousness in the present moment. If we are a meditator this is exactly the difference we are training ourselves to see. As we chant ‘Buddho, Buddho’ inside, we can see the stream of our present moment thought, simply and clearly, as separate from the noise of the automatic proliferating mind. We considered earlier that body and mind are not separate in the objective, material world but only within our subjective experience. Again we do not, we need not, claim that our present moment consciousness is objectively somehow independent of the brain, or the biological mind dependent thereon. We need only be able to divide the mind that is influenced by the body from the aspect of the subjective mind that is potentially not influenced, stable while conscious.
Finding a clear perception
Thus we can regain our clarity in two ways. Firstly if we see that the virus is just a chemical getting into the manufacturing part of our body chemistry, and being reproduced by our body and spread around by our body. This is a very different perception from that of assuming that something alive aggressively takes us over for its own advantage. It is our body that is taking up this material without recognising it for what it is. It is our body that is having a problem handling this thing. Only the cells of the immune system can recognise that it is foreign. Only these cells can interact in a communicative way with the viral cells. What this all comes to is that if we do not see information and communication as part of chemistry it will seem as though the virus is somehow alive and taking us over, rather than that this is just a molecule that messes up the chemistry and hence the biological functioning of the body. If we expand our view of chemistry then we have an impersonal view of the disease rather than a personal one. If we see our bodies as this kind of impersonal thing this is not an invasion. We will not lose our sense of control. We will realise that this was a process over which the mind never had any control. Practically speaking our way forward is also clear. What we need to do is to try to find a way into the chemistry, where we can find some control with a clear detached mind, in order to help the body.
Hospitals and health care workers are doing a marvellous job in this virus crisis and we are truly grateful for that. Without detracting in any way from their competence or caring, in this thought exercise we can try thinking of our hospitals as a loving laboratory in which we are doing the work and investigation necessary for survival. If we get the perception ‘laboratory’ right then ultimately we can, at the same time, realise how uncertain life is and be also motivated to get out of the life’s great laboratory. This will not be scary if we see the body at that moment as ultimately just a bunch of chemistry and biology; if we are identifying with this body then we are under threat and will be afraid.
Similarly our homes we can see more like a greenhouse where we control the environment for the body to thrive as best we can, yet these homes can become a prison. Instead of looking only to create or hold on to something stable, we can be motivated also on the other part of the search which is to be looking for that which is stable already – the peaceful, empty mind or ‘spirit’.
If we can let go, these perceptions, ‘laboratory’ or ‘greenhouse’ can become not negative but liberating, freeing us from being tied to an uncertain world.
The second way we can find clarity is by drawing a parallel between chemical viruses and viruses of the biological mind. The body itself we can see like its own laboratory. From the standpoint of the peaceful mind we can dread the moments where we by necessity get dragged back from the security of the spirit into the uncertainty of this laboratory, its chemistry or its computer system that is our biological, conditioned mind. The biological definition of a virus is, ‘an infective agent able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.’ The computer definition is ‘a piece of code which is capable of copying itself and corrupting the system’. This is the same as the biological definition, just that it is in informational terms. This is the fundamental way that the virus is operating, changing or hijacking chemistry, through information. We can begin to see even the facts of the proliferating mind as part of this same wider system – this biological mind and nature as a necessary unity, then the whole system is under threat of being exposed.
Towards the ultimate
If we are at the stage of looking at the unstable nature of the system in order to let go and stay with the element that is stable already – the spirit – then we can even want to see viruses of different kinds on different levels of our existence. If we can see the extended or greater biological or natural Mind, perhaps to see the possibility of a virus getting in to the Great Universal Computer is helpful, it gives us the Mind’s-eye view of things as well as the body-eye view. The replication of a virus can also begin to look like the proliferating mind, that turns in on itself rather than opening to the whole. We can begin to see conscious, voluntary thought and communication as healthy, and likewise uncontrolled proliferation as like a disease. Passive entertainment we can see as merely fuel for our reflex proliferation. So, if, through the ultimate communication we call Dhamma, we can see this whole process and learn from it, we can begin to see its impersonal, uncertain nature on the highest level and let go of our identification with everything.
So to summarise, there is essentially nothing different in this viral sickness to another where the body is going wrong in some way. And if we can see that it is just the body that is going wrong, and this upsets the part of the mind that is the servant of the body, then we can detach from both the body and this part of the mind.
The last illusion is that samādhi without wisdom is already independent, a refuge. Even the emptiness of mind that holds itself apart is not safe precisely because it needs to hold itself. There is always and only a refuge there in the emptiness of the mind that arises within this body mind system – not apart from it. This is the natural result of true wisdom, of love of truth and of true love.
So I offer all this for your reflection. If the perception I am trying to create leads to your peace and happiness and motivates you in a good direction I hope you may remember it and find a refuge, if not please quickly forget the laboratory, the greenhouse and all the rest!
