Some notes Covid 19 and beyond
“Corpses piled on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at the intersection, corpses displaying every manner of death possible to human beings. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, “Akira, look carefully now.” When that night I asked my brother why he made me look at those terrible sights, he replied: “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Akira Kurosawa describing his boyhood experience after The Tokyo earthquake of 1923
Something happens when the real breaks through. Our usual considerations, our projections, our games of ego acquisition, even our good-faith projects, risk becoming totally redundant. The chaff falls off of the wheat. The essential rudely interrupts our fantasies. The real makes us realize how much we have been sleepwalking.
Apocalypse, etymologically speaking, means to ‘reveal’, or ‘uncover’—to show us the real. It is not necessarily a nihilistic concept; we don’t need to think of it in conspiratorial terms. Apocalypse is large scale tragedy that also allows space for catharsis, for renewal, or for what Zak Stein calls the post-tragic.
A real apocalypse (or even an ordinary tragedy) can show how abstract and propositional our everyday notions are , how we live in mere ‘thought-forms’ instead of the real, much of the time. A dramatic event brings us directly in contact with what is beyond thinking, or the unthinkable. But the unthinkable is always there — in a pandemic or otherwise. And life and death are both unthinkable.
It might seem like a truism to say that life and death are one — but it bears repeating because we deny it so vehemently, especially in ‘normal’ times. The fact is: if the plague doesn’t kill us, life will.
“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet”. … the Japanese poet Issa mused, contemplating the early spring and the death of his child. During tragedy we confront the real, the terrible, but also the angel that Rilke says ‘serenely disdains to annihilate us’. Any palliative care worker knows this.
We don’t need a pandemic to show us the pathos of the real. The apocalypse — our own encroaching extinction — is always already the case, and is built into the very fabric of reality. But this pandemic can wake us up to how vivid our life is, how tragic and ecstatic, beautiful and terrible, unbearable and full of potential.
In mythopoetic terms, the floods are coming and everyone should be building an ark. This means building the next health care system, the future education platform, the future bank, the future temple, future farm and garden, the future enlightened society.
Our biggest question today now should be: how are we spending our time? Is it in fear and escapism, or in constructive world-making? The biggest virus today is of course fear and panic. And the present pandemic may be just a little match to light up a bigger fire, not the actual crisis — or the flood itself.
We may have all kinds of ideals and operating systems related to reality — we may be outrageously optimistic or morbidly pessimistic — but idealism isn’t much use when the flood arrives. There is no escape from the real, no way to reverse the course of a genuine tragedy.
Also, it should be pointed out that Covid 19 is not a ‘Black Swan’ or an anomaly in world history: pandemics and plagues have occurred with monotonous regularity. Covid 19 isn’t much in the grand scheme of human tragedy. But this event does bring online the contemplation of death. Plagues and pandemics have often changed the course of history and led to turning points, or what Zachary Stein called in our recent podcast, ‘sacred Kairos’.
We tend to forget the real when times are easy and sweet — we grow lazy and fat in our prosperity. That is why when poetic writers like Stein start blowing their strangely shaped trumpets and saying that ‘a war broke out in heaven’— this is a sign of some sanity breaking forth.
Kairos and Prophesy
Some time before the panic set in, Zachary Stein asked an eerie question on my podcast: ‘What are 8 billion people going to do when they have to watch one million people die in real time?’ A couple of weeks later an obscure virus from the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan province turned his prophesy into news
We don’t need to be prophets to predict plagues and pandemics however — end-of-the-world themes are relentless and varied on Netflix. But prophecy — in the sense I am employing here — is never dystopian or nihilistic, nor is it about supernatural magic. It sees beyond the event, into the real.
A prophet has an uncanny but also deeply studied understanding of the real that allows him or her to intuit the future direction. The prophetic message usually contains a warning and an admonition, but also a vision of a ‘promised land’. Prophets tell us we have to cross a red sea, go through a desert, endure various trials and tribulations, before we can move into a desirable future .
We have to have a certain realism and imagination to think in prophetic terms, or use what Zachary Stein calls ‘concrete utopianism’. Stein’s latest essay uses the prophetic imagination. He tells us, “This is it: we have arrived at the end of the world. Finally. Now we can start to build a new one. This is our chance to reshape ourselves as spiritual, scientific, and ethical beings”. However, imagining a promised land also means coming to terms with what could—and probably will—go wrong in the near future.
