Managing Pandemic Mind with Buddhism and Science
On March 12, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, spoke with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. Clearly and concisely, he described the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, notably the serious potential dilemmas facing front-line caregivers in overwhelmed hospitals. On social distancing measures, what struck me most was his commentary about the spheres of others. “These concentric circles [of people] around you, that has to be important to me…we are codependent on each other in a way I’ve never seen before.” Practices of washing hands well and often, keeping distance, and self-isolating are not just about keeping ourselves healthy. We’re asked to demonstrate care beyond our little village of people, emanating through the villages of others we touch—extended contacts—for the sake of vulnerable populations and overall public health. With unintended philosophical tone, Dr. Gupta suggests that we need a dramatic, seismic shift in how we treat others, including people we’ll never meet. The breadth of consideration is both wide and highly sensitive, affecting contacts over long distances, and such that small transgressions could potentially cause great harm.
But the unrest was bound to happen. Just one month later, protests over extended lockdowns are occurring, and this is just the beginning, of both public angst and pandemic. As the disease spreads, leaving our sense of safety, freedom and the economy in the dust, the people will grow restless. The tension is broadly felt, and as deeply ingrained as the strong sense of individual freedom. These transgressions against social distancing will make a bigger difference[i] than the protesters may realize: engaging in unnecessary risky behavior that could affect many others, and stewing doubt in people who are starting to get uncomfortable.
This pandemic is asking a lot of our bodies. By applying brakes to human activity, it’s doing the unimaginable: physical restriction. Two months ago, the thought of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life significantly slowing down was inconceivable. [ii] These new rules stomp all over personal liberty, not unlike forcing the air particles in your living room to divide up into a bunch of compartments, at your command. Thermodynamically, implementing this requires a lot of work. We’ve quenched our typical steady state behavior, and suddenly we’re required to go almost nowhere. To be still. To lower our everyday energy and greatly reduce entropy, or disorder.
We’re mostly unaware of the amount of work our bodies are doing for this quick drop in entropy. With a similar theme of sudden change, the physical cascade of an explosion stems from a fast chemical reaction producing large amounts of gas and heat, an extremely hot shockwave. But our distancing process is different: instead of the outward force of an expanding gas, human energy is being driven inward, the implosion a sudden halt to freedom of movement now imagined as a luxury. Like tiny gas particles, we’d rather expand in our space, not restrict ourselves to one section (or even an airline seat). The heat release in explosions is accompanied by a major increase in entropy. By contrast, we are lowering entropy by restricting our local movement, the effects catastrophic with an internal, metaphoric shockwave. Within our initial reaction, the mind goes into overload, destined to compensate with the very thing it does best: increasing its own entropy with scattered thought.
SUFFERING AND CHANGE
In pondering that thinking, our consciousness holds three realities in Buddhist dhamma. Dukkha encompasses the imperfect environment and suffering in life. Anicca covers the truth of change, that all is impermanent. Anatta tells of the impersonal nature of all happenings, often associated with the idea of nonself. Each of these is realized to varying degrees within the human condition. Their definitions give some clue based on what we experience in the arrow of time, in which the universe leans towards higher entropy.
Dukkha is present in the very earliest human experience. At birth, our bodies are quickly exposed to cold, dry air with bright light and overactivated corneal rods. The lungs immediately take in air, joining the heart in continuous, lifelong work. Being born is traumatic! And throughout childhood, in spite of happy times, there is suffering when we lose a balloon or fight with a sibling. As adults, our angst takes on more mature forms, but with the same inherent feelings. And even when we’re not suffering, we observe suffering all around us, throughout the world. Dukkha is omnipresent, from the deepest reaches of our souls to the global: the easiest of the three characteristics to notice and understand. Life is pain, [ii] loss, broken hearts and tortured souls. What would the moments of happiness be without these?
