March 26, 2020
Groundlessness and Coronavirus
Life amidst a pandemic is unlike anything we have ever experienced. I’m stating the obvious. You have witnessed this in novel thoughts that pass through your own mind (will the grocery store ever have frozen vegetables again?). You may have noticed physical tension, reverberations of concern in your body, higher than normal stress.
However, many of the mind states and emotions that we are likely to be experiencing right now are not out of the ordinary at all, even if they are dramatically elevated, more chronic, and harder to regulate. The way a health crisis affects us doesn’t necessarily introduce new mental states, but rather brings to the surface states that might not be as prevalent when our environment is more predictable and familiar, but are nonetheless features of our own mind: worry, fear, overthinking, problem-solving, anxiety.
We may have never had the experience of waiting for state or federal government to tell us it’s safe to resume our normal work life, but we may have felt alienated from our work at times of illness, or during a time when we found ourselves between jobs. We may have felt financial stress during a layoff or when an organization we worked for had to cut our hours, or when a project we were involved with got cancelled for some reason. We may never have been forced to reduce our social interactions, but we might know what loneliness feels like when our apartment or home has the eerie empty feeling after a break-up or divorce, when the hum of activity and companionship is replaced with the more spacious silence of aloneness.
Despite how remarkable an event the coronavirus is, the cause of distress during this time is not the unpredictability or lack of familiarity associated with it, but rather something else that is harder to recognize: the fact that we are wired to do everything we can to ensure predictable terms for our own life.
Our habit of avoiding that which is uncertain and unwanted is one of the ways we try to keep ourselves safe; this sometimes (though rarely) works in our favor. It’s also one of the ways we seek happiness and spiritual liberation; this never works in our favor. If meditation practice has not revealed fully that we cannot control the world around us, the world offers us this lesson in the form of a global pandemic.
Right now, in particular, all bets are off in terms of predictability and familiarity. Personally, I don’t know if I will have a place to live, because the house I rent has sold, and the local fire department will not enter the house I am moving to in order to satisfy the inspection requirements for an occupancy permit. My barber pointed out recently that “people are at home and suddenly realize that they have a whole family there,” implying that many of us are not used to being at home all day with our family, and how finding new rhythms that work for everyone can be challenging. Even for those who choose to live alone, they may not be used to the level of detachment caused by social distancing. For those who enjoy living alone, their ability to do so is often made possible by how they balance solitude with forms of social connection that are likely no longer available.
There is the six-foot shuffle happening everywhere in public spaces, the semi-gracious slide across the grocery store aisle to get as far from others as possible. It’s happening in parks too and on the sidewalk. We all share in common an inability to resume activities that bring us closer together with others, and the odd feeling that leaves in our bodies, an imprint of separation. So strange it is to withhold something dear to us.
A more distressing scenario might have you wondering if aging parents or relatives will survive if they become infected. You may have thought about how difficult it would be if someone you loved were to become sick and you were not allowed to visit them in the hospital.
When this is over, we might look back on the time that we devised a system for dealing with incoming mail: bring packages in the house, wash hands, leave packages on floor for 24 hours before opening. Most of us have never lived in such a time, with such a unique set of conditions, all of which work together to completely strip us of any sense of normalcy.
There is a groundlessness that surrounds us, and which fills us in any moment that we allow ourselves to grasp the truth that we do not have any control. Groundlessness is often more obvious in times of crises. Groundlessness reveals itself when we don’t try to close the gap between known and unknown, don’t try to fix what appears out of place. We are returned to a state of groundlessness when we resolve to feel a thing we are avoiding because we have come to terms with the fact that it is bigger than us, more complex. Sometimes we understand that we don’t have the authority, the power, the capacity, to change conditions outside of ourselves. This is not because we are flawed, but rather because the causes and conditions that make up any given moment in time are so complex that both their comprehension and control evade us.
