The Zen of COVID-19: Why This Is Our Chance To Master Mindfulness & Come Fully Alive
For all the pain it’s bringing, the coronavirus pandemic has a silver lining. Mass disruption of everyday life has opened the eyes of millions to its small miracles — paving the way for an ancient approach to living to find its moment.
This is why — and how we can all tune in.
1. A (very) brief history
The Aztec empire was at its peak. Rome had fallen. As Attila the Hun made his way west and King Arthur’s Britons fended off the Saxons, Europe slumped into its Dark Ages.
On the other side of the planet, meanwhile, an obscure group of monks in northern China decided to put a fresh spin on the religion their predecessors had imported from India centuries earlier — in the process inventing what was to become one of humanity’s pre-eminent approaches to life, fulfillment and happiness.
The year was 500 A.D., give or take. Steeped in Taoism — a philosophy which held that the greatest truths lay beyond the reach of human language — the monks had come to see Buddhism’s most powerful teaching as not a religious doctrine, but one of its everyday practices.
The ancient Sanskrit texts called it Dyana— literally, ‘training of the mind’. The Chinese abbreviated this to Chan, blending Indian inspiration with homegrown Confucian disciplines to produce what European interpreters would later identify, imperfectly, with the Latin-derived ‘meditation’. A few hundred years later, their own eastern neighbours would further refine and rechristen the practice with a term easier on the Japanese tongue: Zen.
For most of the next millennium, Zen’s distinctive brand of Buddhism remained the province of monasteries and noble households across southeast Asia. Most masters had little experience in or appetite for evangelism. Students came to them largely as a matter of local tradition, in sufficient numbers to sustain their institutions.
The monks had come to see Buddhism’s most powerful teaching as not a religious doctrine, but one of its everyday practices
Around the middle of the 20th century, however, the stage broadened.
In the wake of two world wars came an intense cultural cross-fertilization between East and West. Well-read English speakers became aware of Zen through accessible overviews by authors and speakers like the travelling professor D.T. Suzuki and the English philosopher Alan Watts. Its embrace by the 1960s counterculture grew its popularity. The following decade, Robert Pirsig’s self-help memoir Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would top bestseller lists around the world, en route to becoming the best-selling philosophy book of all time. Zen had arrived in the global mainstream.
Then things got weird.
The concept’s progress didn’t slow, per se. But its reach had exceeded its grasp. Pirsig’s book never claimed to be a true Zen manual, and anyway proved to be far more purchased than read. Its ambiguous achievement was thus to help the term become far better known than understood. Perhaps not surprisingly, the path soon split in a number of different, and not entirely related, directions.
2. What is Zen?
From the perspective of its most fervent evangelists — such as Jack Kornfield, who founded California’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center after years in Thailand and India — Zen continued through the '80s and '90s to deliver on its powerful if slippery promise to help human beings experience life more profoundly.
That promise was and remains based on a simple insight, well articulated by Watts: “the purpose of life is to be found in the present moment”.
Other than mistaking it for a religion — Zen attaches to no concept of divinity, making it more a complement than rival to faith— perhaps the most significant hurdle to more general understanding and acceptance has been the further reduction of Watts’s description to an invocation to “live in the now”. Critics and novices alike frequently confuse this with living for the now — acting entirely on impulse to experience immediate reward, without making the necessary plans or provisions to sustain a full, long and happy life.
Such recklessness has never been the teaching of any serious Zen master. Confusion in this regard appears to arise from their mischievious teaching style, modelled in popular culture by Star Wars’s Yoda and The Matrix’s Oracle. They seek to disrupt intellectual habits and stimulate curiosity through the straight-faced advancement of absurd demands — like asking students to describe the sound of one hand clapping, draw the taste of purple, or relieve their suffering by standing barefoot in snow (insider tip: go inside).
