A couple of years ago I became interested in Albert Camus and after reading a short biography he became one of my heroes – mainly for his resistance work in Nazi occupied France, his advocacy of justice in general, especially in Algeria where he was born, and, although having been a communist at one point, his rejection of Stalinism. I read a little of his philosophy with limited success.
Then the pandemic hit and I took up Camus’ novel The Plague to see if it could inform my life under COVID-19. The plague is described in the novel as a bubonic plague and is set in the mid-1940s, but is based on a typhus epidemic in Oran, Algeria in the mid-1800s. While many of the scenes are playing out in our midst today, the novel was really a means for Camus to explicate his philosophy of Absurdism.
While my acquaintance of both Buddhism and Absurdism is so minor as to be considered trivial, I noticed some correlations between the Four Noble Truths and Absurdism.
First Noble Truth
Buddhism: suffering is an innate characteristic of existence.
Absurdism: suffering is universal, life/the universe is without meaning.
Second Noble Truth
Buddhism: suffering comes from attachment (to the idea of a separate self?)
Absurdism: suffering comes from the attachment to the idea that life can and should have meaning.
Third Noble Truth
Buddhism: the cessation of suffering is possible
Absurdism: the cessation of suffering is possible
Fourth Noble Truth
Buddhism: the Noble Eightfold Path
Absurdism: full acknowledgement that my life is meaningless and then I will die. However, by perceiving and then just doing my job my suffering will be relieved.
The last point in Absurdism is (to my limited understanding) obscure. In another book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains this philosophy in a series of essays. What I think he is saying is that most other philosophies based on the assumption that there is inherent meaning to life are unsatisfactory in that life has no meaning. Even Existentialism, which postulates that while life has no inherent meaning, it is possible to achieve meaning by how you live your life. This, Camus says, is false. He says that it is not possible to achieve meaning, but it is possible to achieve a satisfactory life by “doing your job.” His image in this is that of Sisyphus, bound by the gods to struggle each day to push a giant boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back at night and have to start again the next day through all eternity. Camus’ famous quote here is “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. While I don’t pretend to understand the Noble Eightfold Path or Absurdism, it seems to accomplish Sisyphus’ task and be happy, he would have to achieve all the elements set down.
Whenever I start considering the shut-down I always think of the zen phrase: no one guarantees your life. The virus doesn’t care what you think; it just does its job. That’s just cause and effect. Old age, sickness and death were the Buddha’s teachers. As the sutra says, “Everything is always eating everything else.” So, sometimes we eat food at the Hollander and some times we are food. This situation brings up the great question, what are you really? ?
Photo by John Brander
This is my block. I am asleep in my house. On this cold Covid tinged night, a sleepless neighbor takes a walk in the early, pre-dawn hour, his porch light left on. There is great peace and silence in the night, which he found and shared with me. Here is a poem that wanted to be a Pantoum, but didn’t quite work out that way. A pantoum is a poem with specific rules for repetition and rhyming. I am probably just too lazy to keep at it to fit the pattern. This is about when I had my son shave my head early last summer as the pandemic looked like it was going to require a long time retreat from social life.
I cut off all my hair. The Buddhists call it Cutting Grass. I cannot miss what isn’t there. A Crowning Glory doesn’t last.
Without a frame, the face is bare, the naked head’s protection thin. Eyes hold a larger darker stare. A bitter wind will chill the skin.
I now abandon lingering hope that comb or brush or new shampoo could change a bad hair day to good. The message of the mirror is true.
I cut off all my hair. I will not dwell on what’s not there. The Buddhists call it Cutting Grass to clearly see what always lasts.
Weathering the Storm
As the lock down started, with miles of trails out my back door I was able to do daily “forest bathing” for my soul from the very start.
