Teaching from a global pandemic

Teaching from a global pandemic

The global Covid-19 Pandemic, seemed to come from out of the blue, and has created a tidal wave of ceaseless change and deep uncertainty. Many people have, are and will suffer because of the multitude of impacts it has caused, and many around the world have caught the disease and died. Reflecting on what I have learnt from the arising of this situation, I notice how firstly, although this situation is new it is also not new at all. This points to how, I have clung to ideas of permanence and solidity, and while I have had an intellectual understanding about the nature of impermanence and endless change, as well as some experiential understanding of this within my own life, I have still managed to hold on to deluded ideas of permanence. The depth of clinging, resisting and pushing away has been revealed in its rawest form to me. We move through life with many assumptions, such as that tomorrow will be much the same as today, and these assumptions filter into the minutest of details of our lives. We do this to give ourselves some sort of comfort and sense of security, but when suddenly faced with a different reality, we can struggle to deal with the shock and this is because we’ve been pulling the wool over our own eyes all along.

When were we not at risk of disease or death? When was constant change not happening on all levels both within us and within the world? For me, the pandemic brought to the surface deep fears of my own death, and leaving my children behind while they are still dependent on me. I feared my elderly father would catch the virus and die. I feared for the future of my studies and research and that these may have to come to an end as the research trial I am working on was suspended. Certain relationships where there are unresolved long term issues came to mind, in the face of a more imminent ending, how did I want to leave all of this? Have I done enough to ‘clean things up’ within myself and within my life? A voice inside said, “I’m not ready”, but we don’t have control over many of these things, when we or others die, or the events in the wider world. Fear arises particularly in situations where our false sense of having some control is shattered and the current situation has shown me where I have been allowing myself to believe I have some control and how this temporarily alleviates the discomfort of the true reality of things.

All of this has showed me, starkly, exactly where I am clinging, where I am invested in things too heavily or in unhelpful ways. The lockdown situation dramatically changed my living situation, with my older daughter returning home from university, my younger daughter home schooling and myself and my husband both working from home. The pressures and tensions that arose from this situation, also showed me where, until now, I have been pushing away and clinging on in certain ways, for example by avoiding certain things I don’t really want to face up to and distracting myself from these with seemingly harmless forms, but distracting myself nonetheless and again not facing things exactly as they are.

As we emerged from lockdown, we were faced with and still are faced with, more and more subtle choices. We hear multiple voices and opinions on what we should or can do. But we are left with the ultimate choice, we hold the wheel for ourselves over what is good to do. I realise on a deep level, that I do not trust myself enough, and at times when I feel something is right, I doubt myself. I also blame myself for many things, and I have seen that this doubt and blame has been an insidious and damaging force, causing suffering to myself and others as it has influenced my actions and behaviours, probably throughout most of my life. As I continue to train, I know I need to be vigilant in watching out for this within myself, and each time to put it down, at the same time without judging it and to trust that within myself that is true.

The urgency of our current situation, and the undeniable effect of change and uncertainty, draw me nearer to the fact that we do not have time to waste with ‘this and that’. We will die, and when I die, I want to know in my heart that I have trained to the best of my ability, with the tools I have been given in this body, in this lifetime, to clean up my own karma. I have always taken training seriously, and my wish to train is a deep and sincere wish. However, I have at times let myself off the hook too easily and I feel now that I must also work hard on this, not to push myself beyond my limits, but to remember that each moment counts, and there is no time to lose because in each moment, we are dying. In the Buddha’s final teaching he told us “Practice the good teachings with a diligent heart for there is no time to lose… do not doze off and let your eyes close lest you allow your whole life to pass in vain without realization”.

I realise that it is not enough to know that the sun is behind the clouds, we need to keep blowing those clouds away. We need to be willing to be disturbed by the truth, and sit firmly grounded within the rough waves that batter our shores. Allow ourselves to feel the deep fear, see where it is rooted. What is it that is afraid of dying? What is it that sits with uncertainty and fears change? We need to keep asking these questions and continue to dissolve the self.

Finally, I also realise more acutely, the power of being part of the sangha and the deep refuge that we can take there. But also, that here there is also clinging. I have lived with a sense that Reading Buddhist Priory and Throssel Hole Abbey are permanent fixtures, will always be there to be relied upon. Having been unable to sit at the priory or visit Throssel for six months now, I realise too, that the reliance on these being there are also clinging. What will I do, if those things are no longer there in the future? I also realise more than ever that refuge in the sangha is not one way, it’s not lay people like me seeking refuge in the monastic community or local prior, but that we as lay people need to take the greatest of care of the pillars of the temple, our monks. My sense of gratitude for the lives and training of the monastic sangha is deeper than ever, without whose training, the teaching would not be passed to me, so that I may be able to realise the truth.

Holly Baker