(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