I’m writing this in the still-early days of the pandemic. Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal governments are requiring self-distancing and closing non-essential services. Increases in coronavirus deaths are in store, though the curve may have been flattened. Much of the predicted economic carnage lies ahead. It feels like the calm before the storm.
How do we work with our minds in this situation? What meaning can we make of what’s happening?
My core spiritual practice these days is ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture and traditional medicine long used in Indigenous ceremonies in the Amazon basin. Within a well-crafted ritual container and led by someone deeply trained in ayahuasca chants and healing, twelve or so of us drink ayahuasca and experience a night of insight and sometimes visions.1 I’ve drunk sixteen times and almost every time experienced a connection with the sacred; from the point of view of the profound interconnectedness of all phenomena, I’ve worked with my patterns, my root traumas, and how I show up in the world. The experience is powerful and outlandish—I experience tremendous energy coursing through my body, powerful releases through trembling and yawning and vomiting; I feel bliss and find understanding.
My last ayahuasca ceremonies happened shortly before COVID-19 hit Alberta. There were only a few cases in the province, but I’m enough of a news follower to have sensed what was coming. On the last night of the retreat, ayahuasca helped me to work with my awareness that COVID-19 is already in us, that the question isn’t whether we can stave off epidemic but how to move through it.
One astounding aspect of the ayahuasca experience that night was my ability to welcome it—to open to the wildness and profundity that my conditioned mind so fears. Some combination of what I’ve inherited and received and cultivated—mindfulness practice, gifts from ancestors, gifts from the land and the elements, gifts from my web of relations—enabled me to greet ayahuasca fully. In prayer before the ceremony, in drinking, in feeling the medicine come on like a tidal wave, and through a night of visions I was able to invoke the experience without reservation: “Welcome mother ayahuasca. Thank you. I invite you. Please give me the strength, courage, and skill to learn what I need to learn. Teach me to show up well in the face of this pandemic. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” In my years as a mindfulness practitioner I wrestled and opened and grew, but often in ways that were cognitive and from the neck up, despite my previous spiritual community’s emphasis on connecting with body and sensation. Change was by millimetres. Ayahuasca has been different for me: For the five or six hours that the medicine is in me, my whole being is engaged, living and learning what ayahuasca shows me. I feel myself changing at an almost cellular level. In this recent set of ceremonies, I felt the bliss of openness and willingness, and the ability to embrace what I could learn from experiences that came over me like a freight train. These insights are with me now as I find ground in the face of the pandemic.
And there were visions. At one point in the night I was part of a long-ago epidemic, perhaps in 1918, perhaps earlier. Trembling from the plant medicine, I was a woman in bed, convulsed by influenza. Four or five women were tending to me, immune to the virus because they had survived it. They were joyful. I was joyful. I accepted that this disease might kill me. And if it didn’t, I too would have immunity and could join them in serving others. The whole scene was holy. It was a hymn to service, an ode to the joy of collective service.
Throughout that night and its other visions, I stayed with my breath—not a soft in-and-out but a sturdy lifeline as wave after wave of intensity crashed over me. I watched myself get tied up in thought, then remember my breath, then breathe to the very top and bottom of my breath, find myself, and immerse myself again in grateful learning. Over and over I practiced regrounding in the face of difficulty.
Throughout the night I saw my eleven-year-old son about to enter this time of plague and death: What will it mean to show up fully for him? To be reliable as a reference point? How can I help him to feel grounded in this time, to learn and grow in the midst of bereavement and physical distancing? I saw my communities: How can I serve with joy and steadfastness? What can I offer?
What I felt deeply, coming out of the ceremony, was how well-provisioned I am to serve. Some constellation of heritage, good luck, practice, skill, and personality have brought me here, now, able to be available to others. I am that woman shivering in bed. I want to serve. I feel the earth under my feet. I am ready.
I know that I will sometimes be with this readiness and sometimes be caught up in patterns of distraction and suffering. This too is something I could open to, something I am resourced to navigate, something I can move through.
