In Time of Plague

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”  (The Desiderata)

It is the Christian season of Lent and just as I like to sing carols at Christmas so at this time I like to play Roland Lassus’s (1532-1594) “Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales” on CD. Many of the Jewish Psalms were written during the painful Babylonian Exile, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…”, great and beautiful poems of despair, pleading for forgiveness and usually concluding that this bad time was due to sin and the disregard of God’s Law; there must be a theological reason for such affliction.

It is interesting that the Latin poet, Ovid, took a different point of view when he was banished in 8 AD from Rome to Tomis (now Constanta, Romania) by decree of the emperor Augustus; being a pagan he blamed Augustus not God. But in what I like to think of as an age of the mythical imagination and religious belief, when we were all real “hunter gatherers” this was the way we dealt with plague and exile: bad times were because of our culpabiity or God’s rage and we appealed to God /s for deliverance and mercy. For most of us this doesn’t work anymore though there are exceptions amongst the fundamentalists in the USA and the Middle East (and parts of Ireland too).

Now we have a scientific world view while most religious traditions, it seems to me, still want to preserve a status quo more appropriate to a pre scientific world. We are all, nevertheless, in evolutionary terms, still “hunter gatherers”. We have been agriculturists and city dwellers for only about 10,000 years of the 200,000 years of our time on the planet. Our technological revolution is more recent: an extraordinary 25 to 30 years. This acceleration of progress is, like the behaviour of our virus, exponential; and as we function technologically connected and supported by a myriad of devices, in our ears, at our finger tips and even obedient it seems to our voices, nevertheless, it leaves us vulnerable, in a strange illusory state of security; if you’re at a loss “Google it”!

So there is this anxiety about how to deal with Corona 19 and the terrible “plague” of it that sweeps the planet. I just  want to make a few observations about possible strategies for dealing with this anxiety and fear.

Lets consider the recommendation to relax, chill out and try to be in the moment. Modern scientific psychology has learned about this from  some of those older traditions we discussed above; from Yogic traditions, Buddhism, the mysticism of some martial arts and even the meditative practices of Christian Mystics like Antony of Egypt, Teresa of Avila and more recently Thomas Merton and John Maine, OSB. It often advocates the use of variations on the meditative techniques of Yoga Nidra, Transcendental Meditation and recently an almost obsessive promotion of forms of  Mindfulness Meditation. Importantly, all of these will work to produce a state of stillness and can be an antidote to anxiety producing ruminations of thought. Sadly, like most practices of this kind they need commitment and as the name suggests practice. They do not work well for the dilettante or the novice user who may be in a state of crisis. I have heard users say: well I just get fidgetty and nervous or worse still bored. You need often to go to a class and do a course to become proficient in their use. I have always found simple breathing exercises more efficient: learning to breathe with the diaphragm, which you can do in a few minutes, and then watching the breath as it rises and falls … taking a slight pause between the intake and the exhalation. In an emergency one deep diaphragmatic breath can be a life saver.

There is to my mind another difficulty with meditative habits like for example mindfulness and this applies even to some of the more experienced practitioners. I quoted a line from the Desiderata above: lets unpack it a little:

“Many fears are born of fatigue…”

Tiredness, lack of sleep, doing too much, can leave us feeling depressed, exhausted, with no energy left to deal with the crisis we are all in.

“and loneliness…”

Loneliness, a complex emotion, but let’s just suggest that here it means staying in touch with our loved friends and relations.

Simple recommendations and really effective ones: but wait a second; the Desiderata doesn’t finish that idea there, it goes on to add something crucial to our well being subsequent to sleep and friendship:

“…be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.” 

It adds a spiritual  statement that adds something to our self-esteem: it reinforces who we are, and our importance in the cosmic order. I feel the author sees us as microcosms of the Cosmic Macrocosm, having a reciprocal relationship with all other life on our planet. Without this spiritual dimension the “sleep and friendship” can seem rather flat and unfulfilling. Whereas with it, the previous sentences gains a lift and a lightness that stimulates and excites. You don’t have to be conventionally religious to buy into this lift. It is perfectly compatible with many scientific perspectives.

All the above mentioned practices had such a component originally so let’s consider what some mindfulness meditations and even other types of stillness-inducing practices might be prone to without it. Often they achieve a stillness by shutting down rumination (the chattering anxious mind) and leave a kind of emptiness; the mystic might see this as a way to “pure consciousness” but the average person trying to chill out can find it either disturbing (it prompts fidgiting and/or a feeling of nervousness) or if it does work for them in producing a calmness, often this calmness feels rather flat, sometimes akin to depression.  It somehow does not compensate for what they used to find in prayer or the poetry of the psalms nor in the “lift” the author produces in his Desiderata. As my TM practising partner said the other day: “It squeezes the juice out of the practice”. I  often think it leaves  the person trying so hard to get it right a little dried out too.

I am suggesting that stripping the practice of its spiritual core purpose is another form of scientific materialism; behaviourism and cognitive psychology have led the way in this condensation and contraction of the scientific approach to our psychological and physical participation in the living organism that is our world.

Our world that is planet Earth, Gaia, Wordsworth’s world of union with Nature, “the trees and the stars”.

I would like to quote Andy Fisher, from “Radical Ecopsychology” ( 2013) page 97:

“I use the word spirit, in this instance, to refer to a mode of experience that tends in the direction of reunion with nature or that works to overcome splits between realms of being.”

Exclusively science based psychology makes this split between realms of being and then what is worse it ignores the realm it has split off. It aids the the sickness of our planet as it distances us from the Earth as our spiritual home.



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