More than two decades ago, during my sophomore year of high school, I had the good fortune to take a class in Eastern Religious Thought. I remember feeling at the time that half the earth had long been shrouded in darkness, and when that darkness abruptly lifted, revealing a new world of possibilities, my life finally clicked and made sense for the first time. It felt like the teachings of the Taoist and Buddhist traditions that I had been studying had always lived inside of me, but it was only when I was able to hear them articulated and validated by the outside world that my previously confused experience snapped into focus and I was made whole.
While sudden epiphanies like this one often have far-reaching impacts on the course of our lives, they typically mark just the beginning – not the end – of a very long journey. When I began practicing meditation in earnest during my first year of college at NYU, I struggled tremendously. My father had died from a heart attack earlier that year and I couldn’t seem to keep my attention on the present moment for more than a few seconds at a time. I was caught in a continuous tangle of racing, overlapping thoughts, and repeatedly sunk into periods of intense depression. Despite what I had been told about the blissful nature of meditative experience, it was routinely excruciating. I felt like a failure on top of everything else.
But for some strange reason, I kept with it through the years and decades that followed, and gradually began to experience results. My mind became less crowded and I trusted my instincts more. My confidence increased and I eventually clawed my way out of my introverted cocoon into a much larger world. I found myself dwelling more and more continuously in the feelings of wholeness, clarity, and inspiration that I had been introduced to through that first glimpse of self-knowledge I received in high school.
Of course, this hasn’t been an entirely linear process. I have learned through several rounds of burnout how to carry the weight of the world more lightly on my shoulders, and experienced spikes of debilitating anxiety at nearly every major crossroads of my life. Through all of this, medication has helped. Expanding and strengthening my community of support has also helped. Regular exercise, sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, gardening, spending time in nature, and playing music as a form of self-expression all continue to help. However, I believe that the simple practice of meditation has done more than anything else in my life to build my inner resilience, teach me how to #stayathome, and prepare for challenging times like the one we’re all living through right now.
When I heard a couple of weeks ago that a senior teacher in the spiritual tradition I belong to would be leading a virtual presentation called “This Is the Moment We Have Been Training For,” I smiled to myself. I had long felt I had been preparing for more difficult times ahead, and this pandemic has come as a partial confirmation of everything I have been immersed in my entire adult life. While I felt reasonably confident that I would make it through this crisis (and perhaps even thrive despite it), I worried for many of my friends, neighbors, and family – as well as my city, my country, and world – which I knew had not prepared for this in the same way that I had. I knew that this crisis with its all of its fear, uncertainty, and forced isolation would eventually send many people climbing up the walls.
The Urge to #Liberate and #Reopen
#StayAtHome protestors rally outside the state capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020.
In the early days of the pandemic, we mostly united behind a common cause: defeating COVID-19 and “flattening the curve.” People all over the world mostly stayed at home, watched too much Netflix, and reconnected with old friends. They sang from balconies together, paid tribute to frontline workers, and delivered groceries for those most at-risk. Of course, there were incidents of “Zoombombing” and the unnecessary hoarding of toilet paper became so common as to seem absurd, but we mostly behaved ourselves at first. On the whole, I felt proud of how everyone around me was responding. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.
Gradually, calls to #reopen the US economy grew louder and louder, despite the fact that few (if any) states met broadly-supported criteria for reopening: at least two weeks of declining cases and widespread contact tracing. Conspiracy theories began popping up more frequently in my Facebook feed, from close friends and distant acquaintances who I previously respected. Even the President of the United States started explicitly endorsing the viral #liberate protests that were popping up throughout the country, featuring neo-nazis crowding into the rotundas of state capitols brandishing confederate flags and semi-automatic weapons. We were, predictably, becoming unhinged.