Virus as Medicine2
I teach political theory. My politics are left-anarchist, environmentalist, and informed by the intellectual and activist work of Indigenous people, Black people, people of color, and queer people. Every day, from my standpoint as a white, settler, middle-class cis man, I look at the profound cruelty, unsustainability, injustice, and imbalance of dominant systems. I see the intermeshing forces of settler colonialism, racism, patriarchy, extractivism, and capitalism, which some theorists and activists label “Empire.”3 Empire surrounds us, socializes us, makes us into particular kinds of beings. It ruptures our relationships with our non-human kin, with the living earth, and with other humans. It encourages us to ignore the harsh and inexorable realities of wealth polarization, structural racism, environmental devastation, marginalization, and oppression that hold privilege in place for a minority of humans, myself included.
And the machine of Empire grinds on. Most of us with privilege remain caught in our cruel folly. While there are many cracks in Empire, and endless kindness and joy and resistance in those cracks, it’s hard to see how these mutually reinforcing systems can change. Those with power seem to have a bottomless commitment to keeping the machine going, no matter what reforms they may favor.
Yet Empire, so powerful and relentless, is also fragile. It’s premised on disconnection from others and dissociation from reality. We forget that interdependence and interconnection are reality. And this reality keeps knocking on the doors of our individual and collective consciousness. Signals keep coming from the world: “This is not healthy. This is not sustainable. This is not right. Beings are suffering. This must end.” We can dance away from these signals; many of us do. But reality keeps knocking. It knocks harder and harder. Until we listen.
During these first days of the pandemic, as I physically distance myself, not leaving my home except to move my son back and forth from my house to his mom’s, I’ve been renovating my basement, listening to podcasts all the while. In one of those, Mike Davis (a leftist intellectual who writes about capitalism and contagion among other things) talks about epidemic as a force of truth.4 In nineteenth century England, he says, cities grew up with consistent geographies: the rich on the west side and the poor in the east so they’d get the brunt of coal smoke. This mutual isolation seemed sustainable, inevitable, and right to those with power. Then came cholera and geographical boundaries mattered little. Infection didn’t care. It tore through every boundary.
We live in societies that are full of divisions and boundaries. Rich and poor. White and non-white. Settler and Indigenous. Straight and queer. Money and power and authority accumulate on one side of these divisions while the other experiences poverty and precarious access to health care, housing, employment, rights, and social dignity. Already feeble supports for those in need are pulled away by tax cuts, austerity, and oppression. The capacity of the state is hollowed out. Empire tears up the earth, pollutes the atmosphere, warms the planet, tortures fellow beings.
And now suddenly, reality is knocking hard. The virus is here, globally. It hardly cares if we’re rich or poor. If some of us are poor, having to choose between keeping on working our underpaid service jobs or being evicted, the virus smiles. If some are unhoused or living in close quarters due to poverty, the virus cheers. If some jurisdictions have enough affluence and social cohesion and political will to bend the curve but infection is rampant elsewhere, the virus laughs.
A virus has no bias. But humans do, and the systemic biases of human society are producing grossly different impacts of COVID-19 across groups. Patterns of infection and death track social inequity and vulnerability: you are at greater risk of dying if you are poor and need to keep taking public transit to your risky job; if you have underlying medical conditions born of intergenerational oppression; if racism in the medical system treats your life as less worthy; if you are homeless or live in crowded housing and can’t self-distance.
Ultimately, we are all profoundly interconnected: If the virus runs rampant through some communities all of us are endangered, whether by infection, health system collapse, economic collapse, or political collapse. In the long run, the virus tears through boundaries. A harm to one is a harm to all. A harm to ecosystems is a harm to all. We can deny this and act as if it’s not true. But reality will continue to knock, louder and louder. The knock of COVID-19 is loud indeed.
Those who hold and lead the ceremonies I attend often say: “Ayahuasca is not your friend.” It’s a force. It roars through you. It might wake you up. It is simply truth: imperious, here. It’s your choice whether to resist it or learn from it.
