Opening Up When Everything is Closing Down: Cultivating Insight in the Times of Coronavirus

These are the most uncertain and turbulent times I've ever lived through. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, an English professor asks: When was "the exact moment we left the old world behind, and entered this new one?." Quoting Hemingway, she replies that it all seemed to have happened "gradually...and then suddenly". This, I think, neatly encapsulates the experience that many, including myself, have had in the last week or two. 

A couple of weeks ago, I thought that the imminent arrival of the coronavirus would require only a handful of tweaks in the way I lived my life. Washing my hands for longer and more often. Carrying hand sanitizer everywhere. Wiping tables at restaurants and coffee shops. Not attending mass gatherings. 

Two short weeks later, however, I find that life as I knew it has been indefinitely canceled. No more meeting people at bars or restaurants. No more get-togethers. No hugs. No handshakes. Almost no person to person contact. The upcoming two week meditation retreat with my teacher that I'd been looking forward for months was canceled. It felt like the ground was cut from under my feet. It felt like one day I woke up to find that I now lived in   

Given the way in which my life - our life - changed in a flash, I was eager to sit an all day retreat this past Sunday. Perhaps spending a day in quietude and stillness was just what I needed to get my bearings. To figure out how to honor my fears and anxieties while simultaneously mustering the courage to chart out a way of living with aplomb, dignity and compassion during these most trying of times. As I sat the retreat, I found myself thinking a lot of my mom and dad. Both are elderly and with preexisting conditions that put them at high risk if they get infected. My dad has heart issues and my mom has diabetes and is prone to respiratory infections. If either of them get the virus, they can die. People in their demographic group have about a 1 in 7 chance of dying. That’s horrible. And if either of them gets it, it’s likely they infect the other, compounding the tragedy. Having given much thought to the predicament of people like my parents, by the end of the retreat I resolved that the most skillful thing for me to do in these difficult times was to self-quarantine in order to do what I can to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.

In the days since the all day sit, I've continued to reflect on how to most skillfully relate with the coronavirus crisis. I've struggled with how to best meet the present moment with awareness, love and compassion. It's been a difficult last few days and weeks, to say the least. And while there surely are many more difficulties to come, I've also slowly come to realize that I am at a crossroads where a choice needs to be made. Am I going summon all of my strength and courage to resist the present moment or to fully surrender to it? Am I going to deny the reality of what's here now or am I going to honor it? 

I've made my choice. I resolve to open up when everything around me is closing down. I resolve to find the perfection of this very moment even in the midst of what seems like so much imperfection. I resolve to be grateful for having a beautiful shelter that I can retreat to in the coming weeks and months instead of being ungrateful for bars and restaurants closing down. I resolve to be thankful for the birds that come to sing outside our bedroom each morning, for the way in which the evergreens sway in the not-so-cold spring breeze, for the food in my fridge and the love in my heart.      

But I resolve to do more than just being grateful for all that I have. I resolve to bow to the coronavirus. Because in bowing to the coronavirus one is bowing to nature. And just like there is much to learn from nature, there is much to be learned from the coronavirus. In this short period of time, the coronavirus has already provided me with a crash course in interconnectedness. We live most of our lives feeling and thinking that we are separate from each other. That we are independent selves who are free to decide the course of our lives. But the coronavirus has made a mockery of this belief. We now know how profoundly interconnected our lives are. How my "private" decision to go to a bar can end up causing the death of a beloved grandmother fifty miles away. The coronavirus crisis also shows us how little control we have over our lives. We may love going to restaurants, but in many places there are no restaurants open. We may love hugging and kissing and shaking hands, but it is no longer kosher to do so. We may not want to get infected, but we may not be able to prevent it. 

Finally, the coronavirus teaches us to be humble. To understand that even in this advanced technological age, we are no match for nature. To fully realize how precious and fragile our lives and freedoms are. To become aware that what we have can be taken away from us on a dime. It is happening to us now with the coronavirus. It will happen again. It may be a grave illness, a natural calamity or simply our own passing away. But it will happen. And when it does, will we have learned the lessons that this moment is offering us? Will we  heed the lessons that the coronavirus can teach?