The tragic and glorious reality brought to us by the pandemic has been a daily encounter with impermanence, the poignant fragility of sentience and our exquisitely balanced interdependence with the natural world. The other dimension breaking into mass consciousness has been the fragility of conventional ‘modern’ life, from health care to food to energy and transportation. The stability of the economic system is deeply shaken, spurring an increasingly desperate autocratic ideology to prop it all up. Not only is life itself impermanent, but the way we live is also part of the illusion. As painful as it all may be, this is a healing moment.
The underlying violence of the financial system is starkly displayed. The matrix of global supply chains bringing us food, clothing, technology, information, energy, health and transportation is a house of cards, reminding us the way we understand the world requires overhaul. As if impending climate collapse isn’t sufficiently grave, COVID-19 has presented a similar diagnosis in an even more personal and immediate form: failure to act risks death. What could be more clear?
Over the past months, we’ve emerged from a dream and come crashing back to earth. ‘Progress’ has rarely mirrored our own frailty so clearly. No amount of Othering can disguise the fact that we are not other than the world itself. We are not exceptional. Life is an ongoing dynamic confluence of subjectivities between the human and the non-human. We live and die by its turning. Climate change has at least taught us that. We may have agency, but are not and have never been in control.
From our isolated redoubts, we witness the ongoing trauma of Business As Usual. The virus did not magically appear from nowhere; whatever its origin, it is Business as Usual. Yet it is also a liberating force, tearing the blinders from our eyes. Everything about our existence, individually and collectively, is about constructing temples of permanence. To paraphrase Bayo Akomolafe, by imposing the past upon the present, reassuring ourselves of what we already know, despite ever-increasing cost, we create Progress.
Strangely, in this light, progress is a conservative ideology and nearly all of us are caught in it. But conflating survival with permanence is deeply confused. By this definition, racism and sexism are progress; injustice is progress; inequality is progress; climate change, pollution, national boundaries and even war all sanctify permanence. All bow before the altar of progress. Our cities are monuments to atomized ritual devotion to money; our logistical frameworks & financial systems are all ordered and maintained on the presumption of permanence. The fossils fueling Progress come at increasing cost and decreasing benefit. The apparatus guaranteeing permanence requires increasing complexity… bringing increasing vulnerability. This what we are calling ‘normal.’
The increasingly deterministic ‘rules’ of modernity are etched deeply in our consciousness: who belongs, what roles are assigned, defining our relationship to the world. The exploitation, violence, expropriation, befouling of natural resources and the disenfranchisement at their heart are simply denied. The virus has undone those rules, cracking through the veneer of separation while revealing the true nature and depth of ongoing social and political dysfunction. The foundations of modern culture are shaken. Normal persists at a high spiritual cost, extracting meaning while channeling exclusionary ideologies, presuming superiority and mastery, even rationalizing mass death. Everything depends on our somnolent compliance.
We find ourselves squarely in the paradox of compassionate and generous impulses while remaining in anxiety about safety and scarcity. As the sword of impermanence comes slashing downward, slicing through our illusions, we see clearly the necessity and potency of standing for a planetary dialogue on the once cool, now overheated trauma from which we are awakening. In the face of mass de-compensation, we see the possibility of a new consensus arising.
Progress believes we can think our way out of this, as if we are here because of something we did. But, no. We are here because of what we are. The very fact that we think about problems is part of the problem. Our predicament is that we don’t know how to do otherwise. Thinking we are separate is how we got here. Do we now think we can think ourselves out of separation? Even ‘understanding’ is objectifying. There’s a time and place for all of that, but it hardly occurs to us that we can’t think outside the box. We are the box.
Engaging with impermanence, living it, is as close to thinking outside the box as we can get; seeing life as it truly is. A new freedom is immanent; in uncertainty and instability there is an enlivening of creativity, curiosity, spontaneity and new relations. In a field of continuously refreshing engagement, we aren’t compelled to impose the past upon the present; we are less inclined to sink into the quicksand of permanence. Imagining we can return to ‘normal’ is a profoundly false, desperate and ultimately doomed proposition—as if we should look away from what’s being exposed and reconstitute a façade without the substance required to ensure viability. Instead, everything is up for renegotiation now.
The lives we’ve lost become the fuel of our engagement. What the deceased have given us is immeasurable. They have cleared space for us to mourn, to explore fully our own discomfort, our deep unrest, the knowledge of work undone and the opportunity to see that work and to perform the tasks necessary to heal this world, our selves.
Borrowing from Vanessa Andreotti and Dani d’Emilia, we can reactivate our vital compass and return to genuine earth-centered experience; we can restore our capacity to feel ourselves as the metabolism of the earth while accepting vulnerability and discomfort as the desperation of our fragile egos. We can serve as guides, comforting each other as we navigate the agonies of throwing off our addictions and restoring our exiled capacities. Our strength comes from resting in the eye of the storm. Our grief becomes the fertilizer of creative imagination, inspiring and moving us to what is next.
With commitment and compassion, our actions will naturally arise and be naturally accomplished–though not without risk. We may imagine refuge in conceptual deliberation and meticulous formation of intent, but let us cultivate intimacy and seek guidance from non-conceptual sources, arising from the matrix of unmediated experience and universal relationship. May such actions awaken us from the prevailing architecture of causation.
The increasing velocity of change, radical impermanence, frees us from dependency on the archetypes of the dying paradigm. The coronavirus is a portal for healing. Let us move through it with enlightened action, spontaneously and freely arising according to generous and creative impulses. The more forcefully and deliberately we apply ourselves to preparing for the apocalypse, the more we release the weight of hope upon our labors, the more likely we are to delay that apocalypse. In denying hope lies the possibility of a future: the end of deifying progress, the false hope of returning to a world that is ending. Healing potential lies in expressing who we are without calculation, wholly and inclusively, entering a deeper field of impermanence, ever-renewing connection, expression, presence and engagement, with humor, humility and reverence.