I ask myself: What does the virus—true, imperious, here—invite us to learn? I’m in no way suggesting that the virus is good. It’s not our friend. From a human point of view, it’s horrid and cruel. Yet we can have profound respect for it as a natural force and be determined to learn what its patterns of devastation reveal about us and our communities.
I teach at a university, and my teaching this term has focused on mutual aid and prefigurative politics. Prefiguration means orienting our relationships and political activities to manifesting, right now, the kind of society we’re trying to build. What does it look like for communities to build alternatives to dominant systems, from the grass roots up, between the cracks of Empire? For politics not just to oppose the status quo but to create alternatives here and now?5
When we engage in mutual aid, we manifest a way of being that contests Empire’s story of who we are. Empire urges us to experience ourselves as fragile, needing to look out for ourselves and our loved ones in a threatening and precarious world. Mutual aid says we’re in this together. Your fate is my fate no matter who you are. I’ll show up for you. We can show up for each other.
In these last weeks of term, my students and I meet online. I’ve assigned Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She looks at what happens in human societies when disaster strikes: the great San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Halifax explosion, the Mexico City earthquake, Katrina, 9/11, and more.6 While elites and mainstream media tend to tell stories of mobs, of looting, of the need to impose law and order, she finds the opposite.7 When disaster strikes, people spontaneously drop habitual boundaries. We show up for each other. We care for strangers. With all of the usual reference points suspended, we manifest better forms of society.
Solnit observes that in times of disaster we experience a “sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”8 Her analysis suggests that this way of being is a persistent part of us, though often masked by everyday life within unjust systems. Disaster reveals this to us: “…just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster…we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”9
I am seeing this around me. The utter heroism of health workers. The warm, knowing greetings we offer as we give each other a wide berth on sidewalks and trails. The offers in my neighborhood Facebook group – ‘I’m going shopping, who needs stuff?’ ‘Anyone need their driveway shovelled?’ The hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers stepping forward to serve the UK health system. I see it in the organizing, now online, to recognize boundaries that constrain outpourings of care, to look out for those who fall outside the usual circles of help, and to recognize what we need to learn from the marginalized. What would it look like to band together to make sure that nobody in our neighborhood is evicted during the pandemic? What do we need to learn from the immunosuppressed in our community, who know how to live when every person and surface is a potential source of deadly infection?10
Mutual aid, arising spontaneously and profusely in this time of pandemic, points to the beauty of recognizing and nourishing interconnectedness. We could feel horror that mutual aid is so neglected and truncated in normal times, in ourselves and in much of our society.
How do we show up well in this time of contagion, when death is all around us and we’re torn between fear and openness, selfishness and generosity? I’ve been working with this every day, and some days it’s hard. I don’t have answers but do see some of the pieces….
We already know how. We could hear Rebecca Solnit saying that mutual aid is already our default setting. We could acknowledge that we have resources within us more powerful than we are used to recognizing, handed down to us by ancestors, tucked away in our bodies and minds. My ancestry is Jewish, and I was reflecting the other day about tendencies I have to always make more food than is needed for a meal; to never throw an empty bag away; to have more nourishment in cupboards than really makes sense. My ex would roll her eyes at these patterns and I accepted them as relatively harmless neuroses. But a couple of days ago I saw it: that these patterns have been unconsciously passed down in a family that fled pogroms and whose relatives were consumed by the holocaust. These patterns are based in brutal ancestral knowledge: ‘However high you’re riding, however safe you feel, it’s precarious. Provision yourself. Be ready.’ My ancestors planted a seed in me, based in wisdom, that now provides a ground for me to share and serve. I could realize that I contain many such seeds. Resources will flow through me in response to circumstance, especially if I can stay attuned to what inner and outer reality call forth in me.
