Although I’ve just finished writing my first Dharma book, writing (unpublished) fiction is something I’ve always done. I’ve had an idea for a novel (along with copious notes) brewing for about four years, which I’ve been thinking about again, in relation to our current world situation.
It’s a novel with strong interweaving threads relating to climate change, terrorism and the dharma law (in the sense of law of gravity) that actions have consequences. I wanted to explore what, in the end, is important to us when society changes hugely and rapidly, without so much of a backward glance to how it was. I wanted to write about the breakdown of our current way of living that affects how we live, how we and what we eat, that changes the ease of global communications, how we travel (or don’t). And what happens when these changes happen? When push comes to shove how thin is the fabric of decency and law and order in our society? Who are the heroes, and who the anti-heroes? What can we live with, and who can’t we live without?
One parallel to the Covid-19 reality and my fictional one is that we are grounded. We can’t go anywhere, and with just this one thing, we’re forced to radically change how we live. In my world of storytelling, we don’t have the resources to go anywhere, and if we could, it would be too dangerous.
In our current world we voluntarily, or at the risk of a fine or a telling off from a beleaguered police force, stay at home. I can’t do my usual work of leading retreats in various parts of Europe; I can’t travel to family outside the small market town I live in. I can’t meet friends in a café or go to see a movie or a band. In Britain – so far – we’re fortunate enough to still able to get outside and walk, cycle or run in the warm spring sunshine. We’ve avoided being locked up inside our houses unless of course, we’re at a high risk of catching and dying from the virus.
Amidst experiences of loneliness, isolation and limitation there are many gestures of generosity, kindness and befriending. Three quarters of a million volunteers wanting to help the NHS are a testament to that. When kindness meets loneliness, we can touch a tenderness in ourselves that connects us to others. Awareness can rest in that tenderness and an openness to our experience, whatever it is. For perhaps just a moment our loneliness shifts into something connecting and precious.
It is deeply sobering this worldwide lockdown, this global grounding. All I’ve taken for granted about my safe and benign life has been called into question. Everything I’ve relied on to protect me from illness, poverty, lawlessness and starvation is under threat. What lies around the corner is unknown. As a practising Buddhist, this should not be news; the future is always unknown, but the mind clings habitually to wanting to know and the pace of world change and the unpredictable directions it moves in, are discombobulating, spinning the mind off into anxiety and fear. I’m fascinated by the way the mind both can’t believe what is happening, and how quickly it adapts and attempts to grab hold of ideas of the cliched ‘new normal’.
‘New normal’ is the minds way of trying to adjust to what is happening, trying to find some stable ground amidst groundlessness. It is where the opportunity of practice comes in. If I can watch my mind scrambling for certainty in an uncertain future and feel into the quality of suffering of that mind, there is the possibility to notice the ‘knowing’ of that experience, rather than being lost in it. The ‘knowing’ will likely have a different quality to it. It is not caught up in what might happen but is more connected with experience in the present moment. I can recognise in this moment of awareness, the mind is thinking, feeling, agitated or fearful, and that the knowing mind has its own different ‘nature’. It simply knows, without being identified with the thoughts and feelings in the mind, or the agitation in the body, and when I see that, there is immediate relaxation into spaciousness and relief.
What is happening in our world is shocking and deeply saddening. And yet, there are compensations, with pointers to another way of living. The earth loves that we are grounded, and we feel it too. There are clear skies above, and cleaner air in each breath. We wander through quiet streets with few vehicles, and marvel at animals reclaiming urban parks and alleys. The birds can hear themselves sing and perhaps we can more easily hear our own inner voices. Being grounded has simplified and quietened our lives, in ways that many of us will not want to lose.
In my fictional Armageddon it has always felt important not just to focus on what we lose, or the forces of greed and destruction that abound. There are beautiful moments too. When things get tough, when loss or fear threaten to overwhelm us, what protects us? Cultivating a quality of mind that supports actions of love, friendship and wisdom grounds us in a different way where we stand light but firm in our own minds and hearts. We are earthed within our slowed down bodies and they reward us with the delights of groundedness.