Today's Wake Up Call fell on the official one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The questions that were alive were, what can we do to mark this incredibly sad moment? And how can we do that and retain, or locate, our sense of balance, poise, equanimity?
Equanimity is the fourth of the four most treasured qualities of mind. What does equanimity look like right now when there's still so much sorrow, uncertainty, and fear? Is this one of those (many?) moments when, as the poet, Rilke, suggests, maybe the best we can do is "be patient towards all that is unsolved in our own hearts?"
This Wake Up Call asks, "is that equanimity right now?" It is dedicated to the memory of all the lives lost in the twin pandemics of COVID 19 and racism in the U.S.
It was a year ago today that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I was in Muir Beach, California, at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm, with 14 other teachers and students, from three continents, in the middle of the first retreat of our 2020 Mindfulness in Law Teacher Training. Our two guest teachers bowed out, feeling safer to stay home. San Francisco went into lockdown within days. One of our students had to make their way home to Santiago. Another flew from the West Coast through Western Europe and home to Warsaw, ultimately making her way through an hour-long line to cross into her own country by car. I remember stopping on the way home from Green Gulch and buying canned goods, pasta, paper products. The news from New York and Italy was grim and deteriorating.
Take a moment to remember March 11, 2020 and the following few weeks. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you feeling?
It’s been a long year. COVID has claimed the lives of over two and a half million mothers, fathers, children, siblings, grandparents, colleagues, and friends, as of today. Chances are there’s not a single one of us on this Call today who hasn’t lost someone. Take a moment to remember someone you’ve lost.
What does it even mean to talk about equanimity on an anniversary like this? It feels almost sacrilegious, because how can we be equanimous right now? How can we not be tipped in the direction of grief? We have lost so much.
We’ve lost people, and also the person we were before the pandemic - a kind of innocence lost and which may never return. We’ve lost work and maybe economic stability, the comfort of kids going off to school; and maybe also our workplaces and the sense of comradery that comes from being there, day after day, side by side. We live in, or bear witness to, the deep grief of the African American community and other communities of color who have suffered a vastly disproportionate share of illness and death. How can we talk about equanimity?
But in a way, in the midst of our collective grief and loss, with the vaccine slowly, slowly beginning to slow this terrible pandemic, equanimity is the perfect quality to investigate.
Equanimity is the fourth of the four Brahmaviharas, or heavenly abodes, or treasured states of mind. Lovingkindness is the first: an invitation to wish for wellbeing for everyone. This has been a year for that. Compassion is the second: and it’s been a year for that, too. Sympathetic joy, taking joy in the happiness of others: we’ve all been able to use a little extra joy this year.
Equanimity is sometimes confused with being cool or indifferent or removed, but it’s not that at all. It’s the opposite, in fact.
True equanimity is a kind of groundedness, of being connected to the earth and to each other, come what may. In this moment, on this anniversary, equanimity invites us to experience the world as it is right now, with not one of us, not one person in the whole word, untouched, unscathed, by this pandemic. It invites us to care deeply and to see, finally, what the sages have been telling us for millennia, and the scientists for decades: we are completely, inextricably, connected – connected in our sorrow, connected in our joy, connected in our fear, connected in our wonder.
But equanimity doesn’t stop there. It reminds us that we are just here for a moment. As if that point hasn’t been brought home to us over and over this last year, equanimity reminds us to take this view. To see that in the long course of human history, there have been other pandemics. There have been natural disasters, and wars. There are systems of oppression in place that have shifted and changed and continue to oppress. It invites us to see that this being human is full of joy but also challenge, no matter the moment in history. The Buddhists and Taoists call this the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. Equanimity invites us to see and to be with all of that.
Equanimity pans out to that big, wide, long, view, to help us remember that to whatever extent we have survived the COVID pandemic so far, and to whatever extent we survive it in the end, we have done so, or will have done so, at least in part by observing things just as they are. We haven’t survived, cannot survive, by wishing things were different. Or by magical thinking. If we are fortunate enough to emerge, then when we emerge, it will be by seeing things as they are, and by being with them as they are.
Professionally, this has meant making mind-bending changes in the way we work, and largely coming to some measure of peace with those changes. Meetings, hearings, trials, connecting with clients and colleagues, working with support staff, classrooms: I was talking with a law school dean and they said they were hoping to be fully back in the classroom by the spring of 2022. My heart sank when I heard that. But then it levelled off. Spring of 2022: that’s just how it is. The Pali word for this kind of equanimity, this ability to see things as they are, to pan back, is called Upekkha.
Upekkha: we have lived through – and we are still living through – the 100 year flood. And those of us here together today: we are still standing. In this way, equanimity, upekkha, is the ground for wisdom.
And, equanimity also pans back in. It reminds us that the only way to still be standing is to somehow stand right in the middle of all this. Sure, we’ve been sheltering in place. And I don’t know about you, but there have been times this year when I couldn’t bear to read the news, in any form.
But we have also grounded ourselves and then been there for one another. In true human form, we’ve suffered and then turned around and supported someone we knew was suffering more. We’ve taken a breath – and then another breath – and seen our own fear and longing for connection and loss, and not turned away. We’ve helped those we love to do that, in the most dire moments and the most mundane. This panning in, this standing in the middle of things and breathing and caring, in Pali is called tatramajjhattata, or “to stand in the middle of all this.” It is the ground for love.
This Wake Up Call is in memory of all the lives lost.