As a physician, my work was not shut down, so I had lots of daily human interaction. And although our numbers of cases and deaths are consistent with much of the country, the pandemic rolled into the Western UP slowly without a sudden peak so we generally have had enough staff and supplies to meet our needs. My personal experience primarily is that of having to have trimmed my beard to accommodate a seal for the N95 masks, being trussed up like a mummy in plastic and latex, and having nearly worn the skin off my hands from washing. Although, as a Geriatrician, I care for the most vulnerable group of patients, thus far only one has died – though there have been several near misses.
So, at the outset, I didn’t experience the stresses that many were feeling: I had my daily time in the woods and, although intense, I was able to continue work that was engaging, both socially and intellectually. But after several months I realized that I really missed my friends. A feeling that continues to grow.
Although a confirmed Luddite, Zoom has been a rope tossed to a drowning man. But still, I need to give and receive a hug.
The pandemic became a reality for our family in December of 2020. The Covid virus ripped through our house like a tornado. Of the five people currently living in our house, four of them spent time in the hospital because of Covid. Last month was full of uncertainty. It was scary at times. It was thirty-one consecutive days of “don’t know”.
Our practice, it seems to me, is often preparation for action in the world beyond the cushion. The sitting and the chanting help us to deal with each moment, as it comes and smacks us upside the head. I spent most of December doing. There wasn’t much thought involved, because there often wasn’t much time for thought. When Karin needed to go to the ER because she couldn’t get enough air, we went. When Hannah’s water broke seven weeks too soon, I took her to the hospital so she could give birth to Asher. Later, I took Hannah to the NICU at St. Joseph’s Hospital whenever she needed to be with her tiny son. I washed, cooked, and cleaned when other people couldn’t. I didn’t do any of these things because I am particularly virtuous. I did them because my fifteen years of practice with the sangha told me that these things needed to be done right now, and they needed to be done by me.
Speaking of the sangha, whatever I did was only possible because of the support and love my family received from the people at GLZC. I never did anything by myself. I was never alone.
Photo by Suzanne Stone
This moment, and by moment I’m referring to the past year of living life cautiously, has clarified two realities for me: #1) We’re all stuck, and #2) Everything is perfect in this moment if we just wake up and embrace it. (And by “we”, I’m really referring to myself.) This is all easy enough to put into words and/or documents through photography, video, or other means…. More difficult to resign to the reality and be with it. I have moments where I want to get in the car and just drive until I relocate myself to a place never before seen or experienced, just to reassure myself that there is something other than the sameness of what seems like an exact replication of the previous day. What I’m realizing, however, is that less of my energy is spent going through the motions of running errands, commuting to work, only to then deal with the inherent anxieties they provoke. Moments of internal stillness have displaced the frantic need to get as much stuff done before the day is over, and it’s a state unlike anything I’ve ever experienced pre-pandemic. That it took a year to experience stillness….No, a lifetime is perfect.
A year deferred?
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
When can we get back to “normal?”
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
2020 was a year of cancellations, postponements, and separation. To say our lives have been disrupted would be quite the understatement. It looks like this will continue for some time as we move through 2021. Like everyone else, I am missing in-person connections with my family, friends, and communities. A year of cancelled plans. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, holiday gatherings, family visits to New York, trips, in-person Zen practice – all cancelled.
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
Throughout the past year, I have found myself coming back to asking myself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” This “doing” encompasses thoughts, words, and actions. “Why am I thinking what I am thinking?” “Why am I saying what I am saying?” “Why am I acting what I am acting?” As difficult as it has been sometimes, asking myself this question leads me to “only help,” in whatever ways I can, cultivating kindness, compassion, and Great Love. Actually, I find this helpful no matter which year it is, and whatever the situation may be. 2020 is now done. We have only this moment – oops, that’s gone too!
What is this? . . . Don’t know.
Bad Situation, Good Situation, U.S. Covid Edition
Bad Situation: Covid-19 arrives in the United States, and we go on lockdown.
Good Situation: Families spend more time together.
Bad Situation: People are laid off work and find it difficult to make ends meet.
