During these times of COVID-19—for almost a year—many have struggled with the imposed isolation of short or long quarantines. Some friends and family assumed that because I have undertaken long retreats in the past, quarantine would pose no problem. However, there is a big difference between intentionally choosing retreat time and suddenly being obliged to give up one’s familiar activities and social connections. For the least fortunate among us—for example, homeless people already struggling with mental illness and access to basic necessities—the pandemic has added yet another layer of suffering, fear, and uncertainty, as well as sickness. For the most fortunate among us, with access to technology and the internet, amid the luxury of working from home and maintaining an income, there have still been real repercussions to physical and mental well-being as our normal activities were stripped away.
Working from home certainly has advantages, and businesses have seen that it can even increase worker productivity. However, many of us may have underestimated how even the casual contacts or professional meetings that we use to engage in at work gave us a sense of continuity and a reprieve from loneliness, even with coworkers we may dislike! There is also a healthy boundary in maintaining the home front as a place to relax and recuperate from work. When one works from home, there is no escape from the workplace. That said, we must hold a lot of compassion for essential workers and others who have to work in environments that come with varying levels of risk of contracting COVID-19, as many people must do so to support themselves and their families.
Even as vaccines are coming into view, it will be many months or longer before we know what the next steps are in our social and professional practices. Of course, this will vary greatly from place to place and country to country. And the unknown itself can create a sustained anxiety among people wondering what our world will be like and if there will be any sense of a return to “normalcy” in the various ways we lead our lives.
At the community level, we have experienced all kinds of social policing and political conflicts around mask-wearing, vaccines, daily habits, and even a variety of beliefs about what is actually happening. Interpreting our reality is already something each of us does in our own way. We already know that there are social and political conflicts due to our belief systems and COVID-19 has provided one more arena in which conflicts can blossom. Whether it is within our own family, community, or on social media—or even within our own mind wondering how to cognize what is happening—there is a great amount of tension (both personal and collective) and this tension has to be released.
The dark side of this tension release is through domestic violence, child abuse, addiction, and various ways of acting out that we have seen played out in the media. On the brighter side, there is also an incredible gathering of the energy of the paramitas of patience and generosity, discipline and general kindness, very often between strangers. Whether helping to deliver food, or sew masks, or help with childcare or homeschooling or transportation—or just being someone available on the end of a telephone or a FaceTime call—countless people have found a deeper well of generosity of spirit. There are always silver linings to these dark times that we face in what the Buddha foretold as the Degenerate Age.
Children have also experienced hardships from quarantine and homeschooling, or a lack of schooling. Some have had to care for younger siblings and forgo their own schooling or activities. Many children have experienced anxiety and associated behavioral issues that come along with the incapacity to quickly assimilate major changes in their lives. For many, it has been very difficult to be separated from their teachers and friends, as this community is what gives their lives structure and a clear path forward, especially for those whose home life is not supportive. Although we know children are generally more resilient than adults, my heart still goes out to them most of all as they look toward an uncertain future.
Many important celebratory events may not have been enjoyed and shared this past year, such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or the births of children that could not be accompanied by extended family. Even more sad are the many deaths and hospitalizations where family or loved ones could not be at the bedside or even hold a funeral.
Can we cultivate hope for the future while trying to metabolize all of these overwhelming experiences, both personal and ones we read about? Especially a future in which we continue to unravel how the wild and woolly circumstances of 2020 came about in the first place? We do know that these kinds of events have been long in the making and are intimately tied to climate change and social justice struggles around the world. The tenuous relationships between humans and animals, habitat, and our climate must be examined with deep hearts and stable minds. I feel tenuous hope for the Paris Climate Agreement and sensible world leaders coming together to reevaluate political lines and to prioritize above all the well-being of all the Earth’s creatures—neither excluding nor promoting humanity over other species. This is no small task in the continual tension between well-being and profit.
To continue this true healing work, we see through the illusion of temporary happiness and come to a realistic reckoning, within ourselves and between one another, about what we may have to give up to not only survive but to support everyone’s opportunity to thrive.
The qualities of patience, generosity, discipline, perseverance, and kindness of heart are being cultivated in ourselves to a much deeper level—to what the Buddha describes as the all-encompassing perfection of our mind’s wisdom—in service to all. As one writer for Buddhistdoor Global beautifully put it: “I take hold of my hand when feeling any of the 101 emotions that a day in lockdown can trigger: one breath, one step, one kindness at a time is how any of us are going to see this meanest of meantimes through.”* This virus and whatever comes next are not the last challenges we will face. The resilience we have gathered as a great silver lining of 2020 is a tool to deepen and further cultivate our qualities of heart, to love, to include, and to care for all beings.
What began as shock, disappointment, suffering, and restrictions almost a year ago can be transmuted into strength, empathy, and a wider view to implement now. As we breathe the fresh new air of a fresh new year, let us try to look with fresh eyes at our habits, and most especially at each other, to soften the perception of the great differences between self and other. May we each experience in our way, even when alone, that we are always in good company—both human and divine—that we are never truly alone.
* Metta in the Kindtime (Buddhistdoor Global)