Anicca encompasses impermanence. The inherent transience of life is good news. Or bad news. Or just neutral news. We understand this on a fundamental level: life is full of change. However, it’s possible to go through life without realizing how much suffering is rooted in our craving for constancy. Our delusions surrounding pleasure and pain—if only one could last forever and the other disappear— is the root of dukkha. The mind has a yearning towards certainty, enabling us to plan for the future, declutter, support our loved ones. With this comes a narrowing of possibilities. The genius of our minds is really here, in this lowering of entropy that regularly tidies things up. The time after major unexpected change is no different except in the speed of the drop; both lower entropy. But the post-crisis time brings in possibilities, presenting a sideways growth potential: as we scramble to readjust, barely hanging by a thread, openings are created because entropy tends to increase (per universe). With or without awareness, this lean-in towards the universal tendency incites the muse, who calls on us to think more carefully about how we will increase entropy.
Humans readily understand dukkha and anicca. Clearly, life and suffering seem to come as a package, along with pleasant things like joy. Yes, we suffer, a bunch of the time. And, we’re also aware of impermanence, perhaps with the added wisdom that expecting no change (attachment to permanence) is the root of suffering. Anatta, or non-self, is the most subtle to access, but the one most relevant to our common human experience in a global pandemic: an illness now widespread due to its contagiousness, further assisted by long incubation times and apparent asymptomatic ability to shed virus.
There is no geographical escape. Our profound human commonality is that we’re all stuck here on Earth, facing this crisis as a global family. In Love & Awakening in a Global Pandemic,[iii] Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn came together with the common theme of meditation as a liberative practice. Together while separate, in a “dynamic tension”, as described by Rev. angel, we are called into “collective awakening” while maintaining physical separation. Personal growth through practices in mindfulness feeds collective wisdom, and Kabat-Zinn spoke of the prolific self: “without direct perception [through] meditative awareness, everybody’s trapped in the story of me.”
The COVID-19 pandemic offers a stark reminder that the earth is relatively small, people are readily connected, and the seemingly boundless virus exposes the truly intimate scale of our world. The more we get outside of ourselves as individuals, the more effective our collective human consciousness towards moving through the pandemic constructively, towards the ends of universal safety, health, and justice—themes inciting a more peaceful human existence and diminished need for protest.
ANATTA: ONE TOUGH NUT
In Sanscrit, atman stands for the true inner self, or soul, independent of the body, also described as breath. The Pali word anatta stands for the lack of atman (Sanscrit anatman), implying that anatta is the not-soul or not-breath. With its textured meaning, anatta is often simplified as the idea of non-self, un-self, not-self…indeed, an abstract beast. Of the three Buddhist characteristics, anatta is the most ethereal: the “toughest nut to crack”, in the words of a friend.[iv] Dukkha and anicca are readily accessible, tucked under our pillows at night, their definitions enabling us to name our life challenges. Anatta, instead, is that bizarre dream that makes no sense. The idea of self as apparent and changeable can be overwhelming when juxtaposed with the apparent constancy of our own consciousness.
In Untangling Self (A. Olendski, Wisdom Publications 2016),[v] Olendski explains that when we become attached to our own feelings, perceptions, and responses, deeming them of great importance, the “outcome is a sand castle of the self.” (p. 43) Not-self breaches the core of rugged individualism, so prolific in human civilization that “one might say it acts as the organizing principle around which all contemporary culture is patterned.” (p. 109) In addition, the instinct behind self-preservation, the ‘I take care of me and my own’ sense of responsibility, is broken wide open. How can our experiences, feelings and generosity not be about us?
Because they simply aren’t about us. Things just happen in spite of altruistic attempts to simplify, create comfort and predictability, and essentially control what we can within the spirit of the Serenity Prayer. Even with the soft insight that we’re not really in control, we’re not comfortable with impermanence. And with these big brains, we have trouble getting outside of ourselves. As Kabat-Zinn mentions, life is all about us (our story) until we’re compelled to learn otherwise. That realization doesn’t have a specific time stamp, but rather unfolds through practice in a nonlinear, at times frustrating, journey. Relationships with others, such as parents or caregivers, set the tone for selflessness throughout life, preparing the stage for that deeper learning to be enabled. But even with the noblest intentions, we often think and care for others within the context of their relationship to us. Our human tendency is to prioritize immediate family and friends, while minding our own business outside of that small village.
