by Arden Mahlberg
With social distancing, I am enjoying daily walks in our neighborhood in a new way. Following that discipline with fellow walkers and joggers is like dancing with strangers. People change course onto the grass to give safe passage to the walkers they meet. There are gestures of thanks. Joggers flow into the street’s bike path until the walkers have passed. Walkers glance behind them to avoid being in someone’s way. In the military, they call this situational awareness, a constant monitoring of the surroundings in order to act accordingly. Not everyone has developed this skill. It is an exercise in mindfulness, to not let ourselves be preoccupied or inattentive. This is a spiritual discipline that combines care of self with care of others. When others are similarly engaged, the resulting sidewalk dance is a thing of beauty and an occasion for joy.
All of the disciplines that are involved with COVID-19 are easier to do and have more depth when we relate to them as spiritual disciplines. This will also give them lasting value beyond the length of this crisis. Care of self and care of neighbor have the same expression. I have never before encountered such a strong sense of shared vulnerability and shared responsibility. The deeper we go into this, the more it may transform how we conduct other parts of our lives.
Stay-at-home orders provide fertile ground, especially for those of us with few or no housemates. What does alone even mean? And how do we experience it? A breakthrough understanding for me came in the 70’s when I read about a man who had been on a life raft in the Pacific for over 30 days before being rescued. Much to the amazement of the reporters who interviewed him, he described how connected he had felt with everything in his surroundings. “At night,” he said, “the stars were so close, it was like a blanket.”
I realize that with this perspective, there is no such thing as being alone. We always exist in context. We only feel alone when our awareness has become constricted or we have set conditions on what counts as an other worthy of connection. From that point on, at times of so-called physical isolation, I came to experience further, that every place and every time reveals an aspect of the Divine.
Let me invite you into a little exercise. Consider the number of souls who are in the same neighborhood as you are right now. Consider all living beings in that space. Extend a blessing to them all for their well-being and the well-being of those they love. Notice how good it feels to do so. Then expand the circle farther and farther until there is no farther to go, always noticing how good it feels to be participating in the well-being of others. As a daily spiritual practice, this helps us keep the important sense of mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility.
I have been on a couple of retreats, one led by Ron Pevny, where we had extended periods of staying in place as a solo practice. In that time, I found myself engaging more in the few things around me and experienced a fascination with each of them. Also, somehow the few turned into an abundance. I was also better able to notice and value what was happening inside me. It is similar to the spiritual discipline of savoring, where we slow down to explore what we eat and engage it more fully. Often my mind goes to the life that was lost on my behalf, where the food came from and the people who tended to it and made it available to me. The amazing qualities of sun, water and soil. The beautiful environment fish live in compared with factory farming. To treat living things as food is spiritually and morally challenging when we pay attention to it.
Whether our homes contain a little or a lot, there is rich opportunity to marvel and savor. Trees were cut down for my benefit so I could enjoy the beauty of their grain. I benefit from human curiosity, discovery and ingenuity with the amazing inventions available to me. How did someone figure that out, I wonder? What about ceramics and glass – humans finding ways to create what volcanoes create. Metal working, wood working, art, music, cooking and baking, were all originally recognized as magical, mystical processes of alchemy. With the space for such awareness, things in our homes are no longer mere functions. They are worthy of our attention and reflection.
Stay-at-home has also meant that my calendar of obligations has been wiped clean. This freedom allows me to have more awareness of what is going on inside me. I notice priorities and interests being rearranged and reordered. Because of this I have less sadness that things may not return to normal. I’m less sure I want them to. I don’t know.
Uncertainty – not just mine, but the shared uncertainty all human beings have. This is a spiritual/existential matter. How do we reconcile with uncertainty? I say, when we relate to it as a spiritual practice. This pandemic is the result of chance occurrences. Chance viral mutations in bats were transmitted by chance to a human being. People around the world don’t know when they will work again. Don’t know how they can pay their rent. In the midst of this uncertainty, people in positions of responsibility are having to make decisions with huge implications for masses of people. Financial security has evaporated for many. Front-line medical personnel face uncertainty about having the necessary resources to help the expected influx of patients. They don’t know if they can even keep themselves safe. Hospitals face bankruptcy. Any and all of us could become infected. We don’t know how bad that would be.
The human brain has a love/hate relationship with uncertainty. It can become addicted to the uncertainty involved in gambling when there is a potential upside. But when there is no possibility of winning, there is only a downside to be faced. We hate taking losses.
The importance of reconciling with uncertainty is reflected in the fact that the Greeks and Romans gave chance the status of a god. Fortuna was her name. For people who design and administer vaccines, chance is the enemy of their efforts. Viruses are always randomly mutating, and some of those mutations will not be controlled by the vaccine. Some people in cancer treatment face the threat of random mutation every day.
With no certainty, there is only probability. There is something spiritually and morally important about living with this realization. This is how people stay sober. All we can know is now and that is challenging enough.
A spiritual and moral aspect of integrated uncertainty and vulnerability is that it can open the doors to greater awareness of the needs of others and activate the compassion to be of help. While there is research evidence to support this, it is also part of ancient wisdom.
A man who had everything going for him came to the Teacher seeking reassurance about his place in heaven. He sought certainty. His concern was only for himself. The Teacher gave him advice that would make him more vulnerable. He told him to sell everything he had, which was considerable, and give it to the poor. He wanted certainty, and was told to make himself more vulnerable.
The Teacher also told a story of a man who was robbed, beaten and left to die on the side of the road. Three people encountered the situation. The only one who stopped to help was the most vulnerable of the three, a man from a foreign country that was hated by the locals. He could easily be victimized himself.
While we shouldn’t glorify vulnerability, there is no denying that it has heart. In facing our shared vulnerability, many of us are responding with compassion and generosity. Vulnerability can open the window into the needs of others, when we acknowledge it and make our peace with it. As we know, people who have the least are the most generous. While resources of money and power provide security and predictability, they also make compassion and generosity more difficult.
The current vulnerability is not just a feeling; it is real. It is a shared reality. To deny the risk leads people to act carelessly and endanger themselves and others. To believe that everything will somehow be okay closes us off from our real needs and those of others. Some people are even predatory, seeking to exploit vulnerability.
When we treat the disciplines we need to keep ourselves and others safe as practices that are really spiritual in nature, we can calmly recognize our shared vulnerability and shared responsibility. Then these practices do more than provide safety, they open our eyes and our hearts.
Arden Mahlberg is a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow his blog at ardenmahlberg.com.