The universe is fundamentally unpredictable. By this I do not mean that the world itself is flawed or even unsafe (though sometimes it is), but rather simply that things are not what they seem. We fight against groundlessness because we believe in permanence, the idea that we can contort our world, other people, our environment, and even our own mind into behaving in a way that conforms to our preferences. This view is accompanied by a parallel illusion, the idea that once we get the world, other people, our environment, and our own mind to do what we want, that we will somehow be able to keep it that way, lock it down. This approach—which amounts to willing ourselves into a better version of ourselves—is upheld by a superficial notion of mastery, so pervasive in our culture that we hardly recognize its existence, let alone question it. This better version of ourselves will somehow do a better job of controlling the world. When this happens, rather when we make this happen, we will be both happier and safer.
From this point of view, so much of our behavior is based on the idea that we are trying to get somewhere and we are in the driver’s seat; once we arrive, we will finally be happy, happy forever, with no interruption. The “place” we are trying to arrive at is one of full control, a place defined by having commanded our affairs to align with whatever new fabrication of contentment we have conjured up. To accomplish this, nothing must get in our way.
In the strange case of a pandemic, we are no less subject to this habit; in fact, we may be seduced even more by it. Even if we have temporarily released our attachment to social fulfillment, happiness derived at the gym, the party, the movies, the work meeting, we might find that we are still trying to outsmart a fast-moving virus that has touched down in almost every country in the world and intercepted people at every stage of life. It is the same mechanism that seeks conventional happiness that now turns itself toward feeling safer, more in control. We crave something concrete: When will it end? Where will I get groceries? Will I get sick? When can I go back to work, visit my family, read my book at the coffee shop? We want answers, answers to wield against the next obstacle the disease presents. Knowledge is power, right, or at the very least, a little more comfort?
The pandemic’s reach exceeds inconvenience, serving a larger role of rendering us very suspicious of our own ineptitude. We are small. Reality cannot be bent. It is solid, not even a little malleable.
The coronavirus is playing the role of shattering our delusion. It is waking us up. It is the Dharma right before our eyes. It doesn’t wear robes. It doesn’t sit on a meditation cushion. It rings no melodious bells.
If I am at all correct, and the coronavirus puts us in touch with a sense of groundlessness, it is a proxy for wisdom. Groundlessness is the largest truth we come to through years of dedicated meditation practice. Groundlessness is inseparable from the deepest wisdom that reveals how suffering is created and alleviated.
What we learn through meditation practice, when all the variations of behavior are distilled into one recurring theme, is that we are consumed with trying to avoid the groundlessness of life, and what we miss out on as a result of this conditioning, is the experience of real freedom.
We grasp for what we want but don’t have.
We push away what is before us that we don’t like.
In both cases we are not present to the truth. We are missing life entirely, living in hope, fear, and expectation, rather than something more immediate, more visceral. In the Dīgha Nikāya, as elsewhere in the suttas, we are reminded that groundlessness is the only permanent thing in a changing world. The detachment taught by the Buddha is one which allows to marvel at the world even as our control of it slips away before us.
Impermanent truly are compound things,
by nature arising and passing away.
If they arise and are extinguished,
their eradication brings happiness.
When we are truly in touch with the groundlessness that is now before us—the felt sense of it, not the idea—then there is nothing to gain or lose. Predictability relinquished, everything is already lost. And in that loss, life has taken on a fullness that is greater than anything our grasping has ever afforded us. The effort to control our environment having subsided temporarily, it has taken with it the conceptual boundaries that leave us susceptible to attack from something outside ourselves. The Dharma calls this anatta, not self. It is the highest freedom.
At the heart of yoga and Buddhist meditation lies an invitation that appears as impossible as it is compelling – to realize our true nature, or true Self as a human being. The perennial question – Who am I? – may very well be the master koan of contemplative practice: it’s resolve the ultimate goal, its elusiveness ensuring a life-long path of self-inquiry.
You’re invited to consider making a donation towards the costs of compiling and sharing these teachings. Dana (Pali) is generous giving: supporting the cost of maintaining these materials sustains the teachings and makes them accessible to others.