March 13, 2020
The spiritual opportunities of the COVID-19 Coronoavirus pandemic
By Mark Kutolowski
I write two days after the World Health Organization has declared the worldwide outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus a global pandemic. News about this virus is dominating national and local media and public events are being cancelled everywhere—from the NBA season and university semesters to local singing circles and dinner gatherings. Sober-minded health officials have noted that it is likely that everyone on the planet will be infected by this illness eventually, with public health efforts focused on slowing the spread to allow health care systems to manage the load.
In every life circumstance, there are spiritual gifts, freely given to those who are able to perceive them. This outbreak is no different. What then, are the spiritual opportunities of this pandemic?
1. To recognize and honor the instinctual self: Everyone has both a material body and a psyche that are finite. They will die when we die. Yet, these parts of our selves desperately do not want to die. Our instinctual, animal inheritance is a finite self that is committed to survival at all costs, even though its inevitable end is death. When we acknowledge this aspect of self and honor its feedback, we can see it for what it is. Even more importantly, we can recognize that we are not this self. It is a part of who we are, but it is not us. It is totally natural for this aspect of self to feel great fear in the face a threat to its survival—like a global pandemic and social instability. Allow yourself to feel these fears, identify their source (the instinctual self), and do not confuse them for your true self.
2. To remember our eternal nature: Each of us also possesses an aspect of ourselves that is eternal—our spirit that abides in union with God. We can each call to mind peak experiences—moments where we were caught up in great love or wonder, all fear dropped away, and we tasted something timeless and liberating. Those moments are break-throughs of the Spirit. In a time of great cultural fear and uncertainty, we are invited to re-connect with this aspect of our being—the tremendous inner resource of our self that is hidden in God. From this source comes a peace, freedom, and stability that allows us to face the dangers of the present with equanimity. This inner self united with God allowed the early Christians to sing joyfully as they went to be torn apart by wild animals in ancient Rome. They were living from the realm of God where death has no power—so they were fearless in the face of the present threats to their lives. Remembering and living from the Spirit is so important that any exterior loss or hardship can be seen as a blessing if it awakens awareness of the Spirit. That’s why many alcoholics who have found God in their recovery refer to their alcoholism as a blessing.
3. Accurate feedback as to the state of our soul: One spiritual gift of a scary situation like the coronavirus outbreak is that it provides accurate and clear feedback as to the state of our souls in each moment. Are you feeling afraid and overwhelmed? That’s a sure sign you have identified with the finite/instinctual self. Are you feeling fear as an emotion, but have access to a deeper wellspring of timeless peace? That’s a sure sign you are living in the Spirit. The greater the external strive, the more intense and direct is this feedback as to the state of our inner identification at each moment.
4. A reminder of the fragility of life: Material life is finite. Each of us will die, our culture will collapse, and even our planet will eventually cease to exist. Yet our culture—with its obsession with youth, growth and success—encourages a constant forgetfulness of this basic truth. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing illness, deaths, and strain on social systems can be a wakeup call to remember this basic truth. There’s a reason why many spiritual traditions (Christianity and Buddhism included) have included meditation on death as valuable spiritual practices.
5. A revelation of systems of injustice: In this crisis, as in any time of societal stress, it is inevitably the poor and the marginalized who suffer the most. While the coronavirus illness itself may play no favorites, it is the wealthy who are least affected by the social fallout. The working poor, those tied into the ‘gig economy,’ and those who depend on tips will bear the brunt of the ensuing economic hardship, while the salaried will likely continue to be paid even when they are not able to work. Keep your eyes open to the social world and notice how power and wealth make their presence known in the responses to the outbreak. To have patterns of injustice revealed opens us to see reality more clearly and can open the door of the heart to compassion.
6. An invitation to prayer and action: When we are faced with acute suffering in our communities and world, we can choose to respond with love. There may be practical ways we can serve our neighbors in their physical needs of food and basic supplies. In this time, with greater social isolation, phone calls and emotional support are invaluable. Even if our own means are very limited, each of us can pray—opening our hearts to both the source of infinite love and to the suffering of our brothers and sisters among us.
7. Practice of sabbath: For many of us, the immediate effect of the coronavirus outbreak is that many of our work-related, academic and social activities are cancelled. We are asked to stay home. This can be an occasion for disappointment, feelings of isolation, or boredom. Or, it can be an opportunity to practice sabbath rest. Use the extra time to pray, to observe the natural world, to deeply rest. Allow yourself to let go of the need to control and build. Instead, rest in the grace of letting things be as they are.
Let us turn to God in this time—in love and trust.