Ajahn Kalyāno – http://www.openthesky.co.uk
At a time of crisis to be able to laugh at something we are afraid of – or just to laugh at a time when we are afraid – can be a great release. Being English this is, of course, very much part of my culture, it is also very common in North East Thailand, the great ‘Land of the Arahants’. My mother does well at this. She lost a breast to cancer a few years ago, blind and in her eighties. The day after the operation one of the other patients on the ward asked her how she was doing, she replied,
“Well, I am half the woman I was.”
My sense of humour has, however, been the most difficult aspect of writing these short articles – knowing when it could be alright to add a little humour and when not in such a grave situation. For also, of course, humour at the wrong moment or to someone who does not understand your sense of humour, or when you are joking, can be a disaster. The meditation group I teach in Oslo asked me in the beginning of the pandemic whether I could give a talk for them once a week on camera. I had to say I would rather do a video conference where I could see who I was talking to, and also chose to write these short articles as my response at this time of crisis.
So often in life we learn how to relate to ourselves by relating to others. So often we will know how to respond to our own minds if we see what is happening as if from the outside. If we cannot really see where we are at or do not want to be honest about it to ourselves, we can joke ourselves along through a crisis and then lack compassion for ourselves at the crucial moment, creating a bit of an inner disaster. We can joke in a way that accepts a situation or in a way that does not. We have to be aware of our underlying intention, as always. The result we get will always depend on this. So often I am asked how to get rid of unpleasant emotions. If someone comes to see us experiencing an unpleasant emotion, if we try to get rid of them how do they respond?
I also know how difficult it can be to listen and retain at such a time. In this respect we are often reliant on the perceptions, the wisdom we have or do not have, the calm we have or do not have, and have to ride with that; we can very rarely take in a lot of new information. Also, from my own perspective, this approach gives me a chance to take time and choose my words carefully. All this could be good advice for communicating with others at such a time. We have to realise that people may not be very ‘with it’ and could forget or misunderstand. These can be very emotional times. We can need to respond to these emotions both within ourselves and in others, to give them time. Whether we like them or not, whether we think we should have them or not, emotions are not wrong on the spiritual path.
I offer this for your reflection
My mother asked me the other day for the email address of an old friend of the family that we had been out of touch with for some time. Turns out that my Mum, bless her heart, is trying to contact everyone that she has some kind of unfinished business with just in case she dies. This would be a very common practice amongst those who believe in rebirth and hence that our karma with others could follow us into our next life – yet this can be a very important thing for all of us to do. It is by resolving, as best we can, whatever hangs over us from the past that we can be at peace in the face of death. We could also say that this is another way such a threat can take our lives in a good direction, motivating us to get things resolved and lighten our load.
Of course there will be things that are difficult to resolve. We could have regrets toward people who have died, for example, so we can only do our best – yet just our wholesome intention can be enough for us to find peace and let go.
I offer this for your reflection
Playing dead can be a great way of escaping attack, especially useful at a time of crisis where there can be danger everywhere. The problem is that playing dead leaves one rather vulnerable. I would like to propose that a possible solution could be that instead of playing dead one plays extinct. In this way one retains the harmlessness of being dead while remaining alive. If one considers the ideal in this respect then I believe one will play dinosaur. Such creatures are far from vulnerable and yet, being extinct, remain harmless, as harmless even as one dead and gone.
If this all seems a little strange then, to avoid embarrassment, one may need only to merely hint at playing dinosaur in order to at least unnerve the attacker. Placing the hand behind the back in the way illustrated in the picture below may serve as a ‘hinted stegosaurus’, for example.
Or a snake-like gesture of the arm, flowing gracefully upwards and forwards, can serve as a 'hinted brontosaurus'.
And if one cannot take this at all seriously then one will realise that making a joke is one way of coping when one finds oneself under attack and scared out of one’s wits.
I offer this for your reflection
One time my mother came to stay with me at Amaravati monastery in England. I had returned home from abroad because she was going blind and needed more support from me and my brother. It was early summer and the bluebells were out in the woods opposite the main gate. I took her over one afternoon in a wheelchair and left her to enjoy the scene with the little sight she had left. She remembers it as a precious day, and as her last memory of seeing bluebells. One of the monks at Amaravati called her the other day. She urged him to go to that piece of forest and enjoy the bluebells in her place as an act of remembrance. She asked him to pick one of the bluebells and put it on the monastery shrine as an act of veneration. She could practice sympathetic joy (muditā) for him as he did so, she said.
In doing so she enjoyed those bluebells again with a heart as pure as snow and renewed her hope in this time of crisis.
I offer this for your reflection
The Buddha tells us, quite plainly, that it is suffering to be separated from those we love. Indeed.
The Buddha also tells us that friendship with what is wholesome is the whole of the Holy Life.
