To panic or not to panic

Last Friday I went to see a production of Dad’s Army at our local theatre.  ‘Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring’ seems quite appropriate in the current crisis.

A week ago the Sala at Amaravati still had about 30 people in it at the mealtime.  But yesterday there were just five of us.  One person had intended to fly to Germany to see her daughter, but the flight was cancelled; another had a flight to Spain booked for the following day, he was hoping to get home, but wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.  

My namesake Martin was there, sitting in his wheelchair in the back room where he always sits.  He is in his 80’s and depends on visiting the monastery for his main meal of the day.  He doesn’t have a plan B.  I had taken him to the supermarket before the panic buying really kicked in, but I couldn’t persuade him to buy anything other than food for his breakfast.  

He was philosophical about catching the virus.  He has lived through a war.  ‘People panic out of fear’, he said. I told him I was worried about him; not that that seemed a particularly helpful thing to say.  ‘I’m not worried about you’, he said, ‘If you die, that’s Dhamma’.  

That’s saying it how it is. (In this context Dhamma means nature or the natural law)

Finding the middle way

It is so difficult to get the balance right.  Panic isn’t right, but denial isn’t right either.  If we catch the virus, we may be philosophical whether we live or die, but we will take up a bed in an intensive care unit, and we are very likely to pass it onto others, perhaps the people we most care about – those who come and help us out, the last people we would want to infect.

The Buddha used the simile of the lute when explaining to a meditator how to find the right balance between trying too hard and not hard enough – saying that when we find a balance between the two, it is like an instrument which is well tuned. It is possible to play it well.  The simile is found in the Sona Sutta (Anguttara Nikkaya book 6 v55).  

Can we apply this simile to help us find the middle way between panic and denial in this crisis?   I always start with mindfulness – if panic arises noticing how it feels, that feeling of wanting to do something, finding a problem that needs to be fixed, and another, and another.  Or the feeling of denial, of pretending there isn’t a problem – there is nothing we need to do.  When we notice and acknowledge these feelings and know them for what they are – there is an enormous sense of relief.  We are not pushed and pulled by the grasping mind, we let go.   What would we see if we saw these feelings as they are?  

We would see the grasping mind, wanting and not wanting, creating a me and a mine – and the suffering which follows from thinking, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’.  We would see Dukkha.

When we don’t see Dukkha clearly we believe that the way it feels is the way it is. We interpret our experience through the lens of delusion.  We can’t see reality when delusion is standing in the way.

Is it possible to act with wisdom?

With mindfulness we have the chance to see things clearly.  We can step back, watch it as a process – and see that there is no suffering here, but that which we create.  And when we don’t create suffering, we don’t create a problem we have to fix, or run away from.  We can act with wisdom.  

We don’t have to create a problem in order to act.  What needs to be done can still be done.  We can keep ourselves safe.  We can look out for others.  

I have a beautiful Scarborough Lilly which has just come into bloom.  It doesn’t know there’s a crisis – it has never heard of coronavirus.  And there is a second bloom coming.  I don’t need to worry about it – just keep watering it – that’s all it takes.    

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I could worry, ‘What if I’m ill and can’t get up to water it …..or ….or …’, or I could just enjoy it in the present moment – watch it’s beauty unfold as it follows its own nature.  See what it has to teach me.  Really notice how it changes day by day.

We don’t have to panic

This is such a good opportunity to notice our habits and our patterns of thinking.  We can’t do the things we were used to doing.  Every day presents a new challenge – an opportunity to assimilate change.  It started with not shaking hands.  Now we are queuing outside pharmacies and discovering the supermarket shelves are stripped bare.  You can’t get basic things like an egg to bake a cake with or yeast to make bread.  We have to think ‘out of the box’.  At some point we will have to go without.  It is something most of us have never experienced before.  I think we will discover it is possible, and although it may be a shock to the system, we will come out of it stronger and wiser.

Martin Evans 
21 March 2020