Should I stay or should I go?

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As difficult as it may have been to shelter in place the last three months, it is also hard to decide when and how to venture out as the orders lift. Some people have settled in and don’t feel inclined to leave home. Others have spent their lockdown pacing like caged tigers, so they bust out at the first opportunity. When it’s a shared household, differing styles and opinions may cause clashes. 

And coincidentally, the theme song for now is by The Clash: 

Should I stay or should I go?

Making wise decisions is always helped by referring to the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. What is Wise Action in this instance? To be wise, an action needs to come from wise intention, wise effort, wise view and wise mindfulness. So let’s take them one by one.

What is my intention here?
If our intention is rooted in greed, aversion or delusion, we will want to reconsider, as these are the three causes of suffering as defined by the Buddha. Noticing them as they arise in our thoughts is skillful. Acting on them is not.

But what do greed, aversion and delusion look like in this situation? Here I am standing at the door of a shop that has been closed for months. Now it is open! I can just walk right in! A freedom I never thought to appreciate until now.

I WANT to go in! I WANT to enjoy the leisurely process of feasting my senses and maybe indulging in a purchase. So yes, I can see that at least some of my intention comes from the greed for something I don’t need. If it was stronger, it might come from the feeling that a purchase could make me fill more fulfilled. That entanglement with what we know are fleeting pleasures seem harmless, but may cause harm we can only discern if we look at the whole impact as far back as the source materials, their transport, the way the laborers are treated, etc. But there’s also that nice lady in the store who needs to make a living! Making a purchase is a kindness! RIght?

Should I stay or should I go?

Is my holding back aversion or sensible precaution? Am I caught up in delusion that I will be safe or caught up in delusion that this could be dangerous?

Why is this situation so difficult to decipher? Because it’s all so new and no one knows? Yikes! Let me retreat to the safety of isolation for a while longer. But is THAT wise? Oh dear.

What is Wise Effort here?
I think if I went in that little store with just a salesperson and no other shoppers, I could be skillful and not forget myself. But there are many situations that would be more challenging. It takes a lot of skillful effort to resist doing something that is habitual, exciting or compelling. If we decide to enter a place of business, can we sustain the awareness of new safe practices? If we fall back into old patterns, forgetting to be skillful to avoid contagion, we may suffer and cause suffering.

And if we are in a place that offers alcohol, we face a new challenge, as intoxication loosens inhibitions and clouds judgment, so we can easily revert to old habits that were harmless in the “before times”. And even if we are being sober and safe, others may not be. And what then?

Should I stay or should I go.

What is Wise View in this situation?
The central understandings in Wise View are:

  • All matter is impermanent, 
  • All matter is interconnected so there is no separate self,
  • Forgetting these two causes unnecessary suffering.

So we in this situation, we keep reminding ourselves that this too shall pass. We don’t know when, but we are practicing staying present, and here’s a really good reason to do so! How is this moment? Stop focusing on how some moment a few weeks or months from now will be. In this moment, if you are safe, fed and comfortable, that’s cause for celebration. Enjoy! Let this be enough. If painful emotions arise, treat yourself with compassion and know that this too shall pass.

In this situation, we keep reminding ourselves that we are not alone. We may feel isolated, but we are all in this together. We are intrinsically connected. And this understanding will help us to keep others safe as well as ourselves.

If you feel anxious because you don’t know when or how this will all turn out, remember that it has already turned out. Look around with fresh eyes and a kind heart. You are not missing out on life. This is life. What matters is how you are in relation to whatever is arising. Rest in the sense of lovingkindness for all life, and feel your intrinsic interconnection. It’s okay not to know all the answers. To rest in not knowing is to enjoy a state of wonder!

Which brings us to:

Wise Mindfulness
You might prefer to be oblivious about now, but staying fully present helps to navigate new situations with skill. We have all been learning new skills — social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands more often and more thoroughly, and figuring out how to unmute ourselves on Zoom. When we slip into old habits, like realizing we have entered another person’s six-foot space, or have forgotten to wear a mask, etc., we’ve gone mindless. The practice of mindfulness keeps us alert in this moment, not out of fear with adrenaline rushing, but filled with compassion that is expressed by honoring the needs of others to feel safe. In this way, we make wise choices for the benefit of all beings.

Wise Concentration
We develop mindfulness through meditation, where we learn how to concentrate or focus on the breath or other senses. Because being fully present is so important right now, both for our own mental health and for the safety of all, this is no time to give up meditation! If you have extra time on your hands, do more! Make a personal retreat! And even when you are not meditating, bring your awareness to the senses. Feel your hand holding your warm cup of comfort. Sit outside and let the sounds, patterns and textures fill you with a sense of aliveness and gratitude.

Wise Speech
Have you found yourself spouting unasked for opinions about the behavior of others? 

It’s just fear rising up, so be kind to yourself. But still, please, choose words that enlighten the conversation, not shut it down and cause anger. The Buddha instructs that we notice whether our words are true, kind, and timely. Whether those words are spoken or written, slow down and be sure they are wise, kind and fair instead of filled with venom, venting frustration. Words matter. When they sting the ramifications are painful for all.

A sign I’ve seen lately that is Wise Speech is “Black & White Together Against Racism”. Instead of pitting people against each other, we all have the opportunity to recognize and process the painful patterns of thought and emotion that have activated unwise speech, action, and livelihood with lethal consequences.

Seemingly kind words can be quite the contrary in these unusual times. When my husband and I were out walking recently, wearing our masks whenever we were within range of people, a man out watering his plants said, “Oh you don’t have to wear a mask around me!” He wasn’t wearing a mask, and that was fine. He was on his land, or on the sidewalk in front of it. But honestly, someone who believes no mask is necessary is just the person I most need to wear a mask around! He believes he is immune. He believes his lack of symptoms proves he is not carrying the virus. He could have just said “Good morning!” and honor people’s choices. In the same way, if someone is not wearing a mask, it’s probably wiser to just steer clear instead of scolding them. If everyone steers clear of them, they’ll get the idea. If everyone scolds them, they’ll likely get even more entrenched in their delusion.

Using the Eightfold Path as guidance to answer “Should I stay or should I go?” would be a lot easier if we had more facts and fewer variables. But our collective experience of this pandemic is still so new and the “facts” keep changing or are difficult to assess. For example, as our access to spaces and businesses reopen, there are spikes in COVID cases. Are these spikes due to increased testing or increased exposure? Are we going too fast or too slowly? Who knows? The authorities are learning as they go, just as we are. Finding reliable sources of information has never been more important or more challenging at a time when “news” is flavored by views. And since we tend to pay attention to the news that supports our pre-existing views, we are supported in any delusional conclusions we may draw. So for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones and all beings, we need to challenge our assumptions.

There’s an old saying: If in doubt, do without. It comes up for me and supports my tendency to err on the side of caution. I find I can do without a lot of things. And when my heart aches with longing to see my loved ones in person and enjoy holding them close, I try not to trust any decision I might make in that direction, remembering that love at the time looks very different.

We all hope the choices we make will be okay, that we are not putting ourselves or others in danger when we venture out, and that we are not causing further economic destruction when we don’t. Though there is no simple answer to any of this, using the Eightfold Path to guide us may give us a little more clarity, and a little more time to cultivate kindness and wisdom before making our choices.

Thank you for pausing to consider the wisdom of your choices. 

May you be well.
May all beings be well.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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