Restoring Meaning to Our Lives in the Pandemic

(This article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Chan Magazine. It is based on a talk give in May 2020 which was included in the book Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times.)

In the early days of the current pandemic, we were focused on managing the sudden disruptions to our daily routine.  There was a lot of fear and deep sadness owing to the staggering number of deaths and loss of livelihood for many.  With the fragility of life and impermanence of our seemingly orderly world on full display, it has been a great opportunity to practice.  During the lockdown, I came across an interview with Joanna Macy conducted by Tricycle Magazine.  She spoke about the great turning of life-sustaining culture in the choices we make moment-to-moment as the old way of life unravels.  While she was referring to the unraveling brought about by climate change, the world as we knew it is also unraveling during the pandemic and much more visibly so.  We may find ourselves wanting to return to our old life.  As many of us have discovered, however, the world to which we have reopened is not the one we left behind when the lockdown took effect.  Whether we accept it or not, rapid changes are under way.  How do we contribute to co-creating a culture in which we can better nourish ourselves and support each other?  Joanna Macy spoke about four Rs which I find very helpful for contemplation and reflection on mental shifts we can make to build a more meaningful life lived in accordance with wisdom and compassion.  The four Rs are resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation.  

The first R is what she calls resilience.  What she meant by resilience is the practice of identifying values we want to keep.  The lockdown has taken away external distractions that filled our life and given many of us more time to be with ourselves and the opportunity to really reflect on what is important.  It is important to identify what is truly dear to our heart so that we can direct our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions to keeping these values.  During the pandemic, the inequality and injustice in our society has been deeply disturbing, reminding us that equality and justice are among the values we want to keep.  The pandemic forces us to face our shared vulnerability as human beings. Compassion is another value we want to keep and try to actualize.  Compassion, informed by wisdom, has to do with refraining from causing harm and committing to bringing benefit to all sentient beings.  Joanna Macy talked about this compassion as the opening of our heart.  It starts with practicing the cultivation of compassion and kindness towards those close around us, such as our family members.  She cited this poem that resonated with me greatly.  The poem Widening Circles by Rainer Maria Rilke, which she translated from the original German, articulated this practice beautifully.  The first two lines of the poem read: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.  I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.”  We do our best to contribute to the actualization of values such as equality, justice and compassion.  Knowing that we may not get to the end, we give it our best effort.  

What would this effort involve?  It is part of the practice of cultivating compassion.  It involves not turning away from suffering, which we are so tempted to do because it is so much more pleasant to turn away.  One example is the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, many of whom were working without them and living in fear of getting infected and infecting their loved ones.  We can forget about it or not read about it and not care about it because it is too aggravating. Or we can remember to practice not turning away. When we do not turn away we are more likely to notice the opportunity for us to do something to help.  Compassionate action involves maintaining and cultivating this awareness toward all kinds of suffering.  

While we focus on the pandemic, other forms of suffering are still going on.  Here are a few examples.  Vaccination programs in some countries are halted because of the pandemic, and as a result there could be 80 million children who die from preventable diseases. The oppression of marginalized people in the United States and across the world is still going on.  The Rohingyas are still forced to leave their homeland.  Black Americans continue to live with racism that is lethal at times.  Authoritarian regimes violate the human rights to which their citizens should be entitled, resulting in political persecutions.  I also read about the victims of war in Yemen whose healthcare system collapsed because of the war, and about a nurse in Brooklyn whose family mostly lived in Trinidad and she kept going to work and died from the coronavirus alone, without any of her family with her.  It is tempting not think about them because we feel so helpless and overwhelmed by all the suffering.

It is difficult not to turn away from all the sufferings out there and difficulty to remember the humanity of everyone involved.  It is very difficult because of our urge to give rise to hatred of those who we believe to be the bad people, those who are inflicting suffering on others.  The cultivation of clear awareness is to recognize and notice these very strong urges to succumb to the entrenched habit of giving rise to hatred.  Instead of giving rise to hatred and turning away, we can bear witness to the suffering and to the many outrageous actions happening in the world to strengthen our resolve and to help us act effectively.  Hence, it is not a passive, feel good practice that we are engaging in.  

