Last summer, my partner and I worked on a research project about wildlife trafficking in southern Africa. While trafficking in elephant ivory and rhino horn tends to dominate the headlines, we also examined smaller species such as the pangolin—which is both the most trafficked mammal on earth and one possible source of the novel coronavirus.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lesson from our research stands out as particularly crucial: Wildlife trafficking is not a problem of protecting a single species in a single place. Rather, it is a global problem, composed of unaddressed poverty in rural communities, middlemen profiting from illegal trade, and indulgent demand for exotic food and art. It is a problem from roots to leaves, which unfurl thousands of miles away.
The same is true of the virus now ravaging human society. It knows no boundary. It reaches my aging parents in a small mountain town, my anxious students scattered across the United States, and my friends in rural Botswana with limited access to healthcare. In a recent letter shared with her Buddhist community about the boundless current moment, Venerable Khandro Rinpoche suggested that we “stop all the movement around us and… just carefully look around at the world we live in.” This might allow us to “feel the oneness of shared experience,” she continued, “and the infallible truth of interdependent origination.”
To reflect deeply on interconnection in this moment is also to experience the suffering of others, which is not different from our own. Many Buddhist teachings remind us that the experience of suffering is what wakes up the practitioner and reminds them to be compassionate. Every moment, no matter how challenging, offers a chance to act in an enlightened way. But it is often difficult to understand that our own well-being is inherently tied up with that of others, and with the very planet itself. This is not a “Chinese virus”—it is a human problem for us all. Ignoring the impact of the virus on communities other than our own does not make us safer; in fact, it ensures that all of us will remain at risk for the foreseeable future.
There is much to be afraid of in this moment, but what I fear most is the possibility that we will not learn all we can from this pandemic—that the political and economic structures that have become “normal” do not serve the majority of human communities or the very earth on which we all depend. It is understandable to want to protect what we think is ours—our health, our family, our friends. But the competitive rush to insulate ourselves with excess toilet paper, or to normalize our daily lives by simply overworking online until we can get back to the office, might push us blindly past a powerful opportunity to reconsider who and what matters in a much more inclusive way.
Fortunately, there are teachings and examples for how to rethink what our society could look like if rooted in an understanding of interdependence. We can begin simply by noticing fully what is arising in this moment in our bodies, minds, and communities, and by creating space to contemplate what this noticing can tell us. When I meet with my university students online, for example, we begin not with an outline of the day’s readings but by asking each other how we are doing, and sharing thumbs up, down, or sideways, or a quick “meh” typed into the chat box. We take a few minutes to share humor, ranging from videos of comical dogs to my niece counting her toes as a reminder that the second little piggy did the right thing by staying home. I pepper our virtual discussions with reminders to pause, to go for a walk, to step away from the very work I am asking them to do, and to take more time to submit assignments if they need it. One morning I offered a short gratitude practice and invited them to try it. Their responses the next class day were few, but heartfelt and soft-spoken.
I have no illusions that these small connections alone will fix the feeling of overwhelm that is continuously arising in us and around us. At the same time, I hear myself telling my students (as I have so often in the past) that if you want to go out and change the world, you have to be willing to deepen your personal experience of what is wrong with it first. One student who has been having an especially hard time wrote to me, “In spite of all that is terrifying and heartbreaking in our world right now, I do live in hope of the resilience of our community, and every day it’s getting easier for me to find purpose and joy. Doing the work for your class has reminded me yet again of everything that a pandemic can’t take away from my college experience and life at large.” For her, it was the feeling of connection, of grace and kindness, person to person, that created space in which she could move again.
Now more than ever, I am trying to remind myself to pause, look deeply, and feel completely the pain and fear in widening circles around me, beginning in my own core and murmuring continuously through family and friends and students and neighbors. This experience reminds me that while I may feel alone, I remain connected to whatever is arising in this powerful moment. These kinds of small practices are what help me to see more clearly and, hopefully, to act skillfully in response.
Rachel DeMotts is professor and director of the University of Puget Sound’s Environmental Policy and Decision-Making Program. Her research interests lie in southern Africa, especially the intersections of transboundary conservation, gender and natural resource use, and human-elephant conflict. A student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, she also teaches courses in Sacred Ecology and offers meditation instruction as part of a budding Tacoma Shambhala Meditation Group.
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