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Professor Doug Powers: How can I make sense of what’s going on right now?

Apr 6, 2020

We asked Professor Doug Powers for advice on the current COVID-19 situation. The following is his response:

How can I make sense of what’s going on right now? 

For cultivators, there should be absolutely no surprise whatsoever. When the Buddha is talking about impermanence, he's not just talking about impermanence like you won't have enough money to buy a cup of coffee tomorrow or your body's changing or your girlfriend dumped you. He's not just talking about impermanence on the narrative level. He's talking about everything- the entire structure of reality, the whole cultural background, the whole values construct, the whole thing that you assume as the background- is in change and flux over time. So, all that is different this time is scale. So, all that has happened is scaled up from personal narratives, which are the only level most people were looking at. They weren't seeing impermanence on a large enough scale. When you live in a particular era, you take the background of the larger narratives of culture, economics, etc. for granted and you just slip your personal narrative in it.  

It can be useful to understand the situation using the Three Modes of Reality -the Real, the Conditional, and the Imagined. At the level of the real, the awareness doesn't have a particular context or identity. It is just pure awareness without a particular point of view, which never changes over time and space. It doesn’t matter what the conditions are. The conditional is the totality of what is actually going on and all the causal constructs. The imagined is the personal narrative that we put over it -the stories we tell ourselves about the conditional. 

To get in touch with the level of the real is not easy, because there are so many layers and levels to the conditional and the imagined that we put over it. The anxieties and the afflictions are all in the imagined, which doesn’t take away from the reality of the conditional. The conditional reality is that there are many huge problems going on, many people are suffering with those problems and many are experiencing a massive amount of anxiety. You need to pay attention to all that, but from a place of as much stillness as you can have, not from what you put in between that observing stillness - the anxiety, the fear - which is your own personal narrative. At the level of real, you can say that nothing is going on at all. At the level of the conditional, you can say that we dwell in a moment of huge changes. So, my suggestion is for you to observe what is really going on, but at the same time, maintain a certain amount of personal distance from your afflictions, while without taking away from the reality of the suffering that is actually going on. 

How can I help to alleviate the suffering in the world? 

If you want to help to alleviate the situation, you have to come from that place of stillness. The reality is many people are experiencing several problems right now. First of all, they are now jammed into a place with somebody, like parents, friends, loved ones, or by themselves. Wherever they are, the main mental skill they are going to have to use is patience. And it can't be just an irritated patience, like you are at the edge of your irritation. It has to be a deeper patience, which has a deep source of stillness. You can't last for weeks after weeks at the edge of irritation. You have to go deeper into yourself, and go down into a much more still place, and just observe as a disinterested observer that Husserl talked about. Be disinterested to your own personal narrative and afflictions arising from that. Try to serve the anxiety of others, not your own! If you're serving your own anxiety, you're just part of the problem! If you can serve other people's anxiety, you become part of the solution! And the only way you can serve other people's anxieties is not to have your Self. 

It’s good that you want to help others. But you can only transmit where you actually are. You can’t transmit a theory or abstraction. If you want to engage in the bodhisattva path right now, remember you can only help at the level you are actually involved in, which is the immediate environment that you are now hunkered down in, which could turn into a pureland, if you can get still and get rid of your own anxiety! Right now, if you practice stillness by yourself, it’s almost like a Chan session by yourself. If you are with others and you practice stillness, it seems you are emanating lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity all the time! You can only make it work in the best possible way in the context that you find yourself in! 

From a cultivator’s view, every situation is an opportunity. And the opportunity is to look through and get past your own story and afflictions, because where you're feeling anxiety is yours, where at the point of irritation is yours. That is not what is going on. What is going on is what is really going on. What is really going on is a huge change in the totality of the conditional and it's not unusual that there is a massive change in that realm. It’s just everyone happens to be alive at this moment in time. The Buddha said the time he was living in is no different than this time. So don't get caught up so much in whatever the conditional is in a given time! 

I don’t suggest for you not to pay attention to what’s going on. Actually you can’t be compassionate if you're not paying attention to it. But to practice true compassion, you have to take yourself out of it enough so you are not in your anxiety and irritation. If you are in your anxiety and irritation, you are not emanating anything helpful at all! You are just part of the problem. 