We make the path by walking. I have led a fortunate life. I have never been through something as raw and challenging as what pandemic is likely to bring our way. I don’t know what will happen or what will be asked of me. None of us do. (This is a constant truth of our lives, really; but it’s especially evident to me right now.) This week I’m working with others to set up a mutual aid network for my block, feeling my way, unsure of what challenges will arise. I’ll only find out by going forward. I’m figuring out how to relate to my eleven-year-old son in this time—speaking truthfully to him about what’s coming, inviting him to step into a new maturity, involving him in helping others; I take this step by step, feeling for what he needs, correcting missteps, trusting. I’m torn about how much time and energy to put into self-nurturance and care for my son, relative to what I devote to care for a larger web of relations, including strangers; I carry this uncertainty as I try to do each next thing well and to discern what’s needed after that. We could step forward in small ways with faith in ourselves, faith that the world will send us signals, cultivating our ability to notice and adjust.
Inner care enables outer care.11 Empire cultivates busyness—many of us are driven to be productive, always doing, and maybe this busyness appeals to us because it holds at bay our awareness of the unsustainability or underlying misery of the life Empire offers us. We each may have our own form of busyness during pandemic: ‘I need to get writing done while I’m physically distancing’, ‘I have to do more to keep my kid from being bored’, ‘Let me review the supplies in the house again: What’s still needed?’ I cycle through these busy thoughts but at the same time am moved by suggestions that pandemic could be a kind of sabbath, at least for those of us with the privilege to be housed and able to stay home. You may have seen this poem by Emma Zeck:
With this open time
You do not have to write the next bestselling novel
You do not have to get in the best shape of your life
You do not have to start that podcast
What you can do instead is observe this pause as an
The same systems we see crumbling in society
Are being called to crumble in each of us
The systems that taught us we are machines
That live to produce & we are disposable if we are
not doing so
The systems that taught us monetary gain takes priority
The systems that create our insecurities then capitalize off of them
What if we became curious with this free time
& had no agenda other than to experience being?
What if you created art for the sake of creating?
What if you allowed yourself to rest & cry & laugh
& play & get curious about whatever arises in you?
What if our true purpose is in this space?
As if mother earth is saying: we can no longer carry
on this way. The time is now – I am reminding you who
you are. Will you remember?
The more we can care for ourselves, provisioning ourselves internally, the more we can show up well for others. And conversely, if we neglect self-care and self-reflection it will be hard to be genuinely helpful. Please take care of yourself and find networks that support you in skillful self-care.
We can lean on our practices. Many of us have been socialized to be lost in confusion and in mind’s endless storylines—socialized by Empire, by trauma, by family of origin, by many conditions. Yet many of us have found breadcrumbs that led us to practices that connect us with ground, with inner knowledge, with spirit, with truth. For me these practices include sitting meditation; connecting with my senses; being in nature; speaking honestly with my closest friends; and (as my recent ayahuasca journey reminded me) being present to a single full breath. Such practices are precious now. They can steady us. They can help us open to signals reality is constantly sending. They can help us hear reality quietly knocking, instead of our sitting in distraction until reality is pounding or breaking down the door.
Most of us will survive this pandemic. We’ll be changed by it. We’ll see horror and also the beauty that Rebecca Solnit evokes so well. We’ll deepen relationships. We’ll manifest forms of community that escape the logic of Empire.
And when the pandemic has passed, some of us will be tempted to help reconstruct Empire’s version of normal. For me, a crucial question right now is how we can collectively face and fight this temptation so that the beauty and mutual aid and sense of interconnectedness that disaster reveals can be carried forward.12
My aspiration is that all of us engage this question with others, in many ways and places.
David Kahane is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. He teaches and researches prefigurative community, democratic process, systems theory, and social transformation. From 2010-2016 he led Alberta Climate Dialogue, an international project that convened citizens to deliberate on climate change and influence climate policy. He is a national 3M teaching fellow, a permaculture gardener, and father to eleven-year-old Solomon.
