The coronavirus is making headlines. Every day. In every part of the world. Everything else has receded into the background. No longer is the virus confined to one province of a country in one corner of the world. It is coming closer by the day, by the hour perhaps, and everyone’s worried.
In the absence of any medication (so far) that can prevent infection or cure it, our only choice at present is to not allow the virus to enter the body. Which means, rigorously following commonsense methods such as frequently and carefully washing the hands with soap and minimizing contact with exposed surfaces in public places. Should the virus find a way nevertheless to infect us, we should isolate ourselves immediately so as not to become agents of spreading it further.
Is there anything more that can be done? Those amongst us who take spiritual life seriously may want to ask themselves: besides the obvious and essential response to the threat of infection, is there also a spiritual response? What are the kind of thoughts a Vedanta student may have in preparation for a likely face-off with the virus—and what can a person do in addition to the necessary precautions already in place?
Do not panic. The more vulnerable we feel, the more anxious we get. There is evidence that anxiety can dramatically weaken the immune system, making us even more vulnerable to the virus. To get out of the vicious loop, we need to deal positively with our anxiety. A verse from the Pañcadaśī (7.168) is a helpful reminder of what is obvious but often forgotten:
यदभावि न तद्भावि भावि चेन्न तदन्यथा । इति चिन्ताविषघ्नोऽयं बोधो भ्रमनिवर्तक: ॥
Yad abhāvi na tad bhāvi, bhāvi cet na tad anyathā;
Iti cintā-viṣaghno’yaṁ bodho bhrama-nivartakaḥ.
“What will not happen will not happen. What will happen will happen”—this knowledge destroys the poison of anxiety and removes all delusion.
This is not fatalism. Nor does this mean that we do nothing, that we merely sit idle and let things take their own course. Far from it. What it does mean is that after doing the best we can to respond appropriately to any situation, we recognize that, when all is said and done, what is to be will be, what is not to be won’t be. There is nothing any of us can do more than our best at any given time.
Our “best” is not a fixed quantity. It can, and generally does, change with time. To do our very best and, having done that, to step aside and stop worrying—this approach helps us to focus our time, skill and energy fully on the task in hand, instead of wasting them through anxiety and, in the process, weakening ourselves.
Practice being alone. One of the inevitable measures we have to take if we are infected—or if we suspect that we are infected—is to isolate ourselves, so as not to spread the infection. That means going into solitude. If we are not accustomed to solitude, then the quarantine-experience will be tough to endure. Now is a good time, therefore, to practice being alone every day at least for a few minutes.
Being alone is different from being lonely. To be lonely is terrible and a lot of people suffer from loneliness even when they are surrounded by people. But recognizing one’s aloneness leads to a state of supreme peace and clarity. This sounds paradoxical, but the more we realize our aloneness, the better we are able to relate to everyone and everything around us. Our relationships improve and our work becomes more meaningful. Every one of us comes to this world alone and we depart alone. A habit of daily, even if brief, forays into solitude helps us to live with sanity in the ever-increasing frenzy of the world.
One way of practicing solitude is to stay away from television, the internet and the phone at least for a few minutes every day, and spend the time alone in our own company. If we get bored in the process, we’ll at least know how boring we are. If we cannot stand our own company, what right do we have to inflict it on others?
The practices such as prayer, worship, meditation, and scriptural study give us an opportunity to being comfortable in solitude. For perfection in these practices, we need to be alone with God, no matter in what way or form we visualize the divine. Those who have a daily spiritual practice are generally better prepared for solitude, voluntary or enforced.
Contemplate the possibility of death. We generally recognize the value of planning for the future, although none of us knows what the future has in store for us. While we plan for things that may or may not happen, how many of us have a plan for death, the one thing that is absolutely certain? The only thing unknown about our death are the time and the cause. None of us wants to die soon, but having a plan doesn’t hurt. The fatality rate of the coronavirus seems relatively low, but that doesn’t negate the possibility of me being one of the few who does get infected and succumbs to it. Even as we hope for the best, it makes perfect sense to prepare for the worst.
A neurotic obsession with death is a form of illness. It is debilitating and may need clinical intervention. But a positive approach to the phenomenon of death is not only healthy and strengthening but also spiritually beneficial. This may be a good time to start thinking about death—what it means to me and how I would like to face it. Spiritual texts and teachers provide much needed guidance in this matter. Swami Vivekananda encouraged his students to think of death always. His glowing words come to mind:
“Look here—we shall all die [sooner or later]. Bear this in mind always, and then the spirit within will wake up. Then only, meanness will vanish from you, practicality in work will come, you will get new vigor in mind and body, and those who come in contact with you will also feel that they have really got something uplifting from you.”
In the beginning, this practice of thinking of death won’t be fun. Swamiji knew that:
“At first, the heart will break down, and despondency and gloomy thoughts will occupy your mind. But persist, let days pass like that—and then? Then you will see that new strength has come into the heart, that the constant thought of death is giving you a new life and is making you more and more thoughtful by bringing every moment before your mind’s eye the truth of the saying, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!’ Wait! Let days, months, and years pass, and you will feel that the spirit within is waking up with the strength of a lion, that the little power within has transformed itself into a mighty power. Think of death always, and you will realize the truth of every word I say.” (CW, 5. 329–30)
None of this means that I am going to die in the present crisis. What it does mean is that, should such a possibility arise in my case, I am not taken unawares or find myself unprepared. It is easier to face a foe if we have done our homework. Perhaps, death may not be our “foe” at all. But how would we know if we have always avoided thinking about it? Socrates’s words at his trial come to mind: “But now the time has come to go away. I go to die, and you to live; but which of us goes to the better lot, is known to none but God.”
These, then, are three among the many things a spiritual seeker can do in the present crisis: not panic, get used to solitude, and think of death in a healthy way. There is no doubt that these practices will help in keeping anxiety at bay, preparing for isolation if I need to be quarantined, and—should it really come to that—meeting death with full awareness and a heart filled with joy and peace.
Oddly enough, these are the very same things a spiritual seeker should do even when there is no crisis of the kind we have now. The problems related to aging, sickness and death never really go away, like the problems of stress, worry and fear. The more we practice being free from anxiety, of relishing moments of aloneness, and of seeing death not as an end but a continuation of our existence in another form, the more we shall discover that we are all interconnected and that death doesn’t mean the end.
We are at our best when we are challenged. The present coronavirus crisis is a challenge to the ingenuity and strength inherent in human beings. We can face this challenge with wisdom, wit and farsightedness. If we do it well, we also make ourselves stronger to face even greater challenges ahead. They will surely come and we should be prepared.