How Not to Be Crazy in a Global Pandemic

Things are never black or white. Things are never one way or the other. Things are always many ways at the same time.

At the outset of this current pandemic, some doofus on Facebook was trying to spread the word that I am a “coronavirus truther.” So I feel compelled to repeat again and again that I do believe this crisis is real and that I am following all of the recommended protocols to help in whatever little way I can. I’m washing my hands like crazy, practicing social distancing, and, as of today, will be wearing a silly looking mask every time I go out in public as recommended this morning by the City of Los Angeles.

It’s not that the COVID-19 crisis is either A) exactly as terrifyingly awful as the politicians and the media are making it out to be or B) a complete hoax, with all of the sick people being portrayed by “crisis actors” or whatever the Alex Jones fans are saying is happening.

Rather, the COVID-19 crisis is very real and very serious AND it is being manipulated for political and financial gain by a lot of people who do not have our best interests at heart.

All of the ugly and divisive nonsense that has been turning public political discourse into a pathetically unfunny clown show for the past decade or so did not suddenly vanish as of March, 2020. Nor did the narrow-minded partisan activists masquerading as “journalists” suddenly put aside all of their biased hackery in the service of the greater good. Power hungry politicians didn’t stop being willing to do or say absolutely anything that would get them more power. And greedy business people did not stop being willing to stoop to any sort of dishonest and dangerous activity that looked like it might make them more money.

It is in the interests of both sides of the American political debate (perhaps debacle is a better word than debate) to present the current crisis in as alarming and fear-inducing of a way as they can. Many Democrats are ghoulishly hoping for the worst possible outcome, because it will allow them to frame the current Republican administration as being responsible for countless deaths. On the Republican side, the motivation for presenting catastrophic scenarios is the hope that things won’t turn out quite that bad, and they will look like heroes for saving all the lives that they predicted would be lost.

The press, of course, has long known that the scariest stories get the most views. So they have no motivation at all to tone things down or to present the public with the best and most honest information they have access to.

Meanwhile the rest of us are left trying to figure out what to do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy, and to try to prevent things from getting any worse than they already are.

One of the things we need to do is maintain our own sanity and peace of mind. 

I just read a research paper titled “The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-2019) Outbreak: Amplification of Public Health Consequences by Media Exposure” by Dana Rose Garfin, Roxane Cohen Silver, and E. Alison Holman from the journal Health Psychology. The abstract at the beginning of this paper says, “As public health officials seek to contain the virus and mitigate the deleterious effects on worldwide population health, a related threat has emerged: global media exposure to the crisis. We review research suggesting that repeated media exposure to community crisis can lead to increased anxiety, heightened stress responses that can lead to downstream effects on health, and misplaced health-protective and help-seeking behaviors that can overburden health care facilities and tax available resources.” 

Near the end of the paper there is this recommendation; “Although it is critical for the media to convey information to the public to promote appropriate health protective behaviors and effective institutional responses, it is imperative that information be conveyed without sensationalism or disturbing images. The public, in turn, should be advised to avoid speculative stories and limit repetitious exposure to media stories that provide little new information, while staying abreast of critical updates.”

It has been important for me, in these last few weeks, to keep reminding myself that all of the information I am receiving comes from human beings just like me, full of fear, and greed, and ignorance. Even the most well-meaning journalists often misunderstand or misconstrue the information they attempt to present. Doctors and medical professionals know a lot, but they cannot predict the future. Statisticians are often blinded by their own expertise in crunching numbers. “Experts” are rarely as expert as they present themselves to be.

I am, therefore, forced to follow the Buddha’s final advice to his students, delivered when he was suffering from the illness that was about to take his life. He told them, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” The Buddha’s students could no longer count on him to guide the way. They had to find the way on their own.

Luckily, the Buddha gave them a great gift to help them do that in the form of the meditation practice he had discovered and had spent most of his life trying to teach.

In these last weeks, I have become more serious about my zazen practice than I have been since I was in my thirties and deeply troubled by the prospects of succumbing to a disease that was very different from COVID-19. It was not a worldwide pandemic, but, on a personal level, it was far more terrifying. Watch this video I recently made if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.

There is no way I know of to stay sane in the face of such a threat apart from the practice of zazen. While I practice zazen, I watch my fear arise, and I watch it subside, moment by moment. I watch the workings of my own mind in response to my physical and emotional state, agitated as it often is by the latest media report of political pronouncement.

I see my own fear and worry, but, if I can remain quiet enough, I can also see a deep well of calm and strength that is much bigger than the tiny, fearful, worried fiction I call my “self.” 

And I see that this deep well of calm and strength is more me than I could ever be.

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UPCOMING EVENTS

September 10-13, 2020 ZEN RETREAT in Hämeenlina, FINLAND

September 16-20, 2020 ZEN RETREAT at Benediktushof Retreat Center, Holskirchen, GERMANY

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