The purpose of life is to be found in the present moment
The point of aphorisms such as “Be Here Now” — John Lennon’s apocryphal, Maharishi-inspired description of the message of rock ’n’ roll — is not that we should not set store for tomorrow, but rather that we should not mistake setting store for the essence of life. Only in the present may we truly delight in the feeling of existence for its own sake. And if we get our minds to be always in the present, not licking old wounds or wringing our hands about the future, it’s eminently possible to achieve something that might be called eternal life.
Dyana. Chan. Zen. All these were names given to variants of a practice designed to help anyone experience this sense of aliveness with a minimum of training. Meditation was originally a misleading translation — the Latin meditatus corresponds to rumination on future action, not immersion in the moment — but modern usage has since caught up. Zen’s purpose is not to clear the mind, deepen self-knowledge or make us happier, though these may become reliable side effects. The point of Zen is simply to feel alive.
3. The Mindful Revolution
In the early 80s, Zen’s road forked.
In the lands of its birth it continued to be practiced almost exclusively in monasteries, with a greater focus on form than content, more as a matter of institutional habit than zeal.
The challenge of spreading the word fell largely to Westerners like Kornfield and Ram Dass that had visited in search of enlightenment, before returning home to found their own schools.
Meanwhile, on the stage of global culture, Zen began to pursue a double life that would last well into the following century.
In the first of these, it came to designate a state of unhurried relaxation, flavoured with a cool, hip aesthetic. The Zen brand was plastered on everything from day spas to clothing, silicon chips to paint brushes, motorcycles to electronic music. At the dawn of Internet radio Zen FM epitomized the trend, promising not meditation classes but “chill lounge & trendy grooves”.
This meant replacing the term ‘Zen’ with the less elegant yet more accessible ‘mindfulness’
In its other life, Zen doubled down on its self-conception as a “belief without faith”, as the famous 13th century master Dogen had put it, stripping away its mystical trappings to the point of giving up its very name.
This was the unlikely achievement of a molecular biologist from Boston named Jon Kabat-Zinn. In the wake of Pirsig’s equivocal legacy, Kabat-Zinn believed that meditation’s benefits would be more widely appreciated if focused on a tangible problem — he chose chronic depression — and framed in quasi-scientific, commonsense language. Thus he rebranded ‘Zen’ as the less elegant but hopefully more accessible ‘mindfulness’.
The ploy worked. Zen meditation grew from a niche self-help movement into a business sector. Celebrities from Howard Stern to Bill Gates to Ray Dalio (founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds) openly praised the practice as a secret of their success. In 2014, Time put “The Mindful Revolution” on its cover. Silicon Valley raced to produce mindfulness apps like HeadSpace and Calm with eye-popping valuations, while venture capitalists launched mindfulness funds. By the end of the 2010s The Guardian newspaper (which by then had its own mindfulness column) questioned whether mindfulness was all it was cracked up to be. Far from being “a revolutionary power” with world changing potential, its commercial variant was looking a lot like “magical thinking on steroids”.
So it was that Zen found itself, after a century of heated growth, stuck in its own tracks. A powerful living technique had been adapted to modern self-help sensibilities and proven beneficial to mental health, yet remained more admired than appreciated, more preached than practiced.
Then, in the early months of 2020, a new phenomenon emerged to change the game once again.
4. The Zen of a Novel Coronavirus
Sometime between Pirsig’s first sale and the present day, non-fiction authors and editors made an important discovery.
In virtually every field of human endeavour, from fine art to computer programming, relationship advice to finance, few marketing tools attracted readers as much claiming to have discovered the Zen of the thing.
It may seem perverse to find the core lesson of a peaceful practice in a pandemic which is inflicting widespread suffering
So Amazon has become awash in titles like The Zen of Love, The Zen of Mozart, even The Zen of Juggling. In the summer of 2019, the inevitable occurred: someone launched a podcast called The Zen of Everything.