When I started attending seven-day intensive retreats in the 1990s with Master Sheng Yen, he often spoke of giving rise to angry determination.  He was not talking about anger and hatred.  What is this angry determination? Determination to commit to the practice so that we can have this stable, clear mind of compassion to be part of the solution of reducing all kinds of suffering and atrocities happening around the world.  In this way, we can resist the temptation to turn away.  We can remember to uphold the value of compassion.  This resolve is strengthened through our commitment to bearing witness, to keep paying attention and staying engaged. Sometimes there may not be very much we can do besides paying attention, but paying attention is a lot.  By paying attention, we are not ignoring it and turning away.  We can understand what is actually happening so we know what it is that we may be able to do.  We can then initiate useful actions if we have the skills and means.  Staying engaged allows us to recognize when others come up with a constructive idea that we can support, instead of ignoring it.  In this way, we do not lose heart and become hopeless or cynical. 

Part of our practice is to commit to cultivating this clear awareness of all forms of the dehumanizing actions that are occurring, as it is very easy to participate in them ourselves unknowingly.  When we identify someone as the “bad” people, we start developing these dehumanizing thoughts about them. The practice allows us to remember that our world is changed for the better by our compassionate thoughts and actions collectively, not just by a change of leadership.  Have you ever had thoughts like, “if only this problematic person would disappear, then everything will be fine”?  I invite you to reflect on whether it is true that everything will be perfect after that person goes away.  Upon reflection, you will probably realize, and maybe you have experienced, that it is unlikely to be the case.  Because our world is co-created by all of us, if our thoughts and actions do not change, what we perceived to be problems would just show up in other ways.

In fact, what we think of as the problematic actions of some “bad” people are enabled by a system supported by many people. Their actions are merely manifestations of many, many causes and conditions. We are in one way or the other part of it.  We may not know how we are taking part but we have all co-created this moment with our past actions.  In the practice of cultivating this resolve, we also commit to remembering that the perpetrators of cruel actions, too, are suffering. They are suffering from their craving, hatred and delusion. When we notice how people suffer, we will also notice how their suffering causes suffering in others.  It is important to remember that the powerful who use their authority to inflict suffering in others, too, are suffering.  They deserve our pity, not hatred.  Practicing this way, as we recognize the harmful and destructive actions committed by others, we do not end up giving rise to hatred in our heart and contribute ourselves to suffering in the world.  It does not mean that we agree with these people and condone or support their actions or ideas.  Compassionate action would mean that we do what we can to reduce or limit their ability to continue to do more harm.  Practitioners commit to reflecting on what we can do that is in accordance with wisdom and compassion and not be driven by our compulsive feelings.  It may mean calling out what they are doing instead of remaining silent.  

It is easy to think “What is the point? They have so much power. What will my saying something do?”  This kind of thinking breeds cynicism and hopelessness as well as the erroneous view that power has an independent existence as an entity possessed by the powerful.  In reality, when people call out an inappropriate action, the power holders’ authority will be eroded as their authority is based on our collective recognition of the legitimacy of their authority.  For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, maybe we can vote such people out.  Sometimes it will involve the wisdom of staying out of harm’s way so that we are limiting the ability of these people to do harm, including to ourselves.  We can see that even with perpetrators of unjust and cruel actions, we can use our wisdom to cultivate compassion in our actions of trying to limit and reduce their ability to do harm. Such actions are not driven by hatred, but by compassion. That is the resolve that I am talking about. It is very difficult because our culture pushes us in the opposite direction.  That is why it is crucial to cultivate this clear awareness moment after moment – so we do not fall into the unhelpful habits of vexatious reactivity.

The second R that Joanna Macy talked about is what she calls relinquishment.  Relinquishment is to reflect on and identify what it is useful to let go of.  With the stay-at-home order, we had to stay away from many distractions offered to us by our consumerist society that compel us to run around, do this and that, eat at the new restaurants, go shopping to stay fashionable or keep up with the Joneses, drive or fly around for vacations – all to keep us from looking inward.  With shopping malls and entertainment facilities closed and restaurants offering takeout only, most of these distractions were no longer available.  During the first few weeks of the lockdown, we were reminded of which services are essential and that justifies their remaining open and which services are nonessential that justifies their being closed.  It became obvious that the list of essential services includes mainly places that sustain our physical survival and safety such as grocery stores, home repair, and emergency medical care.  

A big shopping mall near my home has remained closed since the beginning of the outbreak. Many of us probably always knew that the stores in our shopping malls are mostly not essential. It does not mean that there is anything wrong with working at or patronizing these businesses.  It is just that in this pandemic, it has been publicly announced that they are indeed not essential.  There has never been such clarity in our consumerist culture as to what is essential and what is non-essential.  We should feel very blessed by the clarity made available by this extraordinary situation.  This clarity allows us to reflect on many unhealthy habits that we have developed by living in a consumerist culture which we can let go of.  Being encouraged by this consumerist culture and conditioned by our society, we may have allowed these habits to be perpetuated, and even to grow, over the years.  We can use this opportunity to reflect on these unhealthy habits and identify ones that we would like to relinquish and go of.

