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Reality As It Is: What A US Admiral and Burmese Meditation Master Taught Me About Surviving the Covid-19 Pandemic

Let’s cut to the case. I am scared about covid-19: the danger to individuals, the danger to society, the uncertainty about what comes next. While this might be the most challenging experience I’ve faced, it’s not my first existential crisis. Running a restaurant and cafe business for nearly twenty years has had its ups and downs and I’ve sought out wisdom and guidance wherever I could find it. Two teachers from very different walks of life come to mind now.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, seven year prisoner and torture victim at the Hanoi Hotel during the Vietnam War is an inspiration just for surviving. But he did more than survive. By his own assessment, he came out of the camp stronger than when he went in. 

His secret? It wasn’t optimism. 

The optimists, he explained, routinely had their hearts broken when their hopes failed to materialize. He described his own approach: “You must never, ever, ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”

As I write this today, the brutal facts of covid-19 are:

  • We don’t know how long we need to shelter in place.
  • Most of us don’t know if we’ve contracted covid-19 or not.
  • We don’t know how bad it will be if we get it.
  • We don’t know if we will become immune if we get it.
  • We don’t know when things will get back to “normal”.
  • We don’t know what “normal” will even look like.

Facing the uncertainty of covid-19 is uncomfortable. In fact, it feels shitty. But that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

Here’s where the second teacher offers guidance. 

Meditation master, S. N. Goenka, teaches that lasting happiness can only be experienced when we face reality with equanimity. He teaches us to observe our feelings — emotions, physical sensations, mental activity — with objectivity and without clinging; simply to notice the arising and passing away without reacting. In this manner, we can begin to develop wisdom with the knowledge that good, bad, or indifferent, nothing lasts forever. 

In prosaic terms, there was a time before the novel coronavirus. There is a time during the coronavirus. There will be a time after. Our ability to face reality with equanimity now and in the future, no matter what arises, is what ultimately determines the quality of our experience.

Is it easy? No.

Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.

To help students develop the facility of equanimity, Goenka continued in a lineage of meditation masters teaching 10-day Vipassana Meditation courses where students could practice without distraction and at no cost.  Since the worldwide pandemic, these courses have been closed, but you can still learn about the practice. One of my favorite books, The Art of Living, is available for free PDF download and also as a free audiobook.

In addition, I will soon begin hosting a virtual meditation and tea tasting. If you are interested, please complete this survey and be the first to know when it is live.

It may be counterintuitive, but keep in mind that equanimity does not mean inaction. Far from it. In the past 6 weeks, I’ve been blown away by the dedication and creativity of the Samovar team and the loyal customers. We’ve never launched so many programs in such a compressed amount of time and while facing so many challenges.

Here are a few highlights:

The covid-19 challenges will not last forever, but for now the uncertainty is real. And I’m practicing being okay with that.

Be well. Be happy. Be equanimous.

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