Archive for April, 2020

Enlightenment - WOHASU

There is a Cooper’s Hawk nesting in our pine tree. His plaintive cries ring out at various times during the day, like an avian alarm clock. Yesterday, we found a new bird sitting on the railing of the front patio: I think he was some kind of tufted nuthatch, but honestly, I can’t remember his name. I can see his bird body, firm and round, and the spectacle of him catching an insect in his beak as he sat on the railing. My husband and I played in mud puddles a few days back, because there were fairy shrimp in them, an endangered species brought to life by the copious rains of the last several weeks. Those rains are long gone, though, replaced by a heat wave that will bring up the temperature to near 100 degrees today. The fairy shrimp won’t make it, but by now, they have deposited their eggs in the mud for next year’s generation. Right now, the tadpoles and fairy shrimp are drying up in the intense sun, as they do every year. They will come around again in several months’ time, when the conditions are right for their reappearance.

The bees are almost finished with the blooming rosemary and have moved on to heartier flowers. The cabbage rose in the side yard has sent out new shoots, suckers and stems, drinking in the heat and creating more roses out of nothing, it seems. My husband has found several deer mice in his garage, and he feeds them leftover burritos until we liberate them from an old, metal bucket into the State Park, where humans cannot yet go, but mice can. My walks around the hills have become more focused, and now I see tiny flowers and withering mushrooms that would have escaped me before. I see the circling of hawks on the updrafts; sometimes, they appear not to move at all, suspended in the air like living kites, and I wonder if they are searching for food or simply enjoying the sensation of floating over the world.

Right now, a train is passing through the valley, and the sound of the horn reverberates and warps as it tunnels through the hills. The rotating fan clicks as it hits one extreme of its trajectory and heads toward the other. I feel the breeze for a moment, and then I don’t, and then I do. A dog is barking down the street, and the birds in the oak tree are singing and calling to each other. I don’t know which birds they are: goldfinch, sparrows, titmice, wren, or something else, but I do know that they sound ecstatic to my ears, as if they had been waiting for this morning forever, and it’s finally here.

There is one reality, and you are experiencing it right now. How you experience will vary tremendously. Perhaps, if you were here with me in my room, your description of reality would be totally different from mine. It is very tempting to try to experience others’ realities, but in truth, we cannot do so. We can empathize, work to improve the lives of others, strive to create a better world for us all; but we cannot inhabit someone else’s perception or know what life feels like for them. There are habits that we have developed that make us believe a lie: that we can fully understand someone else’s reality; that we can predict or control the future; and that more information will confer a sense of peace and knowledge that will fix the fear and desperation we so often feel.

Social media feeds the idea that what people post is somehow connected to a reality that affects us; the vast majority of the time, there is no connection. We think that we can ‘stay connected’ via posts that we view on a screen, but there are multiple levels of distancing happening: the written word, the technology itself, the communication gaps that naturally exist between people, and the odd, snapshot-like glimpses we absorb that lack context. News, of course, fulfills the need for information, and the using of that information as a self-soothing mechanism. However, there will never be enough information to make us feel better. Contradictory claims about Covid-19, lack of testing, lack of information, the great medical unknowns, and many other examples of our ignorance and unpreparedness guarantee that more reading on the issue will only produce a kind of vertigo that leads to depression. The news cycle seems to promise that if we keep reading, we will find that nugget of truth that will eradicate our fear and insecurity; in reality, the news cycle utterly depends on our fear and insecurity, and it will stoke these emotions with shocking headlines designed to keep you clicking and reading.

The news cycle is created to keep the reader psychologically and spiritually off balance. You believe that more reading will restore that balance, but that is not the point. The point is to keep you endlessly worried about an uncertain future and questioning what you think you know now. Social media and the news are the enemy of living in the present moment, of quiet observation, of grounding yourself in the reality of now. Peaceful existence in the present moment is the enemy of capitalism and materialism. If you are not worried about the future or uncomfortable in the present moment, why would you rush out to buy stuff, or continue consuming the news? So much of what we purchase is an attempt to soothe ourselves, to distract ourselves, so that we don’t have to make deep dives into the nature of our selves and our immediate reality.

Right now, you are reading this from somewhere. Where are you? What do you hear? What is happening around you? How does the chair or the bed feel underneath you? Can you smell the dusky coat of your cat or dog, can you hear the sounds of your partner rustling around the house, do you have a bird that makes little noises while perched on her cage? Is the air conditioner whirring, or the overhead fan spinning, moving the air around your room? Come back to yourself, to what is actually happening around you; it is then, and only then, can you take meaningful action to help others. If you come from a place of chaos, you will radiate that chaos into your environment; if you come from a solid sense of peace and grounding, you can change far more than your world.

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This morning was much like other mornings; I read my digital newspaper, emails, weather reports, and checked my work messages. I looked up the deaths from Covid-19 in Ventura County: 10 fatalities, 309 confirmed cases, 9 people currently in the ICU. There are so many statistics, models, curves, interpretations of data, opinions; and all of it layered with fear, anger, outrage, confusion and insecurity.

I find myself caught in a loop of uncertainty. As more information emerges, it seems more and more likely that vast numbers of us were infected and didn’t know it; were infected and thought it was a generic cold or flu; were infected and continued on our merry way, spreading the virus everywhere because we had no idea that we were sick. The true mortality rate of this virus is far lower than what we were told before, a fact that does little to comfort the families of those who died. But the real horror seems to be that something new killed our loved one–we’re prepared for accidents, cancers, heart attacks, regular flues, any number of other ways to die; but this caught us by surprise. Not that it should have–but that’s beyond the scope of what I want to say.