Cynics might deride the practice as intellectual free-riding— The Zen of Business Acquisitions? Yet beneath the cross-promotion, in many cases, lies a bona fide truth. A deep investment of time and concentration in any subject typically yields a triple reward: a profound appreciation not only of the thing itself, but of the moment in which it is enjoyed, and so of life itself.
But the Zen of a disease? Even in light of the foregoing it may seem perverse to find the central lesson of a life-affirming practice in a pandemic that’s inflicting widespread suffering and may yet claim millions of lives — especially given the enduring perception that it is fundamentally about harmony and relaxation.
Yet Zen, as we have seen, is not about relaxation. It is about being alive, feeling alive, and appreciating and valuing aliveness.
Which is the opportunity that now lies before an unprecedented number of human beings.
5. Standing outside of ourselves
As many a newcomer has remarked, mindfulness teachers invest lots of time in getting us just to focus on breathing. The reason is not always evident, but it’s not hard to grasp. Breathing is a straightforward activity, accessible to anyone, anytime. It also illustrates rather neatly another level of Zen insight: that our familiar distinction between voluntary and involuntary — indeed our entire sense of free will, which is fundamental to the notion of self-improvement— is less sharp than our grammar might suggest. Sure, we can hold our breath whenever we want. But not forever.
Kabat-Zinn recognized early on that the very banality of breathing might present a barrier to “getting it”. So he developed another exercise that’s sometimes given the rather cutesy label of Raisin Consciousness. Students are encouraged to slowly eat a raisin, focusing on every aspect of the sensation from first picking it up, to turning it over on the tongue, and so on, until it has been completely chewed and swallowed.
The value of this technique lies in the bridge it provides to everyday life, which is not always easily crossed. Kornfield captured the challenge in the title of his 2001 book, After the Ecstasy, The Laundry. And proceeded to describe how the mindfulness practiced in the rarified context of a Thai temple could just as well — and for most, more regularly — be achieved while folding clothes.
Neither raisins nor socks are what typically comes to mind when we think ‘ecstasy’ (though that might depend on one’s taste in socks). Yet the term is apt. The Greek ekstasis means “standing outside of oneself”. The problem with normal life is that we often, in fact nearly always, get trapped inside ourselves. We do not typically have the time, inclination or energy to pay attention to the magic of the things that surround us and fill our lives. The ordinary is, well, ordinary. In the age of ubiquitous Internet and ever-present smartphones it sometimes seems none of us can pay attention to anything.
If it is the regular business of life that interferes with our ability to truly feel alive, the path to that feeling lies in interrupting regular life.
Thus it begins to seem significant that we now find ourselves in the midst of arguably the greatest peacetime interruption of regular life in history.
The 2019 coronavirus has disrupted life on this planet in a number of terrible, tragic ways. A privileged minority has found itself riding out the storm in the relative comfort of sizable residences with well-stocked kitchens and wine cellars, tolerable co-quarantinees, the assurance of a steady paycheque and enough toilet paper to get through the month, if not the season. Most are not so lucky. They find themselves without sufficient income or supplies, virtually imprisoned in small spaces, sometimes with people that mean them harm, assured of nothing but fear.
What virtually all are getting is a profound change in daily routines combined with an unfamiliar abundance of time. For many this has already driven us to do with daily life what Kabat-Zinn taught his students to do with raisins: to slow down and appreciate the marvelous qualities of things we tend to take for granted, from our homes to the people we interact with, from songs we’ve heard a thousand times to the thrill of negotiating puddles.
In this context interest in Zen tools has already spiked dramatically. Mindfulness apps have surged to the top of Health & Fitness bestseller lists. The popular fitness platform Peloton has more participants than ever taking its meditation classes. Almost half of Amazon’s Top 20 Self-Help books — like Monica Sweeney’s Zen as F*ck — draw their principal inspiration from mindfulness teaching. The number one podcast in America is currently Unlocking Us With Brené Brown, a social work professor and self-help author who focuses on relieving anxiety through the appreciation of everyday things.