If what John Vervaeke has told me is correct, there is likely to be a pandemic or something of equivalent magnitude every five years or so. There are also countless other existential threats facings humanity at the present time. We will thus indeed need social miracles. However, those miracles have to be grounded in concrete possibility.
Knowing that we are probably at the beginning of a chain of world catastrophes can help us feel a certain urgency, and will hopefully bring us closer to the real (and also show us the unreal), so that we can forge a path forwards.
An ecotopia or sustainable energy economy, for instance, might seem impossible to us now, but so did the the end of the slave trade in the 19th Century, and the women’s vote. The point is: every wild future possibility seems impossible to the present. (See Zakarcy Stein’s 13 social miracles and Alexander Bard’s Ecotopia).
Poetry and Pathos
The language of prophecy may be the only one we have at our disposal faced with the onslaught of the real—which is why sacred texts, whether you are religious are not, contain our deepest truths. They are communal form of poetry, which — contrary to what some virulent atheists tell us — express the depth and breadth of what our puny reason cannot encompass.
We can also find prophetic and enduring truths in individual poets like William Blake and Rainer Maria Rilke, who gave us compressed and intensely prophetic visions of tormented and sublime futures. Bad poets, on the other hand give us narcissism and ideology (lousy little poets trying to sound like Charlie Manson’, as Leonard Cohen put it). But prophetic poets employ symbol to express the liminal information portals that can’t be found in our newsfeeds.
Poetry matters because it is another way of knowing, and because our world is not made of merely quantifiable things. We need poetry to express the strangeness of the real — or tap into the ‘the thoughts of of the heart’, in the language of American psychologist and Jungian James Hillman (I’m borrowing from Zak Stein again). Good poetry can express the real better than anything else—which is why we read it when we fall in love or on our deathbeds.
The sad fact is that poetic expression is not only underestimated but actively despised today. And yet when people are insecure, they gravitate the bad metaphysical poetry of politicians, who know the power of symbolic language.
Symbolic language is dynamite—we need to use it wisely and become symbolically literate. Poetry could turn us into fanatics or street corner doomsayers or could lead us to the real.
The prophetic poet will have to ‘speak dangerously’ at times but we should listen.
When in quareteen, we are left to our own thoughts, dreams, and visions. Should we not learn to think and dream more vividly? Some might think that philosophy is irrelevant during a pandemic—that we we should be engaged in action rather than words and ideas. However, this is misguided. Thinking is, in the deep sense, a profound kind of activism. Philosophy today matters more than ever and we have a unique moment to really be philosophical.
However, as John Vervaeke points out: we need ‘philo-sophia’ or love of wisdom — rather than merely scholastic philosophy or empty words. Real philosophy actually means to worship the real, to love truth, to shun dogmatic and reductive views of reality. And the love of wisdom, means the love of embodied learning, not merely playing conceptual word games.
Philosophy may be the remedy to sophistry and marketing, the portal to the real. Socrates was pretty rough on the sophists for good reason — as we should all be—especially during a plague. He had very little tolerance for bullshit or platitudes—he wanted to show us the real. Perhaps this pandemic can help us be more like Socrates and and less accepting of bullshit. Perhaps we can choose truth over marketing, poetry over propaganda, an examined life over an unconscious one.
Building the Ark
Since I have been meditator for many years and lived in monasteries and temples, solitude and social distancing are not a punishment — quite the contrary. Today, I have enough time to to meditate, to spend time with family and children. To be in retreat is the opposite of escapism: it an opportunity to turn away from lesser concerns, to concentrate on the real. But I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones, afloat on my own personal ark, with my family and few animals. Others are unbearably alone, in small apartments and nursing homes, in flooded with loss and tragedy.
Happy times should be cherished, but sooner or later somebody dies, gets sick, or a larger tragedy overtakes us. No one gets out alive. We have no control when the floodgates are broken. But if the philosophical and practical work is done, if we have built a solid metaphysical (and physical) vehicle, then when the hard times come — we will be more able to face them.That is the best we can ask for. Of course, we can’t prevent tragedy, but we can move to the post-tragic, as Zak Stein says.
The real tragedy comes down most hard on those who are not spiritually prepared, who haven’t had the time to ‘get their house in order’— who are suddenly cut off from their loved ones. And then there is the tragedy of the isolation and loss of elders. And if each elder is a library as Daniel Schmachtenberger has put it — a million libraries are burning. A tragedy is upon us. And another is coming. But spring has also come to the world again. May there be many more springs for you and yours. And when winter comes may you find an invincible summer, to paraphrase Albert Camus.
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