In the end, it seems, this will become yet another way for us to become sick and for some, to die. At the heart of this truth is fear–that awful, gnawing fear that you won’t survive something invisible and unpredictable, that colonizes you without you knowing it and affects you in such completely mysterious ways–maybe you will not even be aware of this virus, or maybe, just maybe, it will suffocate you. As such, it strikes to the very core of our biggest anxieties: it’s unknown, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.

My husband coughed today. Once. He said, “that’s what a dry cough sounds like”. Immediately, I thought of my parents. If my spouse is sick, then they might be. If my husband is sick, then I most assuredly am, too. Will he die? Is it already in his chest? I take a mental inventory of his past battles with bronchitis, and my past struggles with asthma, which has sent me to the ER when I had ‘just’ a cold. I think about the people we might have to notify, the fact that we haven’t updated our estate plan . . . I wonder what will happen to our daughter, and suddenly I am on the floor in a trembling heap of despair, believing that our life is over; that we’re murderers because I hugged my mother a few days ago, even though I was wearing a mask. Even though I washed and sanitized my hands until my skin peeled. I couldn’t help it. I hadn’t hugged her in over a month, and I couldn’t take it anymore. As it turned out, my husband never coughed again, and he has no fever or any other symptom of anything whatsoever. And yet. Asymptomatic people can kills others, as we’ve been told over and over again.

Nothing that we do is safe. Nothing. One trip to the grocery store, one hug, one unauthorized visit, one neighbor without a mask who comes up the driveway, one take out meal (with the attendant shame that I killed my family because I didn’t cook that night), one careless contact with some random surface that I didn’t know was infected, and *boom*, the lethal, little, coronavirus is in me and soon to be in everyone with whom I come into contact. Is this any way to live?

No. We can’t live this way forever, and everybody knows that. At some point, we have to make friends with this new enemy and allow risk to re-enter our calculations when we go out, go back to work, go shopping, and see loved ones. We can’t allow a galloping paranoia to overtake everything we do; we can’t shame every person who doesn’t follow the rule of the week, or we risk giving up all personal freedom in the name of increasing our odds of survival even by a tiny fraction of a percent. The legacy of Covid-19 can’t be an insidious fear that distances us from each other for months, years, forever; it can’t become the new cultural norm to avoid other people, to eye them with suspicion, to call them out for a sneeze or a cough. And yet, that’s what I see happening. Even after there is a vaccine or an effective treatment, the mental and emotional toll of this virus will exact a far greater price than the illnesses it originally caused. We run the risk of becoming mentally ill as a community, as a culture; a mental illness that will further separate and isolate us from each other, solving none of the problems that this virus brought to light.

We’ve had a long descent into our country’s worst sins: poverty, homelessness, racial and social injustices all revealed in the harsh light of day. This is still Lent around the world, for those who find meaning in Christianity. We are still in the tunnel, still wandering the desert, still deep in reflection and pain. It will end, at some point; and when it does, will we care more for those who died in the largest numbers? Will we find better ways to care for our senior citizens? Will we really have the courage to face the fact that racism and inequality have allowed Covid-19 to disproportionately ravage black communities? Will we finally do something about our ailing planet? I don’t know. The experiment continues.

Can an awareness of eternity and continuation of consciousness do anything to help us navigate this crisis? I think so; but it requires that we drop the separation–artificial to begin with–between spirituality and the material world. Spirituality is not about meditating, or engaging in spiritual ‘practices’; it’s really about how we manage the turmoil and the terrors of this world, right here, right now. There is one thing that we can do, whether or not we are in crisis: focus on what is real, what is actually happening, and what we can directly experience. Notice that focusing on the current moment eradicates the fear of what might, or could, happen. Notice that if you can stay intimately connected to right now, right here, you don’t fall into the abyss of possible outcomes.

Life itself is mysterious, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. That can either be cause for retracting into our agonized shells, or it can be cause for celebration; not knowing what comes next frees us from the responsibility of trying to peer into crystal balls in order to soothe ourselves. Take the measures to keep yourself and others safe in the HERE and NOW; take action in the present, the only real aspect of our lives. Do something to alleviate someone’s pain or fear, right now, not for what will result from your actions (you can’t know), but because your life is only happening now; it cannot happen in any other space or time.

The one, dry, cough could signify a million possible outcomes, from absolutely nothing to the deaths of one’s entire circle of family and friends; and as morbidly entertaining as these scenarios are for the overly stressed mind, nothing good comes from spinning out scenarios. Your next trip to the grocery store could result in a collision with multiple vehicles because you hit a pothole, your tire exploded, you lost control of the car, and mass death ensued. Your walk around the hills could result in a twisted ankle, a fatal fall, a snake bite, or a slightly sore foot. THIS IS NOT A FUN GAME. You do not have to play. You do not have to engage in the fearful fantasies that our media encourage us dive into. Stick to now, to reality; do what needs to be done based on the reliable information that you have. Don’t play around with narratives, with fiction, unless you like to write and create stories. But don’t sell those stories as fact that results in mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish for others.

Spirituality in its truest sense is realism. Look around, take stock of what is and not what could be, and take compassionate action. For there are many, many, monsters under the bed. Only fight the ones that grab your foot. The others will fade into the mists of oblivion from whence they came.

–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD

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