You may have your own list. Here I offer some possible candidates based on some of the things I have been reading.  One of the unhelpful habits we can let go is mindless consumption. Retail stores are designed to make us go in and buy things that we did not know we needed.  That is how we often ended up purchasing things and did not know why we bought them after spending time in shopping malls.  Reflecting on what is essential and nonessential can help us unlearn the habit of mindless consumption. Another unhelpful habit is being wasteful.  Before this pandemic, most of us have never needed to worry about whether there is toilet paper or milk or flour in the store.  During the early weeks of the pandemic, we all had to learn to pay a little more attention to whether we had enough food in our pantry.  When purchasing limits were placed on certain items in the store, we realized that perhaps we should not throw away that glass of juice or milk that is almost full because many grocery stores only allowed us to buy two cartons of milk per shopping trip.  Hence, we should be grateful for that period of scarcity to help us learn not to be so mindlessly wasteful.

With budget airlines and discounts for hotels and car rentals, our consumerist culture has promoted, for many people, the habit of mindless vacationing.  Some people would take a long road trip or flight every time there is a short break.  These travels often left us more tired, defeating the purpose of breaks.  But we kept doing that because we have been conditioned to “get away” by the travel industry.  Meanwhile, we generated a lot of carbon emissions contributing to climate change.  There is nothing wrong with traveling.  It is however worth reflecting on whether we are taking a trip just because we are conditioned to do so.  The drastically reduced flight schedule and travel restrictions during the pandemic have given us an opportunity to reflect on our travel habits to identify ways which we may have been traveling mindlessly.  I recently read an article talking about how, for those of us who have a backyard, we can set up a tent to camp in our backyard.  With a shift in perspective, it can feel like we have taken a break from our routine without generating any carbon emissions. I am not campaigning against traveling for vacations, but we can reflect on our habit of mindless vacationing and begin to unlearn this unhelpful habit. 

For many of us, the period of having to work from home also provided us with an opportunity to recognize our habit of mindless workaholism.  Before the lockdown, many of us have highly compartmentalized work and family life.  We would commute into the office and work like crazy all day and maybe into the evening at times trying to meet the endless deadlines.  We gave others the job of looking after things at home.  We may outsource the cooking to restaurants and childcare to daycare centers and all sort of sports and enhancement activities for the kids.  These arrangements were, or are, no longer possible during the lockdown.  As we spend more time at home with our loved ones, we may discover things about them that we never had the time to notice before.  This experience of spending so much time together at home may allow us to recognize how this unhelpful habit of over-striving and mindless workaholism has been perpetuated at the expense of really getting to know our loved ones.  We are not talking about quitting our job and just staying home but we can reflect on our attitude towards our job and see if there are traces of mindless workaholism.  We may be able to begin to unlearn this habit and recognize that the habitual thought pattern of wanting to get one more thing done before going home can be the manifestation of the craving mind.  For some, mindless workaholism is related to the mindless pursuit of status.  Surely we need to fulfill our responsibilities at work.  As part of our practice, we can also look deeply into our mind to examine our motivation in the moments when we feel compelled to stay at work longer.  If the motivation involves suffering, such as greed, jealousy or resentment, we can use it as an opportunity to unlearn these unhelpful habits by not acting on that compulsion.  We are not talking about quitting our job or changing career.  As we cultivate clear awareness of the moment to moment activities of our mind, we would realize that it mainly involves adjustments in our mindset by recognizing that we have these unhelpful habits that can be unlearned.  

The third R Joanna Macy talked about is restoration.  It is about reflecting on what to bring back from the past. We can think about things that we have forgotten to do, perhaps because of new technologies, that are quite wonderful.  For those of us old enough to remember life before texting, we may notice that we have forgotten we can talk to our loved ones on the phone.  In fact, talking on the phone made a comeback during the lockdown as we looked to connect and reconnect with people important to us in our life.  I recently read that research has shown that talking on the phone allows for deeper emotional connection than other mediated means of communication.  We are not advocating talking on the phone all the time but we can restore this means of communication as a way we connect with our friends and loved ones.  Many families and friend groups started having regular videoconference calls during the lockdown.  Frequent gatherings among family and friends were commonplace in the past but our highly individualized life enabled by personalized devices had pushed these gatherings down our list of priorities in life.  For many people who suffer from loneliness and social isolation, restoring communication by actually talking can be helpful.  