If we put these two statements together then we see that the spiritual solution to our loneliness is to abide with that part of ourselves which is wholesome and to remember and to recollect the part of our loved ones that is the same. Looking deeper we can also realise how stable the wholesome aspects of our mind can be. When we meet a good friend after very many years we can still connect with their good side as though we have never been apart. So this solution is not as difficult as it might look.
Just as with boredom it is a matter of giving something to our loneliness rather than falling prey to the craving that is its unwholesome side.
Such love, a giving love and a love of giving, is the solution to our loneliness.
Practising like this I have spent months alone and silent and never felt lonely. Only the craving feels lonely.
I offer this for your reflection
I live in the monastery almost all the time. We have no TV and our access to internet is very limited. There are almost no other forms of entertainment in the monastery. I am very rarely bored, only by the administration work sometimes.
What I have learned from this life is that to look for stimulation is not a solution to boredom. The boredom will merely return as soon as the stimulation ceases. In fact stimulating the bored mind is like putting a dead fish in a washing machine – it only looks alive. The solution to boredom is to make an effort and pay attention to something. We can need some simple things to give our attention to so that this is not too much effort to sustain. This is bringing the fish back to life.
Just the same as with loneliness it is a matter of giving something to our boredom rather than falling prey to the wanting or craving that is its unwholesome side.
Looking deeper, a mind that is aware of itself is never a bored mind. This is like a fish, that becoming aware of the water that it is swimming in, is never a bored fish.
I offer this for your reflection
Before the corona crisis really got warmed up I was already thinking we had a bit of a crisis in the world – I was beginning to think that the smartphones were taking over our lives. I saw this as inducing a bit of a crisis of communication, paradoxically enough – so much virtual communication and nothing real, nobody seemed to me to be listening any more. My first solution was to keep writing calm and gentle, thoughtful things as best I could and uploading them. I was trying to catch the helpless browsers and get them to sit down and reflect. From the feedback I have had, so far so good. Now I hope you too are sitting down. The next idea is perhaps a little shocking, more radical, aimed at the heart rather than the head. For I propose, if possible, the breeding of billions of hamsters. I hope and claim that people will like stroking hamsters better than running their fingers up and down their phones. I dream of a world where hamsters thus bring us back to the real world through love and to a new loving world.
As long as hamsters cannot carry the dreaded virus I would still like to humbly put this forward as a direction for mankind. I am sure the hamsters will like it too. And reality, even at times of crisis, in fact especially at such times, is where we will find our refuge from the storm if we can make a gentle landing from our flights of fancy.
I offer this for your reflection
Then, of course, there are times during any good crisis when we will need to fight back. But how do we do this without hatred or ill-will? My answer is with a little snort. I will explain. I grew up in the days of Henry Cooper, who fought for the world heavyweight boxing title against the great Muhammed Ali. Although he lost he was a bit of a national hero, he was such a courageous, nice guy. I remember watching the fight, along with everybody else, when I was about five years old. Whenever the boxers landed a punch the gloves make a puffing sound as the air was expelled from the glove’s padding. Aged five I thought that the boxers were making these sounds as they punched. After the fight I danced around the room, shadow-boxing, trying to imitate Muhammed Ali, snorting through my nose as I landed every punch.
Of course later, when I found out my mistake, I began to find it funny to repeat my imitation and shadow-boxing became a good laugh. As I grew up I sensibly forgot about all this until I was living in South London. One day I was walking feeling rather irritated, trying to meditate on the breath to calm down as I went. There is a pub on the Old Kent Road called ‘The Henry Cooper’. Walking past the pub my mind went back to the fight and to my shadow-boxing. I snorted a little in remembrance and to my amazement my unruly mind-state was dispelled. It was a breakthrough.
I had been taking my meditation too seriously, I realised.
After so many years of meditation on the breath now the inner demons, when they come, can be clearly seen trying to fight their way into my attention, my concentration, at the end of my nose. This playful little snort with its fighting spirit can so often be enough to fight back. When I find myself in a corner I only need to snort a little to bring up a fighting spirit and keep it light and fluffy.
There is something so delicious too about a such universal response to the battles of life, inner or outer. It keeps the inner demons where they rightly belong, out there.
I offer this for your reflection
Sometimes, with a light heart, we can unexpectedly find something precious in something very ordinary. The other day I was playing with a small stick in my hand as though it were a cigarette. Something inside let go. In my youth there had always been something rather liberating about smoking – the act of rebellion spiced up with the nicotine rush. Then, of course, I discovered along with the rest of my generation how damaging smoking really was for the health and I quit. With a small stick, however, there was the chance to relive the liberating feeling without harm. Just feeling the familiar sensation of something between the correct two fingers, I could already feel a little lift, a sense of freedom. This was playing a little with the thrill of renunciation, harmlessly getting beyond caring. Such it was that I came to find comfort in a small stick, called Harold. Such it was that I invented the ‘patent corona comforter’ available to be forever found for free, in any forest or garden, by any cool contemplative.
I offer this for your reflection