The Media Virus

I vowed not to mention the pathogen-of-the-moment on the Internet for the next ten days and I’m breaking that vow here — sort of.

The reason I didn’t want to mention the pathogen is because I have no expertise or useful information. The only potentially valuable opinions I have to offer, I have offered already. Which is that panicking is never very useful. And that daily zazen practice for several decades has made it a bit easier for me not to get caught up in stories about what might happen in the future — both my own stories and those invented by others.

A well-intentioned reader of mine suggested that, “There is no person more suited to physical imprisonment (hence, also self-quarantine) than one who finds pleasure in meditation. Quarantine yourself with a low threshold.” I do not understand what a “low threshold” means in this context.

He also suggested that meditation teachers should create virtual meditation centers on line so that we don’t expose our groups to possible infection.

While I appreciate his thoughtful advice, I don’t intend to self-quarantine. I work at home anyway, and I’m not much of a party animal or social person. So I’m probably already pretty much self-quarantined as it is. But I’m going to keep the Angel City Zen Center open and available for anyone brave enough to sit with us.

The media is telling us to be scared of a lot of things that might happen. The health care system might be overwhelmed. There might be shortages of medicines. Closures of various facilities might result in general shortages of pretty much everything. The stock market might crash. The world economy might crumble. World War III might break out. And, of course, we might catch the virus and die.

Don’t go shopping. Don’t ride in an airplane. Don’t sit zazen with a group.

Everywhere you look there are detailed descriptions of exactly how this stuff will happen. And I’ve read some of those articles myself. But after consuming a few too many of them, I noticed that I really don’t need a step-by-step rundown on exactly how every conceivable disaster scenario might play out. I have a vivid imagination and I used to write fiction myself. I can figure out that stuff on my own. In fact, I could probably do a better job of spinning out plausible doomsday scenarios than most of the writers I’ve read.

This is because I have a strong tendency to construct scary but entirely plausible situations that could potentially happen to me in the future. I am, in short, a worry-wart by nature. It’s a dubious talent that, at one time, I hoped I might make a career out of by writing science fiction stories. The problem was, I was able to construct these fantasies so well and make them so convincingly realistic, that I often ended up believing my own stories — even though I knew I was the idiot who made the damned things up!

As human beings, we all have this ability to one extent or another. I suspect that it’s been bred into us. Those earlier humans who could cleverly anticipate the future, imagine potential dangers, and avoid them, survived more often than the ones who could not. We are the descendants of those early humans who were the best at scaring themselves.

Our media is made up of the best story tellers within a species of story tellers. And some of the most compelling stories are scary ones. These days there is more economic pressure than ever to tell the scariest story. Scary stories get more clicks. And more clicks equals more money. For a lot of writers these days, payment depends upon how much traffic a story gets. If stories don’t get enough traffic, the danger for lots of today’s professional writers isn’t that they won’t get rich, the danger is that they might not be able to pay their rent at all.

And these days nearly everyone is in the business of “creating content.” We all want our Instagram stories, Facebook posts, Tweets, and all the rest to get lots of reactions. So we don’t just have a couple of newspapers and a few TV stations trying to scare us. We have a veritable army of content creators out there trying their best to terrify us as much as they possibly can. The media isn’t just the folks sitting behind desks on TV or at typewriters in newspaper offices anymore, it’s all of us!

But there is always plenty to be scared of. Car crashes, regular old flus that kill thousands each year, air pollution, terrorist attacks, gun nuts, Trump supporters, Bernie bros, asteroid strikes, alien invasions… As Dogen said a long time ago, “Our bodies are like the dew on the morning grass, life is like a dart of lightning — lost in an instant, vanished in a flash.”

Speaking of Dogen, he died when he was 53 years old of an illness he didn’t know the cause of, or even the name for. Pandemics were everywhere in those days. And as for the medical system being overwhelmed by them, at least that was one worry they didn’t have back then, since there was no medical system. 

The germ theory of disease and the knowledge of the existence of viruses were centuries away. People in Dogen’s time didn’t even know that washing their hands and avoiding touching their faces were good ways of stopping the spread of diseases. Although I ought to point out that the Buddhists were among the first people in the world to understand the value of bodily cleanliness. Dogen dedicated a chapter of Shobogenzo to the topic.

It may be impossible not to worry about the future. At least I’ve never found a way. But I have discovered a way not to believe my own thoughts. It took a lot of effort to get there. One of the biggest obstacles was that in order to do this, you have to stop believing the thoughts that you like as well as the thoughts that you don’t like. Trying to keep the good thoughts while throwing away the bad ones doesn’t work.

As for the virus-that-shall-not-be-named, sure, I’m worried. But I also believe in karma. I’m not being stupid, though. I’m washing my hands more and I’m practicing not touching my face as much based on the advice in this article written by a fan of my books.

But I’m still going to go out, go to the Zen center, go to the gym, buy groceries at stores, and live my life. Here’s hoping it all works out!


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May 1-3, 2020 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, CA

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