During the lockdown, some people have discovered or rediscovered their neighbors.  As we spent time at home, talking with our neighbors while following social distancing protocols fulfilled our emotional need through social interactions.  I have read many articles on how having face-to-face interaction with someone even just for fifteen minutes can lift our mood.  Talking to our neighbors also used to be commonplace and is another thing we have forgotten in our culture that is worth restoring for many of us.  As we stay home with our loved ones, we can also restore the practice of spending time with each other over meals during which we can share our experiences of the day.  It provides us with the opportunity to connect with and support each other.  Due to our busy work life, overscheduled children, and personalized entertainment and communications viewed on our own devices, the percentage of American families eating dinner together has been declining.  Sharing our day over dinner used to be a daily family ritual that has largely been forgotten in our culture.  We can also consider how this practice can be restored in our life to nourish our family life.  Our life circumstances may not allow us to share dinner daily, but the key is to prioritize setting aside time to connect with our loved ones.  

During the lockdown, we may have also rediscovered forgotten hobbies or practices that we used to have that brought us joy or allowed us to conserve our resources.  I read about people repurposing old clothes and toys at home for craft projects.  Others recalled how their grandmother soaked the green onion to keep it fresh.  Many rediscovered the joy of planting a vegetable garden.  We may also rediscover hobbies and practices such playing music, painting, or reading great works of literature such as that volume of War and Peace that has been sitting on the bookshelf gathering dust.  Some of us reconnected with the chanting practice.  I read that singing stimulates the part of our brain that lifts our mood, which could be very helpful when we are kept physically away from our loved ones due to travel restrictions.  

The travel restrictions also afford us the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world around us.  My husband and I discovered a few small ponds in the local natural preserve.  We took walks there and paid regular visits to watch the tadpoles hatch and grow every few days.  Simple activities like that bring a lot of joy and do not cost anything.  We can also reconnect with people in our life that we kept telling ourselves we do not have time to email or call, especially when the fragility of life is in full display during the outbreak.  As we cultivate clarity of our mind, we can look deeply into our heart to identify things that we would like to restore in our life.  We are not talking about turning our life upside down.  These will be subtle adjustments in how we spend a few minutes here and there.  Instead of turning on the television as we usually do, for instance, we can play the piano or check in with our loved ones.  Living life more intentionally allows us to integrate how we would like our life to be and how we spend our time.  This reduces a major source of internal conflict, rendering our life more fulfilling and meaningful.  As we are more content and at peace, we are also more available to our loved ones and capable of bringing benefits to other sentient beings.

The fourth R is reconciliation. With whom do we want to make peace? This is very important. During this period of lockdown, we have gone through a lot and we are able to witness how easy it is to inflict harm on our loved ones when we are stressed out and irritated.  Perhaps we can make peace with our past self who has done things to hurt someone we loved because we were suffering.  When we are able to make peace with this past self, we are also committing not to repeat the same mistake of inflicting pain on our loved ones when we ourselves are hurting and we do so by remembering to practice.  With more clarity as we practice, we fall into the habit of suffering less often which in turn allows us to inflict less harm on others.   

We can also make peace with other people who have hurt us in the past.  As we spent a lot of time at home with our loved ones during the lockdown, we can see more clearly that when we are under stress and suffer, we do unwise things and say unkind words that hurt other people.  When we can see how we do that, we can also see how other people can be unkind and unwise when they are under stress and how they can hurt us.  We do not pretend that they did not do what they did and that we were not hurt, but we make peace with that person because we know they made the mistake because they were suffering.  We may have experienced resentment or hatred or we may even blame ourselves for what that person did, wishing to change the past.  Wishing to change the past, which is impossible, causes agitation in the mind and that is why we experience no peace.  We can make peace with what has happened and the person who hurt us.  It does not necessarily mean that we become best friend with that person.  We may not even have a relationship with that person anymore.  The person with whom we have the non-peaceful relationship is actually our own idea of the person who hurt us.  By recognizing this, we can choose to make peace with it and reconcile with our past.

The pandemic has been devastating in many ways.  For many of us, it has also provided us with the opportunity to reflect on our life.  Joanna Macy’s four Rs–resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation–provide useful guidance for our reflection.  As long as it is here, we can make good use of this period of social distancing and learn from our reflection as part of our practice.  In this way, regardless of what happens to our job, the economy and other aspects of our world, we can live a more meaningful life where our actions and values are integrated as we practice to make moment-to-moment choices that are in accordance with wisdom and compassion.   

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