Since a few months, the world has been deeply affected by COVID-19. Most impact has been felt by those fallen victim to the virus, as well as their families. However, the widespread outbreak has affected many more lives beyond those who got ill. Due to the needed travel-restrictions, social distancing and health measures taken, very few have had an unchanged life since the outbreak. A situation that is easily overwhelming in means of its scale. But, now that for the first time the virus is stabilizing, we can also start to look on the other side. Historically, disasters and wars have not only brought increased suffering, they have also been known to bring people together, to strengthen the connection between those who went through it together. How can we look at COVID-19 in such a light? How can we use these recent events to develop our heart and mind? To develop wisdom by looking at the events of life and death that are taking place and to open our heart to those afflicted. How can we take this opportunity to deeply experience the teachings of the Buddha that have the immeasurable potential to liberate our heart and mind?
Although in the Buddha’s teaching there is only one word for the heart/mind, citta, it is interesting to look at both aspects. To look at COVID-19 both from a perspective of wisdom, insight, as well as from a perspective of our heart qualities. Both aspects are essential ingredients in the Buddha’s teachings. Both aspects can help us grow towards more liberation, more freedom and happiness.
Softening our mind to ourselves and others
In the case of a widespread health pandemic like COVID-19, it makes sense to start with softening our mind. To cultivate the brahmavihārā. If we and our family-members are healthy we can rejoice in that. We develop muditā. We recollect our gratitude for our health and for that of the beings that enrich our life. From there we can see if karunā is available to us, compassion. We can reflect on all the human beings that are currently struck by COVID-19 or that have family members who recently passed away due to the virus. In such recollection it is important for our well-being to focus on the well-wishing aspect, not to dwell only on the suffering. We do shortly reflect on the pain and sadness involved for those human beings, and then we focus mostly on wishing them well. We see how that makes our mind feel, that wish for all beings to be as healthy as they can be. Those beings afflicted will not benefit if we get overwhelmed ourselves by sadness or grief for them, but we can be a support for them if we can cultivate in our heart a sense of deep well-wishing for them. If at any time this compassion is not available, or we get overwhelmed by negative thoughts about the pain and grief involved for victims of COVID-19, we can switch to upekkhā, equanimity. This switch doesn’t mean that we drop our care for these beings. It simply means that we focus our mind on accepting that we can’t help or save all those beings, even if we want to. We realize all we can do is to keep opening our heart, but while keeping that perspective as well. To round off our heart practice, we can finish with mettā, friendliness. We can simply wish for ourselves and for all beings to be happy and to meet as little suffering as possible in their lives.
We can repeat or focus on any of these heart qualities (brahmavihārā) whenever we see fit. We don’t have to cultivate them all at once, or all at the same time. One or the other might be easier to connect to and maintain. Any of these heart practices might cause a pleasant feeling in the body, connected to your friendly thoughts, but might also stay more on a subtle level. Neither is better or worse, it is about your earnest intention to practice. The more you develop your practice, the more you can direct it to others. Maybe to beings that are close to you, but potentially to a much larger (unbounded) scale. There is no need to hold back. There are unbounded heart qualities deep in all of us, we can’t run out of them.
With a softened mind, we start to cultivate wisdom
Having opened our mind to ourselves, beings that are close to us, to beings afflicted by COVID-19, and to all beings in general, we have more space to investigate, to learn. Any investigation or reflection we do can be done while we are sitting on the couch or more formally, while we sit on the meditation pillow. We can move from moments of more reflective thoughts, back to meditation, even back to cultivating more heart qualities whenever we see that we need that, whenever we see that we get overwhelmed. We want to learn in a safe environment. Investigate from the safety of a calm heart.
We look at the body
We start right where we are. We become aware of our body and investigate it with interest. We can rejoice in its health or feel compassion for elements of the body that are or have not always been healthy. We investigate deeper what that means. We investigate how our body keeps changing. How it has been sick from time to time, as well as healthy. How we can feed it well every day, but how it still can catch a disease. How the body will eventually not be able to sustain our life any more and how we will need to let it go at that time. We can do this investigation by scanning the full body with mindfulness or by focussing on an aspect of the body that we are familiar with, like the breath. We go back and forth between reflections and between calming down and softening the mind again, whenever we need to. It is not easy to see how we can’t fully control our body and how it will eventually fail us. We want to understand this deeper because this wisdom can lead us to deep peace, but we also want to avoid getting overwhelmed by our reflections. Every time we see that our thoughts or mind state become mostly negative, or the experience is overwhelming, we move away from the reflections and focus again on calming the mind. This is how we make sure we keep learning, while keeping the mind happy enough to be able to keep doing this practice on the long term..
Contemplating death and life
From investigating the body in the light of change, we can naturally contemplate deeper into death. We contemplate how we will die, likewise any being that is close to us. Observe how the mind responds to this. What is present? Fear, interest? We can take time to investigate what comes up on it’s own accord, but also guide it more if we like to. We can guide our reflections back to the topic of ‘life’. Knowing we will die, maybe sooner than later. What is most important in this very moment? We can breathe, noting ‘My last breath (in-breath), letting go (out-breath)’, to really feel that urgency. If it would really be so that we need to let go right now, are we ready? What comes to mind? Is there regret for any conduct we did by body, speech or mind? These contemplations on our own death can bring about a lot of peace, interest, energy, and urgency. It can bring forward gratitude that we can actually do something wholesome about things we would potentially regret if we would pass away now. While at the same time accepting that we might pass away in a time where there are still regrets that we will have to let go of. At times, these contemplations can get overwhelming. Whenever we notice that, we can go back to cultivate thoughts of mettā (friendliness) or any of the other brahmavihāra towards ourselves. Taking care of our mind and heart in that way. Every time we soften the heart, so that we have the courage and calmness again to go out and investigate.
Keeping death close by
If COVID-19 can teach us anything, it is that death can come at any time. This does not need to only invoke fear. By contemplating death as regularly as possible, it can become a way to clearly understand what is most important to us. Right now. It might be that we contemplate death and we feel regret for the way we spoke to a friend or our parents or children. So we can directly make a determination to develop more kindness towards them or to even go and speak to them now. To make sure together with them we take responsibility for improving our conduct in any next moment with them. Or we can realize that we want to spend more time practicing meditation, more time being generous to others. Contemplating death, contemplating COVID-19, can give us a sense of urgency to not wait a moment longer to do these things. To sit down on the pillow now. To go to another human being and express our gratitude for them, or to apologize for an unskilful act we did before. To give the gift of mindfulness, calm, wisdom to ourselves, right now. To keep contemplating that there comes a time where all of a sudden we will have to let go. So we practice that. We practice dying. We practice forgiving ourselves for any unwholesome actions we have done by body, speech and mind. We forgive ourselves, knowing we have done the best we could at that time. And we keep COVID-19 close to us despite of social distancing. Close, so that everyday we develop as much kindness, gratitude and generosity as possible. We keep it close so we can truly make the best of this precious life as a human being. We keep it close so that when the moment of death comes, we are ready, and we can let go. We can let go, knowing that when we can let go, we have found liberation, peace, cessation. Nibbāna.