A compass in the storm; the Dao and the virus

(Reading time 5 minutes)
Recently, I finally got around to reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines after it had stood untouched in my bookcase for more than twenty years. In the book, Chatwin describes his travels in Australia and his attempts to fathom the nature-based religion of the Aboriginals. I had just started reading it when the coronavirus struck the Netherlands and turned our lives upside down. Chatwin recounts how the Aboriginals believe that the two world wars in the twentieth century were the price the Western world had to pay for a lifestyle that saw us take much more from nature than we were ever prepared to give back. I was happy I had decided to rescue the book from oblivion because it made me wonder whether the Aboriginals’ interpretation of the world wars could also be applied to what we are going through today. It was this insight that helped to calm my troubled mind.

Restoring the balance

As an acupuncturist, I recognize in the Aboriginals’ philosophy of ‘give and take’ the restoration of the balance between yin and yang that is sometimes precipitated by a crisis. What rises will fall, what heats up will cool down, what grows will eventually diminish again. Modern man appears to be obsessed with proving that he is so smart he can actually bypass the laws of nature. He believes that he can carry on taking, warming, growing and expanding forever. However, the Tower of Babel we have been building has begun to wobble and the effort we have to make just to keep it standing upright is becoming ever greater. It is beginning to feel like a deck of cards that requires only a breath of wind for it to collapse in a heap. When that wind will blow and where it will blow from no one knows, but it appears to be only a matter of time. The higher our tower, the greater the risk of collapse, and the greater the sense of fear. The coronavirus is the breath of wind that is currently blowing our towers over.

Between hope and despair

Many people have written on social media that it is a good thing this is happening right now; good for the natural world, and good for us too because it forces us to pause and pay more attention to ourselves and our family and loved ones. The outbreak of the virus has given us the opportunity to take stock of our lives. The crisis will result in a better world, one in which we will show more respect for ourselves, each other and nature. Sometimes I believe this is in fact the case and I cling to the thought because it eases my mind.

But then I am quickly reminded of all the misery the outbreak has caused. Stories about children who are now forced to stay indoors with abusive parents; helpless refugees in makeshift shelters left to the mercy of the virus; the shocking images from hospitals of seriously-ill patients. Has the crisis given them the opportunity to take stock of their lives? The hardship being caused by the disruption of our system is immense. When I allow myself to get caught up in the maelstrom, all I feel is fear and powerlessness. I don’t want to feel this way, but at the same time I am neither willing nor able to close my eyes to the suffering.

I become restless when I read the thousands of messages posted in an effort to explain and plot the course of our current predicament. The outbreak has the same effect as poking a stick into an anthill. The ants quickly swarm all over it: What is this? What’s happening? What should we do? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Laws of nature

It helps me to read what the Daoists of ancient China have to say about all this. They explain that the laws of nature are oblivious to the concept of good and bad. The laws of nature just do what they do. They are entirely impersonal and neutral. High is not better than low, dark is not worse than light. The laws of nature have no goal, no plan and no opinion. It is humans who are always making plans, setting goals and expressing opinions. It is humans who cannot refrain from attaching meaning to, interpreting and judging everything. But what’s good for you can be bad for me; something that looks good from one angle may look very bad from another; and something you experience as being positive one moment may actually trigger a negative feeling later on. The consequence of the natural law of yin and yang is nothing more and nothing less than movement and change. The greater the change, the more we are inclined to assign meaning to it, to interpret and judge it. This is how we attempt to regain control over something after we have lost it. But it only makes us cling on tighter and become even more unbalanced.

Finding the centre

With this idea in mind I sit down on my meditation mat. I focus on the constant changes taking place within me, as my teacher S.N. Goenka taught me to. These changes are completely beyond my control. Everything flows, pulls, glows and pushes. Everything explodes and contracts, becomes dark and light. Emotions, feelings and thoughts move through me in waves. Everything that appears disappears again. I encounter resistance when I try to understand these experiences or split them up into good and bad. I cling to the things that are pleasant and positive and resist everything I consider to be undesirable. When I perceive everything in an open and honest manner and allow everything that wishes to move to do so freely, the movements slowly become smaller and the experiences more subtle. The process is similar to a pendulum revolving in increasingly smaller circles around a centre point. When I no longer identify with the poles but perceive everything instead from the centre – the point to which the pendulum always wishes to return but where it never stops – I see that everything is in a constant state of ending and beginning. That is where I find my balance again.

Trust and amazement

When my awareness has come to rest at the centre I feel a deep and inexplicable sense of trust. I am once again able to appreciate the miracle of little things, such as the warmth that comes with the sudden proximity of my family and the bright blue of the spring sky. I have a deeper appreciation for the suffering of others, but I do not become overwhelmed by it. I take responsibility for my own humble existence by doing what is required of me today and caring for those around me. From the centre, I observe the world at large with a sense of curiosity and amazement. I allow the world to carry on, fully and fantastically aware that I am a vital part of that world.

Anchor and beacon

In Eastern philosophy and in the religions of indigenous peoples, balance and harmony are much more important than growth and success. A wise lesson for humanity as a whole. I do not know whether we will take this valuable lesson on board as a result of the current crisis, but whether I do so myself or not is entirely in my own hands. And that is why I let go when I feel myself clinging on and constantly seek to re-establish contact with my stable centre. This enables me to locate the compass I need to plot my course through the storm and to find the stability required to be an anchor and a beacon for those around me. Everything begins in me.

I hope that these words will encourage you to allow your pendulum to come to rest and to find peace within yourself. Be patient if you lose contact with your centre. Each moment of wholeness, insight and calm will continue to be a precious beacon inviting you back to the safe haven within yourself.

Translation: Danny Guinan

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