The pandemic will have made the ordinary seem extraordinary without any additional work on our part
Yet with an anticipated duration of three to six months, it is unlikely that the slowdown will in itself do much more than provide more time for existing converts to put more time into their personal mindfulness practice.
Where a broader transformation may be expected is in the aftermath of the crisis, the window that will come between the initial relaxation of social distancing measures and the full resumption of old patterns and habits.
As we gradually re-emerge, blinking, into our ever-widening worlds, most human beings will find themselves feeling and experiencing a deeper, richer appreciation of normal things. Without any additional work on our part, the pandemic will have made the ordinary seem extraordinary.
6. Mind the children
The process will start with behaviours we may previously have thought of as trivial, if we’ve given them any thought at all — like walking or sitting outside without having to be vigilant about passers-by, gathering in crowds for sporting events and door crashers, or even just knowing that such activities are happening in our communities, whether we participate or not.
The next level will involve how we return to interacting face-to-face with people in our lives. Expect more conversations around the office, more catch-up coffees with friends, more stopping and chatting with people we run into in public (sorry, Larry David).
For the full model of how we might return to life in a more Zen aspect, it may help to take our cue from a group whose firsthand views tend to be underrepresented in the media: kids.
Don’t it always seem to go, we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone?
Millions of children have now experienced the unusual sensation — which they may in past have expected to be a dream come true— of coming home from school one day only to be told the rest of the year is cancelled. Quickly they have discovered that this is not all it was previously cracked up to be. However dull or punishing school can be, they’ve become keenly aware of how much else it entails: an opportunity to get out of the house, to interact with friends, even (shock!) to learn. Many now look forward to going back to school this fall like never before. First days back promise to be festivals of joy.
A moment like this is something few generations have ever experienced outside of wartime. A radical cessation of things that they take for granted and have thus never fully valued — to steal a term from Frank Herbert’s Dune, a kind of ‘little-death’. Not enough to end the experience of life altogether. Just enough of a pause, a withdrawal, to help them appreciate the miraculous nature of all the ordinary things they’ve grown up with.
This is a fine encapsulation of what we all stand to experience in an even more expansive way, both now and in the fast-approaching future. It will be our challenge and opportunity to recognize the pandemic not simply as a setback in our normal course, but — its real horrors notwithstanding — as a general gift from the universe.
Or as the great Zen master Joni Mitchell put it: “Don’t it always seem to go, we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
7. Life after little-death
“Death gives meaning to our lives,” the futurist Ray Kurzweill once observed. “It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it.”
The coronavirus pandemic and its disruptions are giving meaning and importance to our lives and the things that constitute them in a way that few ever get to experience outside of a personal health scare, deployment to a hot zone or other near-death experience. It has provided millions a moment in which they can stop, take stock, and reset their daily routines in ways that may ultimately give them a deeper and richer experience of being perpetually, fully, completely, and joyfully alive — regardless of the specific details.
“Life is what happens,” sang John Lennon, “while we’re busy making other plans.”
So stop. Right now. Set aside the plans. Treat the place and moment that you are in as a raisin. Eat it as slowly as possible. Savor every step.
As life gets back to normal, resist the intense gravitational pull, the tyranny of Normal. Instead, figure out ways to repeat and keep the feeling alive. (Gil Fronsdal’s Zencast is a good start — though it’s worth the effort to go back and listen to its earliest pods on the basic theory and practice.)
Many teachers recommend daily meditation, which may be right for them. For others, weekly works. Some practitioners, including Watts himself, have ultimately chosen to focus on other routes to being mindful in daily life, with meditation reserved as a kind of occasional booster shot — or treat.
Then, should it feel natural, share. Don’t rush it. Don’t be annoying or preachy. Just don’t be shy about your experience.
And we may be living through the most Zen moment of all time.
Stephen Butler is a management consultant. He holds a PhD in intellectual history from the University of Cambridge. The views expressed here are his own.