Wise advice for uncertain times

March 21, 2020

The Coronavirus emergency is a great opportunity to cultivate patience, care and integrity and rediscover what is truly ‘urgent’.

‘Homo homini lupus’, wrote the Latin playwright Plautus: this motto, made famous in the 17th century by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, literally means, ‘man is a wolf to man’, that is, he is the greatest threat to himself and others. The motto reflects a conflictual and pessimistic vision of life, the result of difficult times, marked by wars and plagues. It seems like the chronicle of today, if we leaf through any newspaper or review the posts of friends and acquaintances on social networks. All we talk about is the epidemic perceived as the greatest disaster of recent years. The Coronavirus is the prince of our nightmares and the king of the most corrosive anxieties and fears. This microorganism is as small as it is deadly and capable, in a few weeks, of challenging the swaggering certainty of a globalized world that pretends to be immortal.

The scale of priorities is daily overturned and it is almost ironic, if it were not dramatic, that the most invasive of the diseases of our spirit is precisely the inability to live with the idea that the invincible giant we believe we are actually has feet of clay. Yet, we can look at this moment with new eyes and try to understand what teaching or ’benefit‘ we can draw from it.

One appears perhaps more evident than others: this sense of widespread fragility allows us to re-evaluate the importance of bonds, friendship, solidarity, and closeness. To use a Buddhist insight, the interconnection of every aspect of our life has never been as clear as it is now. Paradoxically, if the virus is the disease, the ability, the will, the strength of being together are the cure. But this must be cultivated, because it requires us to go against the current, against the power of emotions that tend, instead, to separate and divide us.

The fragility of fear

It certainly cannot be said that our ancestors haven’t endeavoured over the centuries to leave us useful advice and warnings to relate to this fragility. Myths, as well as philosophical and religious traditions, abound in tales of fallen heroes like Icarus or Achilles, perfect examples of arrogance punished by fate and the gods. Yet this wisdom struggles to penetrate and remain in the hearts of people because fear and frailty create discomfort and inadequacy. Because we prefer to shift our gaze, as we always do, in the face of the pain of those who suffer until we have no escape and the crisis affects everyone.

In these complex days the phrase that is most fashionable is: ’review your lifestyle‘. A good teaching. But how much will we treasure this break from the compulsive instinct to base our life on the consumption of goods and services that we find pleasant? The Coronavirus offers us, paradoxically, an opportunity to reflect, to put ’emergencies‘ and priorities in another perspective. It teaches us that it is not vital to be able to shop seven days a week, 24 hours a day, or change smartphones every six months. We have the opportunity to rediscover the value of the presence of the people we love, now that they are there, without consuming relationships as we do with things. Ultimately, this epidemic terrifies us because it has mysterious contours and dynamics, just like existence as a whole. And it can be an excellent opportunity to live a more conscious life, a philosophical life.

Wise advice

First of all, you have to look at anxiety and fear for what it is:  defense mechanisms, instinctive reactions to a threat real or presumed. The more we learn to untie the real problem from the emotional aspect with which we color it, the easier it will be to understand how to behave. Unfortunately, we live in a society which promotes alarm, facilitated by languages and attitudes, public and private, which often feed on exaggeration in order to profit from it. Social networks provide the key forum in which this sense of dire threat grows and prospers. The result is to magnify not only the situation but also the alleged differences that separate us from others, who are increasingly seen as obstacles to our well-being, security and happiness. The first step, therefore, is to create a space for calm, serenity and awareness so that we can gain equanimity and greater lucidity.

The positive side of the rules

The current emergency requires us to follow certain rules which are not only educational but provide real safeguards. If we know precisely the limits and implications of our actions, we will be able to understand how to protect more effectively both our own health condition and that of others. When in the Eightfold Buddhist Path we speak of ’adequate action‘ it is exactly this attitude that is referred to. The rules are not a value in themselves but skillful means to act in a sensible way.

The mind of human beings tends to be undisciplined and needs, as in every art, a training method to create the conditions for happiness. The Stoic philosophers, with great pragmatic spirit, knew well that without self-mastery and perseverance it is difficult to achieve wisdom. In the same way they emphasized the need to cultivate patience, another virtue that has become essential in a world that wants everything and immediately. When it is fragility that becomes the predominant characteristic in our lives, the superfluous becomes less urgent and the need to rediscover a more authentic, more intimate dimension becomes apparent.

Cultivating intimacy and connection

Let us therefore take advantage of this time of crisis to rediscover a time of listening, a slow time, a primordial time. All the great spiritual traditions aim to reconnect us with a timeless, absolute dimension, less tied to the immediate consumption of experience. It is no coincidence that every meditative discipline tries to reconnect us with the body and its wisdom. It is so in Buddhist awareness practices. It applies to the spiritual exercises of the ancient Greeks. The same applies to the shamanic or Celtic wisdom meditative paths. Each of these paths, with their differences in language and imagination, teach us the fundamental importance of reconnecting to the natural time of things, to the deepest dimension of nature that has always been carved into the body and its functioning. A nature that does not respond to the compulsive consumerism of time and experience but to a more subtle, more delicate, but equally powerful wisdom. A wisdom to be found by learning to listen and listen to oneself.

Treating wounds

Fear leads to disconnection and separation causes injury. Our tendency to become isolated needs to be recognized and consciously confronted while we take care of our physical well-being. The two aspects go together seamlessly. And again, time is needed to change the habit of endless running without logic that moves us from our centre of gravity, from balance, from wisdom. Gotama called this ethic of care for others and ourselves ’appamada‘, the intention and practice of  training the mind to be present, diligent, attentive, and collected. A mind that doesn’t drift like a drunk on the street and risks hurting others and one’s self.

The mind of care is the mind of integrity and unity, capable of acting with compassion and taking care of the wounds of separation. It is a mind that expresses itself with nothing but the appropriate words, with careful language, and with attention to the situation. It is a calm mind with the ability to separate the reactivity that arises from our experience of what is unpleasant and painful from the skillful response that emerges from a framework of patient, thoughtful analysis. Our integrity and serenity depend on how well we are able to train ourselves in this direction.

Epicurus, another ancient thinker like Gotama who understood how much philosophy could be medicine to cure our ills, asserted that it is useless to fear death: when it is present we are not there, when we are there it is not there. To put it another way, it is necessary to put the problems in the right perspective, without loading them with an emotional dimension that, in fact, they do not deserve.  This is the way to make our fragility an opportunity to live a full, authentic and more serene life. A fully philosophical life.

Training for the virtuous life

Here are the twelve injunctions that the Stoics used to train the mind to a greater awareness and a fuller life. These guidelines for life seem to me more than adequate for the moment. You can use them in these days, point by point, both in daily life and in more formal practice. And as Luke Skywalker said, may the force be with you!

The Stoics’ method:

– avoid hasty reactions.

– remember the transience of things

– learn to choose goals in your power

– be virtuous

– take your time and breathe deeply

– put problems into perspective

– you talk little and well

– choose your companies wisely

– respond to insults with humor…

– don’t talk too much about yourself

– speak without judging

– think every day about the day that’s just gone by.



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