It’s important to recognize that the vast majority of Americans continue to follow social distancing guidelines, and that the economic fallout caused by this pandemic represents an authentic grievance. Tens of millions of people are currently out-of-work and haven’t yet received unemployment or stimulus payments. Many individuals and small businesses are legitimately scared that they won’t be able to pay their rent, and the numbers of people seeking assistance from local food pantries throughout the country has gone through the roof. Nevertheless, if we take the time to peer beneath these surface headlines, we discover other, more disturbing reasons for this unrest.
First, it’s clear that a rogue’s gallery of bad actors has been taking advantage of the situation to provoke fear and division for their own political and financial purposes. From crackpot conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to our very own Commander in Chief (and similar figures in many other countries around the world), they are playing a dangerous game with the future of modern civilization. They have taken a genuine loss of confidence in traditional sources of authority and weaponized it to the point where many people don’t know what or who to believe anymore. Instead of encouraging us to become more discerning citizens of the world, they have filled this credibility vacuum with their own bald-faced lies, denials of science, scapegoating, ideological warfare, selfishness, cruelty, and obfuscation of the truth.
Combine that with a culture that already values individualism over the collective good, comfort and convenience over reflection and integrity, and seeks quick and easy answers to complex and unprecedented threats, and we have created nearly perfect conditions for the contagion of chaos to spread and potentially overtake our society. Global climate change or the coronavirus pandemic by themselves usually don’t keep me up at night, but this does. I worry that we are increasingly choosing a false liberation from facts and compassion over the arduous process of self-transformation. I worry that we will repeat some of the worst mistakes in human history and turn against each other in the very moments when we need each other most.
How to #StayAtHome
My local meditation center currently sits empty because of the pandemic, but we continue to practice together online.
I want to acknowledge that I write from a very fortunate position: I still have my job, my health, and a community that supports and uplifts me when I’m feeling down. I have also received a high-quality education that has opened doors for me that remain closed for many others. My work over the past 12 years as part of the international Transition Towns Movement has prepared me, psychologically and practically, to live a much more localized life in which I actually enjoy growing my own vegetables, composting, collecting rainwater, limiting my own consumption, getting to know my neighbors, riding my bike to the store, sharing space and resources with others, and organizing to bring about a better world. It has also prepared me to understand the roots of our converging crises, not buy into misinformation, and channel my grief and anger in constructive and meaningful ways.
Similarly, two decades of practicing meditation have made it much easier for me to #stayathome (both literally and figuratively) throughout this pandemic. Following the style of meditation that I currently practice, I sit with an upright but relaxed posture, maintaining awareness of my breath, body (including all five senses), and the panoramic space around me. Every time I notice I have drifted off, I simply acknowledge that fact, and without judging or berating myself for a temporary loss of awareness, I return to the peace and energy of the present moment, without grasping onto it for dear life or trying to push it away. I have probably repeated this process hundreds of thousands of times in the past, and will hopefully repeat it millions more in the future. This is how lasting transformation happens. This is how we learn to harness and ride our innate spiritual strength.
I don’t believe that meditation works for everyone, but there are many things that each of us can do to work more effectively with our minds and manifest true and lasting liberation from our fears. We can journal or dance our hearts out or take up jogging or find a skilled therapist. We could be Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, atheists, or agnostics. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we commit ourselves to a practice that helps us to periodically reflect on who we are at our core, discipline our minds to be steady and clear, and grow in our capacity to be of greater service to others over time.
By doing this, we are preparing ourselves to be resilient through the many crises still to come and steer our society onto a much more positive trajectory than the one it currently seems to be on. I have chosen to write about this now because now is the perfect time to begin, if you haven’t yet already. With so many of us still stuck at home and the high plateau of coronavirus cases and deaths in the US still stretching out before us, we can choose to find purpose by simply turning off the TV for a few minutes to tune into what is most important in our lives and who we want to be moving forward. It takes a lot to transform ourselves, not to mention society, but just as it sometimes takes years to build soil that’s fertile enough to support a robust garden, the best time to begin cultivating our inner landscapes is well in advance of any emergency. However, since we’re already in the thick of it, the second best time would be now.
Teaser photo: Many Italians played music and sang from their balconies during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.