Illustration by K.T. Tierney
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- I sit with groups whose leaders have trained extensively with Indigenous Shipibo shamans and hold these traditions and ceremonies with care and respect for lineage. They emphasize the risk of drinking ayahuasca without the medicine being carefully held and without rigorous protection of participant safety (the international ayahuasca community has faced the same reckoning with sexual abuse by leaders as have many other spiritual communities, and one is particularly vulnerable after drinking the medicine). Please investigate carefully before deciding to go down this road. Online resources include https://chacruna.net/ and https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/ayahuasca/ayahuasca.shtml. Gabor Mate (a prominent expert on addiction and trauma) has been key in building awareness of ayahuasca as a therapeutic tool; there are multiple YouTube videos of Dr. Mate discussing ayahuasca. ↩
- This phrase is inspired by Jonathan Hadas Edwards and Julia Hartsell, “What if the Virus is Medicine?” Heartward Sanctuary, March 13, 2020, https://www.heartwardsanctuary.org/post/what-if-the-virus-is-the-medicine. ↩
- See carla bergman and Nick Montgomery, Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017). Accessible at: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/joyful-militancy-bergman-montgomery. ↩
- “Mike Davis on Coronavirus Politics,” The Dig Radio, March 20, 2020, https://www.thedigradio.com/podcast/mike-davis-on-coronavirus-politics/; see also Mike Davis, “In a Plague Year,” Jacobin, March 14, 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/mike-davis-coronavirus-outbreak-capitalism-left-international-solidarity. ↩
- There are more and more online resources about mutual aid and coronavirus. Some collections of links I’ve found useful: COVID-19 Readings and Supports, Additional Resources for Facing Coronavirus/Covid19, How to Start a Neighbourhood Pod (Canada), Mutual Aid 101, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK. More general resources around mutual aid include Big Door Brigade and the classic by Pëtr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/petr-kropotkin-mutual-aid-a-factor-of-evolution. ↩
- Solnit’s examples are all drawn from North America: She suggests that the phenomenon she observes is widespread but opts to speak of cultural contexts with which she is familiar. See Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin Books, 2009). ↩
- For a scholarly take on this see John Drury, David Novelli, and Clifford Stott, “Psychological Disaster Myths in the Perception and Management of Mass Emergencies,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 43, no. 11 (2013): 2259-2270, http://www.csap.cam.ac.uk/media/uploads/files/1/10.1111-jasp.12176-disaster-myths-as-published-early-view.pdf. ↩
- Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 5. ↩
- Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 18. ↩
- A.M. Carter, “I Had No Immune System for Months after My Bone Marrow Transplant. Here’s How I Avoided Viral Illness, and How You Can, Too. It’s Easier than You Think,” Medium, March 22, 2020, https://medium.com/@amcarter/i-had-no-immune-system-for-months-after-my-bone-marrow-transplant-1b097f16040c. ↩
- I don’t actually believe that inner is separate from outer in any absolute sense, but at a common-sense level this distinction seems helpful. ↩
- One of the future possibilities that looms large for me is whether the media attention, public mobilization, and (in some places) government responsiveness conjured by COVID-19 could prefigure responses to climate change. See Courtney Howard, “COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point. Will we invest in planetary health, or oil and gas?” National Observer, March 24, 2020, https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/03/24/opinion/covid-19-crisis-tipping-point-will-we-invest-planetary-health-or-oil-and-gas, and Mary Annaïse Heglar, “What Climate Grief Taught Me About the Coronavirus: How to Find Humanity amid an Ever-Present Dread,” New Republic, March 25, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/157059/climate-grief-taught-coronavirus. More general pieces on what can be learned from COVID-19 include Paul Kingsnorth, “Finnegas,” Emergence Magazine, https://emergencemagazine.org/story/finnegas/, and Alicia Elliott, “After the Crisis, What Kind of World Do We Want? Post-Apocalyptic Novels Hold Lessons — And Warnings,” CBC, March 26, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/arts/after-the-crisis-what-kind-of-world-do-we-want-post-apocalyptic-novels-hold-lessons-and-warnings-1.5509721. ↩