In Time of Plague 2.
“We live in a mysterious world, a world that will not yield up its secrets either simply or by force. I’ll begin, therefore, by asking for a willingness to be complex. I don’t mean we should give up valuing simplicity, but recognize that one-sidedly simple critiques of the contemporary world situation are probably going to be inadequate—they will probably be psychologically driven, and intellectually insufficient to accomplish our task. In some sense, simple critiques represent an avoidance of the challenge of engaging fully the very mysterious character of the world we live in.”
(Richard Tarnas: see ref. below)
At this time of Covid 19 people speak of the “strangeness” of the time, the fears, the insecurity and especially the loneliness of the time. There is also for many the premature loss of loved ones to the pandemic. Often we feel a general sense of foreboding perhaps: the time is “out of joint” there is disequilibrium. But I have to ask to what extent this is due to the pandemic, to the virus itself?
People speak of “forced isolation” and the authoritarian aspects of “social distancing” as though they were necessary evils. In the USA right wing groups hold mass demonstrations against such restrictions of what they regard as their democratic rights carrying their guns to emphasise the point. I feel such measures are a small price to pay for keeping the spread of the virus under control and protecting the vulnerable amongst us and moreover may offer opportunities: I argue that it is to our response to these unusual controls, not to the pandemic per se that I look for many of the troubles that beset people. I suggest that such troubles as we have at this time are not new or “strange” or pandemic related but are the resurgence of already existing human conflicts that have been in our hearts for some time; if not all of our time.
There is a well-known practice amongst some spiritual peoples of going into a remote or wild place and staying there alone fasting with only water to drink for three days. I have met several people who have done this on courses at Schumacher College. All of these people will tell you how frightening and disturbing the fast can be; if not dangerous psychologically. Accordingly there are ways of setting up safeguards I will not describe here. But they will tell you that all the strange and disturbing “demons” that beset them in this fasting situation are “old friends”, in the sense that they existed in their psychic make up before. Possibly they had repressed them, pushed them down into the unconscious, ignored them and though troubled by them tried not to think about them. Some may have faced up to them before and tried to come to terms with them but now suddenly they arise again more potent and frightening. Similarly, those who are new to some meditative practices also find such feelings arise as they try to sit still and calm the mind. This would all have been known and experienced by the Christian Mystics, St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross and Jesus himself in his encounter with Satan in the 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4, v. 1-11). Some of us too, encounter them when we go on spiritual or religious retreats.
I recognise more and more, as the pandemic has progressed, nearly all the arising worries and disturbances belong to our personal and collective past.
Prof. Richard Tarnas speaks meaningfully about such crises as times of “initiation”. He speaks of the crisis of planetary catastrophe that is climate change but I think what he says applies well to the pandemic too:
“Are we going to make it? We can’t be completely sure that we will. I would describe it as a kind of race between initiation and catastrophe…How can we participate in a transformative unfolding that would lead to a more integral world? We need to move beyond the very narrow empiricism and rationalism that were characteristic of the Enlightenment and still dominate mainstream science today. We need to draw on — to use a single encompassing term–the wider epistemologies of the heart. We need ways of knowing that integrate the imagination…”
(Richard Tarnas: Noetic Sciences Review, No 47, page 24: Winter 1998.)
The whole piece is worth reading but he is basically saying that at such moments in our life and history we need to change as individuals and embrace a more spiritual dimension, where spirit may mean to you, to quote Andy Fisher in Radical Ecopsychology, no more than an overcoming of alienation. We need to see the isolation needed because of Covid 19 as an initiatory opportunity, to grow as people and not frown and whinge about its misfortunes.
Sadly, it is often too late to take up complex disciplines and practices that require a degree of commitment and practice over time; joining a class might help, though it has to be on-line, and there is simply not the time to become adept now if you haven’t started before. Andrew Weil suggests preparing for trouble well before you encounter it not when it falls upon you. But simple practices are there: you can walk and observe rather than think: talk about your feelings: read: get hold of a relaxation CD and listen to it (e.g. Yoga Nidra: isbn 91-630-9488-6: Swami Janakananda: there are lots of others): my ornithologist friend Paul decided to make an inventory of local bird species.
At such times as this it is of no use our asking for the meaning of “things”, especially if the question is masquerading as a scientific one, when in fact, it is a metaphysical question. If I ask what “noetic” means there is a dictionary definition that will satisfy: if you say you feel sick and I ask what you mean, you can enlarge on your symptoms. But if I ask “what is the meaning of life?” then that becomes metaphysical since there is no way of falsifying my answer! Or why is there being, as opposed to no beings? Again it is a metaphysical question not a scientific one.
No spiritual (i.e. non-materialist) answer would satisfy this kind of hooded scientific enquiry. If as some believe there is only physics and no metaphysics then this distinction will not sit well with you but then you still have to decide what kind of question you were asking…is it a non question, an invalid question? Remember that to keep asking “why, why…” is not always productive in a time of crisis…it is what it is! Look where answering puzzling questions got Oedipus!
“…whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” (The Desiderata: my italics)
You may like to look at Max Hafler’s recent post about “imprisonment” see:
House Arrest: Devising with the Michael Chekhov Technique at https://maxhafler.wordpress.com