What should I do now? 

Right now people have more time to sit. You have more time to be mindful, to recite, to do lots of practices that you usually don’t have time for. You have more time to do the dishes, cook a meal, and take care of the people around you. You have more time to settle in your own mind a little bit and not be so active and scattered. At the same time, you need to pay attention to the larger world and what's going on - how complicated the situation is and how much emotions and suffering is going on. But when you pay attention to that, try to do so without adding to it your personal anxiety or irritation within your conditions. 

For cultivators, you want to have a total open-heartedness to the situation. You can be open-hearted without emotions because emotions are just past insecurities coming into the present. If we are open-minded and open-hearted, we can attend to the current situation without giving rise to anxiety or personal emotions. Feeling overwhelmed by the situation is not a helpful response. That anxiety you feel is personal. Emotions are personal. It’s not what actually is going on. Compassion is open-heartedness. 

For those who believe, how can one affect the world beyond the physical level? 

Now, if you can develop that open heartedness to the situation without anxiety, we can begin to talk about how you might be able to affect the world beyond just the physical level. I'm not suggesting it is for everyone, because not everyone is going to buy into the idea that you can affect things beyond the physical level since most of you are very scientifically oriented. You have a very limited view of causation. I believe in causation on a lot of levels. I do think that there is some possibility that people are able to open up their energy - an open-heartedness that does not come down to an individual person, individual situations, nor individual duties. 

So for those of you who believe, first of all, you have to engage this ground, this kind of “not personally involved” mind ground. It can observe what is going on both in yourself at a deeper level and what is going on outside at a deeper level. You need to see that, on the one hand, it is empty; on the other hand, there is all this going on within that emptiness that has suffering in it. Then, get rid of everything in between- your personal anxiety and irritation- until you are just left with the emptiness and the suffering. You may start a practice, e.g. recitation, in order to get rid of your afflictions. If you want to affect the world in a positive way, you need to go beyond the mindset of reciting for yourself. First, try to be really comfortable and content in a fundamental way. Try to empty out your Self. Then, recite from that place and emanate energy from that place, without it being directed to a particular individual or place but just emanating in general. You can actually emanate an energy field that would be everywhere. Because when the mind is still, where would you find it? If the heart is still, where would you find it? You can’t find it anywhere particular. It is emanating everywhere and everything is inside of that. Once you have open-heartedness and empty space and the mind, it actually is in the state that everything is within that. Then you can see that ultimately everything going on is within that emanating energy, right? And you would imagine everything within that. Once you imagine everything within that, you then emanate this compassion for everything in it. 

I do think this causation needs to be understood by people in a more rational sense. I don’t think it is just like magical recitation, hoping that will make sense any day. I think it is something people actually have to experience themselves. It starts with their own cultivation, meditation, and mindfulness. It really starts with an energy that emanates out from stillness, which is a stillness that always observes. If you have some stillness and the observation of stillness, then you can observe the open-heartedness. When you observe the open-heartedness, you can actually emanate your open-heartedness. Then, when you emanate your open-heartedness, you can start to imagine everything within that. And then you can recite to everything within that. By “everything”, I mean every consciousness. It is all about consciousness, not about the thingness. It is all about interacting with sentience. A sentience is itself all just an energetic field. So then, you are connected with a massive energetic field of all sentience. Even the plants have a certain level of sentience. It is not the thingness that matters -it is the sentient. You are not relating to the thingness of it. You are relating to the sentience of it. The world is just the totality of all sentients- all the energetic fields.

Each sentience still remains its own. We are not talking about a collective consciousness here. Every sentience has its own karma. The totality of sentience is just the individual sentients at this moment of time across the whole universe. If I can open up my sentience to these sentiences, although I can never know them in their actual details of their own experience, but my sentience can include them, because right now they are in my mind right now. They are now in my ssentience in a way that I am actually regarding them. So, if right now I regard them with compassion at this moment, they are in my sentience and my regarding this moment. And now we will have to leave this to people’s empirical experiences.