Photo by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash
At the present moment in late 2020 the presence of Covid is making us anxious about our futures, fearful for the lives of those we love and worried about the consequences for our economy and society.
Being anxious, of course, has a purpose; it encourages us to take precautions against being infected, and also makes us wary of increasing the chances that we infect others. There is no single method to achieve this, but it is eminently rational for each sovereign state to require its citizens to adopt measures and practices that are thought likely to reduce its spread, and for us, its citizens, to follow those instructions.
Of course, the anxiety that Covid induces is a natural response, one part of a complex network of emotional and cognitive responses that possessed adaptive advantage in our evolutionary history. Essentially, we are anxious and worried, now in this moment of time, because these are traits that our ancestors possessed, and which we have inherited from them. These traits made them, and they make us, more likely to survive and reproduce. In one sense we as individuals have had no choice but to accept these traits and characteristics that have been given to us. They are a part of our natural endowment.
Of course, this evolutionary perspective was not available during the Buddha’s lifetime. He simply observed that we all suffer, that we are all anxious, that we all face the familiar existential crises of birth, illness, old age and death, not to mention the more mundane annoyances of restlessness, boredom and dissatisfaction. The Buddha focused his attention on the fact of suffering and its immediate causes, but did not see the need to enquire too deeply into why we all seem to suffer in broadly the same way. It was simply part of the human condition; to be human is to suffer.
Except, as he pointed out, there is a remedy. We may not be able to eliminate anxiety and fear, but we can come to recognize them for what they are- namely sensations, emotions, thoughts, states of mind, mental formations- things which appear in our experience, disappear for a while, and then return. They appear in the mind, stay for a while, then go away for a while. The point that most of us miss is that in themselves they are not intrinsically dangerous, deadly, crippling or frightful; rather, they are simply experiences, and like all experiences arise and disappear. They cannot hurt us physically, although our habitual response to them causes us psychological damage, and in so doing will also often undermine our relationships with others.
The habitual response when faced with anxiety is to flee, turn away, hide from it, repress it, or crave an alternative. In due course what we flee toward can often itself become a habit to which we become fixed and fixated. What we flee toward typically has the purpose of reinforcing the sense we have of being selves divorced from what is not self. We crave what will bring temporary pleasure to this self, even if each pleasure is evidently time-limited and fragile. Above all, we crave the sense of having a stable, continuing, identity, something which isolates us from the bare existential facts that remind us that we are contingent, mortal, precarious entities that have been thrown (for a limited time) into an indifferent universe.
These habitual responses occur extremely rapidly, so rapidly that we are not always aware of them, so that we cannot watch them as they arise. And, if we are not aware of anxiety as it arises we cannot do very much to prevent the damage it causes. The remedy is very simple, or at least it can be simply stated. Rather than react to our experiences in an habitual way we should learn to allow all experience to pass in and then out of our awareness.
Meditation is one of the crucial skills which can help us to do this. In meditation the mind is slowed, and what comes and goes in our conscious experience becomes more accessible. At the same time the mind is calmed and what we experience is less likely to disturb. It is as if the mind becomes to be recognized as an originally empty space in which things, some of them troubling, appear for a while and then disappear. Of course, I am aware that this is easier to state than to do. Yet the fact that the remedy can be stated so simply is I think an inspiration. You don’t need to be learned or clever. You don’t need to read philosophy or all, or indeed any, of the Buddhist sutras. You just need to have a single, simple insight into what lies closest. Your mind, a mind in which experience just comes and goes.
This insight is often associated with the notion of ‘emptiness’, a term of art which has had millions of words devoted to it in the long tradition of Buddhist teaching. I do not profess to know or understand what emptiness is, and I certainly couldn’t attempt to ‘explain’ it. But I think I sense, at least in my more coherent moments, what it might mean in the context of my day-to-day experience. Stephen Batchelor in his Buddhism Without Beliefs (see previous post) describes emptiness as like stumbling into a clearing in the forest (p. 80). When we stumble into this space we recognise ourselves as open and vulnerable, but at the same time as we do so turbulence subsides and we experience relief, tranquillity and freedom. It is as if we have found a space in which we truly belong.
But what does such freedom bring to us in practice? Will it mean that Covid 19 will be instantly defeated? Of course not. Like our habitual responses we will have to live with it for some time before it too passes. Will it mean that we will be free to escape the restrictions it imposes on our lives? Again, of course not. We should protect our bodies from it as best we can, and protect the bodies of others by reducing the chances of passing on the infection. After all, those others have exactly the same rights to protection that we have.
But we can console ourselves with the thought that the so-called ‘freedoms’ that we are forgoing are far less significant than the freedoms for ourselves and others that lie on the path that approaches that metaphorical ‘clearing in the forest’. Real freedom lies in the recognition that conscious experience comprises an originally empty space in which ‘mind-stuff’ (sensations, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts) appears and disappears. This empty space is already perfect. And the more that ‘mind-stuff’ is allowed to come and go in that space, unhindered, acknowledged but not resented, absent of attraction or aversion, the freer we are.