EXPANDING THE VILLAGE
As for other viruses, the novel coronavirus enters the human body with equal opportunity through aerosols of water, the medium of life that connects people through tears, sweat, rivers and oceans. Besides water, we all possess the same chemistry: salts, a few select gases, a plethora of carbonaceous molecules, phosphate-rich bones (etc.). Each of us is a big pile of purposely and variously bonded atoms. The three phases of matter—solid, liquid, gas—are all represented, but the water critically connects the solid to gas: the dust in ‘ashes to ashes’ needs flexible fluids for sustenance and connection, like fascia in muscle. The physical body, housing consciousness, eventually returns to the earth. Within this chemical conservation of matter framework, however, the body never really left. Matter is matter and here we are.
Thinking for people outside of our immediate village requires more internal work, a more universal platform of stewardship. There’s an ‘other’ness that comes in at some boundary, beyond which we might tune out outside people, implying weaker connections. Albert Einstein compared our perceived disconnect with others to a prison: “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” With enough outward concentric circles, all people eventually overlap. We also connect physically through the atmosphere, with circuitous paths through land and water, with a bunch of atoms, molecules and ions between my fingertips and your bathrobe (loungewear is making a comeback). Our commonality is that we share the same chemistry with one major difference: the uniqueness of DNA. What truly distinguishes us is nucleotide sequencing. That is all.
Besides the perceived lack of connection, we lean towards possessive language and thought when it comes to relationships and experiences. With frequent use of ‘mine’ and ‘ours’ language, “the construction of personality—the fashioning of a self—only occurs when an attitude of possession or appropriation takes place.” (Olendski, p. 121) However unintended, issues affecting the people we love have an implied ownership: this is subtly where we get stuck. The self believes in the me and my, and we and ours, but the not-self does not operate in possessive personal space. Language may limit our spoken and written language, but the mind has the ability to transcend to a more open landscape of responsibility for others. Every single part of us, from the firing neurons of ego down to the teeniest atomic scale, as well as objects, animals, earth and sky, are inherently equal in chemistry. Anatta is the realization that the concept of self is a construct, as changeable as anything else in the universe. That shaky sand castle is certainly fragile, but also highly flexible. The modifiable self is capable of growing in a paradigm of greater social actualization, empowered by knowledge of commonality: more consciously awake to the vast possibilities for humanity. The societal sense of possibility is entropy, ever associated with hope over despair.
The disheveled state of a major crisis can become a powerful shift: an opportunity to employ internal change before life regulates itself. With one moment leading to the next, patience and kindness towards ourselves and others can become our cloak. That subtle energy, through action, enables wakefulness in others and is irrevocably contagious. This is happening now: for the scores of people that are absolutely and understandably overwhelmed, climbing the walls wanting this to be over, there are others who are spending time with the muse, perhaps reprioritizing elements of Life Before. Even a few daily moments of mindful care towards ourselves affects how we care for others.
More broadly, within the apparent chaos, we can cultivate care for the expanded village, revealing a richer set of priorities for human potential—because these reflect our relationships with each other, as well as the dust, salty water, and atmosphere. Lasting peace is about being uncomfortably and anonymously helpful, formulating viewpoints that maintain the habitat, where that habitat is everything: people, animals, bugs, leaves, dirt, rocks…all phases of matter on this earth (and universe). Within this extraordinary global challenge, subtle changes in individuals may be deemed as precious as the more tangible and sublime difficulties that will come to define this era.
[i] Lessons learned from the 1918 pandemic, described by Historian Nancy Bristow, University of Puget Sound:
Vedantam, S. (2020) An Unfinished Lesson: What The 1918 Flu Tells Us About Human Nature. Nancy Bristow Interview. Hidden Brain. March 23, 2020. National Public Radio.
[ii] This truly is intended as a serious article, but in the spirit of reader engagement: The Princess Bride.
[iii] Williams, a. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2020) Love & Awakening in a Global Pandemic. April 16, 2020. Omega Institute.
[iv] Many thanks to Susan Knight for this quip and for insightful commentary on a draft of this article.
[v] Olendzki, A. (2016). Untangling Self: A Buddhist Investigation of Who We Really Are. United States: Wisdom Publications.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness