Coronavirus is bad enough – why have fear as well?

Mar 14, 2020

It seems as if there’s nowhere on the planet right now that isn’t suffering from the presence of the coronavirus and its consequences. And it’s bringing so much fear and anxiety.

This is natural, of course – but that doesn’t mean we should take fear for granted. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that because fear is natural we can’t change it. Of course we can! That’s the fundamental point that Buddha makes: that’s the essence of his teachings and practice. Our mind is not set in stone. We can change it.

“Mind” here doesn’t mean something like the brain. That’s not Buddha’s expertise. His expertise, Buddhist psychology, is all about the actual subjective cognitive process itself, our myriad thoughts and feelings and emotions. 

If we can change what’s in our mind, obviously the first step is to become intimately familiar with what’s in there. As we know, according to the Buddhist analysis, essentially the contents of our mental consciousness – all those thoughts and feelings and emotions – are neatly divided into three categories. 

1. All the I-based emotions that we know so well: the neurotic, deluded, disturbing states of mind such as attachment, anger, jealousy, low self-esteem, and the rest, which limit us, cut us off from others, overwhelm us, and cause us to suffer, and, eventually, to harm others.

2. All the productive, non-I based emotions that we also know so well: such as love, kindness, patience, forgiveness, self-confidence and the rest, which open us up, are the source of our own happiness and sanity and our ability to be of benefit to others.

3. The third lot I like to refer to as the mechanics of our mind: parts that we need in order to function: whether you’re a murderer or a meditator, you need concentration, attention, intention, discrimination, mindfulness (which is essentially is short-term memory. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “Thieves need mindfulness!”)

So, where does “fear” fit into all this? Interestingly, it has no status of its own in the list of neurotic states of mind – simply because fear is the flavor, the character, the energy, the very nature of all of them. They’re rooted in fear! They are the voices of the main delusion, the main fantasy, the primordial grasping at a separate, concrete, set-in-stone “me.”

In relation to coronavirus, the two main delusions at play are attachment and aversion, plus the grasping at things as permanent, unchanging.

Attachment is the constant emotional hunger to get only the nice things, only the things that “I” want. Attachment is desperate for everything to be nice, comfortable, unthreatening. It’s there all the time, underpinning everything, deep in our bones. And even more than that, it assumes that I deserve only the nice things! Such hubris!

The millisecond attachment doesn’t get what it wants – and it certainly doesn’t want coronavirus or anything to do with it! – aversion arises, and depending on our personality that can manifest as anger, upset, irritation, even despair and depression.

Mixed in with this is the assumption that the nice things shouldn’t change, won’t change – how dare they change! We just can’t stand the thought of those nice things, our comfort zone, being disturbed, so we add another layer of nonsense, another fantasy: we believe, we assume, that the status quo is permanent, unchanging.

All this leads to, comes down to, subsumes in – fear!

In other words, having these primordial neuroses, at the level of assumption – attachment, aversion, grasping at things as unchanging – we set ourselves up for suffering: panic, anxiety, fear. That’s it.

And fear makes everything worse! Bad enough that bad things happen, why be fearful as well? It grinds us to a halt. We can’t accomplish anything, we can’t function, we can’t see past our own nose. 

What to do? Change our assumptions, dig deep down, identify the elaborate conceptual stories that underpin our attachment and aversion and grasping at unchangingness, and learn to argue with them, not believe them, not buy into them.

Of course it’s hard! But we can do it. We can be brave. Opening ourselves to the reality of the bad things, the things attachment doesn’t want, calms us down, steadies us, makes us more reasonable, more sensible – less fearful.
Then we can realize we’re all in the same boat and we’ll have compassion for others as well.

One step at a time!

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