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Pandemics and Inner Peace

The first time I sat a meditation retreat it was a disaster. My back was weak from years of sitting hunched over a computer and my legs didn’t appreciate sitting cross-legged on a cushion for hours at a time. In the end, it was less an extended period of peaceful meditation and more a long suffer fest during which I counted down the minutes until I tried yet again to find a comfortable sitting position.

But something shifted on the third day. I made up my mind that no matter how bad things became, I wouldn’t leave the retreat early. I also accepted the fact that there was nothing I could do to make this experience bearable. I couldn’t fix it, so I’d just have to endure until it was over. In short, I gave up on making the situation better.

When I made that decision, the whole world opened up to me. My legs still hurt, but I noticed the squirrels running by the temple windows. My back was twisted into knots, but I appreciated the delicious food we ate. And by the end of our final sitting period, I experienced inner peace.

I’d compare the experience to watching a football game when we don’t care who wins. We cringe when there’s a hard tackle on the field, and we cheer during an exciting play, but we aren’t concerned with the score. We just enjoy the game.

I’ve thought about that moment with increasing regularity as this year has progressed. I had so many plans for my summer. I saved up money to travel, I planned a book tour to promote the book I wrote, I made up my mind to invite guests into my home and let them stay long into the night—a herculean task for an introvert like myself. But as the pandemic and social unrest spread across the country, my plans died like autumn leaves.

Now the summer is ended and all of my hope is lost. Instead of traveling the world, I rode my bike in circles around my neighborhood. Instead of traveling the country to promote my book, I read books by other Buddhist teachers, and the dinner parties I had hoped for were replaced with Zoom calls and text messages.

I’d be lying if I said there was no sadness in my heart—-a numb lament for the things that could have been. But there’s also peace; a quietude that hearkens to what I felt that day in the temple.

As I explore this feeling, I find that it comes not from a feeling of attainment, but from a lack thereof. Because I did everything that I was supposed to do. I wore a mask, I social-distanced, I stocked up on food and respected the curfews that were put in place. But it didn’t work.

We’re eight months into a crisis that was supposed to end in two weeks, and no one knows when we’ll be safe. So, I’ve given up. I’ve stopped commiserating about the opportunities I’ve missed out on, I no longer make plans for what I’ll do when the restrictions are lifted, and I don’t check to see if my favorite restaurant has re-opened.

Instead, I wake up each morning determined to simply take the world “as is.” Doing this reminds me that in spite of everything that’s happened, and everything I’ve lost, this world is still beautiful. Sunlight still floods my bedroom each morning. My houseplants still grow taller every day, and my cat still sneaks into the bathroom to destroy my toilet paper.

In the same way that I have to stop trying to fix my retreat experience in order to learn from it, I have to stop trying to fix this pandemic in order to survive it. It’s through this practice of surrender, this act of giving up on what I think the world should be that I’m able to see the beauty of what is.

When I sat a meditation retreat for the first time, I learned that sometimes our suffering is outside of our control. Sometimes escape isn’t a possibility and we must make up our minds to endure. But if we’re willing to do that, inner peace is our reward. And we can experience joy in the midst of hardship.

As the pandemic continues, we continue to find ourselves trapped in a world of suffering. But that doesn’t mean we have to suffer. In spite of everything that is happening, inner peace is still possible. We just need to let go of the things we can’t control and realize that we can feel joy in the midst of pain.

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