Good Situation: The spread of the virus is minimal due to the lockdown.
Bad Situation: Everyday life is disrupted.
Good Situation: People start finding creative ways to help out or entertain others.
Bad Situation: People are becoming worried, restless, angry, and depressed.
Good Situation: With the arrival of warm weather, people can go outdoors.
Bad Situation: Politicians, doctors, health professionals, and citizens disagree.
Good Situation: Some businesses are able to reopen with restrictions.
Bad Situation: Many people are still out of work, and businesses are closing.
Good Situation: Some businesses are booming as people adjust to the pandemic.
Bad Situation: As the seasons change again, some are reluctant to follow restrictions.
Good Situation: Progress has been made on testing, PPE, and vaccine development.
Bad Situation: Ignoring health guidelines, people travel and gather for holidays.
Good Situation: Those who find ways to gather with family are happy to connect.
Bad Situation: Cases spike and climb to their highest levels of the pandemic.
Good Situation: Vaccine approval gives us hope.
Bad Situation: Lack of supply and poor planning lead to slow vaccination rates.
Good Situation: Infection rates begin to fall.
Bad Situation: Large numbers of people are refusing the vaccine.
Good Situation: Less people wanting the vaccine makes it easier for others to obtain it.
So this is where we are at. Obviously there are some significant “bad situations” I did not mention (people dying and exhaustion of front line workers, to name two). But this was never meant to be a comprehensive list. If we keep following the situation through the lens of “good” and “bad”, we will be on quite a roller coaster ride. “Oh, this is good!” “Oh, this is bad!” “But this is good!” “But this is bad!” I catch myself doing this. It’s a habit I have developed over my lifetime. But Zen teaches us not to live in the world of opposites. This only causes suffering, as we are constantly trying to avoid what is “bad” and grasp and hold onto what is “good”. If we put it all down, only go straight, don’t know, and help when the opportunity appears, perhaps we can all get through this difficult time with our sanity intact. So how do we do this? Practice, practice, practice. Watch your mind. Ask yourself, “What is this?” “How can I help?” And only go straight, don’t know.
Photo by Pete Neuwald
Getting Lost January 6
dawn grey shroud hugs the lake Pete is asleep I slip downstairs make coffee flick on the news
4000 more Covid deaths officer not charged in Jacob Blake shooting Hong Kong arrests 53 democracy advocates Trump still says he won Ugh Warnock beat Loeffler in Georgia Yay
at the nature center we tramp through soft snow inspect the dots and dibs left behind by rabbits and deer stare up at towering oaks do you hear that? tat-tat-tat-tat woodpecker!
loud voices rise behind us hurry, lets get away from them! turn here—is this really a trail? are they still behind us? boots kicking up snow jacket sleeves swishing I think we lost them! where are we?
we follow fresh ski tracks along a snowy ridge weaving between trees we climb over fallen trunks brush against brambles releasing cascades of white powder where are we?
wait, down there, the creek we scuttle down the slope snatching at trees and rocks to slow our descent we follow the black water as it winds around each turn takes our breath away where are we?
the creek, a dark mirror ice-rimmed reflecting limbs laden with snow hooded stones when black comes, black when white comes, white
we are lost completely lost we smile at our good fortune
out in a clearing snow-shoed hikers point the way back we pass three women do you drive a Hyundai? we found car keys in the snow set them on the fence post by the waterfall
Heading back we ask those we pass have you lost your keys? in the parking lot we search for a Hyundai not there
is that your car? a young woman asks, pointing to the SUV next to ours its window smashed oh no! not ours! I called the police, she says just waiting until they come how kind, we say do you want us to wait with you? no need, they should be here soon
the drive back I’m hungry, says Pete me too, I say Kind bars in the glove compartment? no such luck I switch on NPR Following the Trump rally protestors have stormed the Capitol. The Capitol at this moment appears to be occupied
every day is January 6 only go straight when lost get completely lost find your true home help all beings