A few days ago, while highways were getting locked down in all of Spain because of the Coronavirus, I had to make a quick decision about dropping the restauration work I was involved in on a ruin in a marvelous place of the Sierra Nevada mountains and rejoining my family in Cordoba. The family was dealing with a painful situation in and out of the hospital, with all the attached risk of contagion. Clearly the decision would affect the next few months, since it was not likely that I would be able to return to the Sierra any time soon. Furthermore, there was uncertainty about the journey being at all possible, because checkpoints were being set up along the roads. Therefore on one side there was the relative freedom and safety of my mountain refuge, on the other an uncertain journey toward a more risky and more constrained situation.
Nevertheless, it seemed clear to me that I had to go. But I decided to ask the I Ching for confirmation. I got Hexagram 47, Confinement, which depicts a tree within a narrow enclosure that restricts its growth. It seemed an amazingly accurate picture of what was waiting for me in Cordoba! That was exactly the situation I and millions of other people were heading towards in those days. Not to mention that one of the lines turned out to be an almost literal description of my meeting a police checkpoint the next morning:
Confinement tending towards a metallic chariot. Abashment. Possessing completion.
The challenge of Hexagram 47 is growing through accepting confinement, accepting the limitation of one's vital space. My wife Cruz and I decided to realise the hexagram's image by planting a vegetable garden in the house garden.
A collective nightmare is being dreamed all over the world, it is getting hold of everybody with a kind of unquestionable impersonal authority. It is not clear how it started, although the origin of the little beast which is the protagonist of the collective dream is rather suspicious. But I am not going to go into that: we have a more urgent task confronting us. I will just briefly recap the basic facts, which are by now well-known. The Coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China, three short months ago. In Wuhan there is an Institute of Virology conducting research, particularly on coronaviruses. The new virus identified in December 2019 appears to be 96% identical to a sample the Institute's researchers had handled. That's pretty much all we can say with some certainty. Is there a thread joining all the pieces of the puzzle? Coincidence? Accident? Conspiracy? We may never know.
But, as I said, that is not where our energy can be most usefully invested. Whatever its origin, the little beast is now an overwhelming presence all over the globe – and we are still far from experiencing the whole range of its impact. Beside the suffering and losses it is directly causing, serious consequences will derive from the oncoming economic recession/depression caused by the paralysis of entire sectors of economic activity all over the world.
What can we do as individuals to help contain this global disaster and hopefully come out of it having learned something, come out of it a bit wiser? Some of the precautions to contain the spreading of the virus are obvious, other measures are more questionable and are object of a lively debate, as it should be. The point seems to be balancing confinement to avoid contagion with the liveliness, positivity, cheerfulness and movement that are essential for energising the immune system.
But beyond these measures, that are very important, there is a further dimension that is less commonly discussed, and that is the dimension of meaning, the vision of a possible new order that might emerge from the present disorder. In that perspective, I would like to suggest that "normal life" is truly the dream we need to wake up from, and that the Coronavirus is the challenge life is offering us in order to align our actions with a deeper meaning that we have to a large extent lost.
The message of the situation we are living is obvious: STOP!
We are constantly absorbed by doing, acquiring, growing, expanding, controlling, by yang energy. Now, suddenly, we are forced to stop. We are forced to give up all our habitual activities, all our planning and control. The forced stop returns us to an almost childlike state.
If this is the message, does it mean that the pandemic is in some sense the reflection of an excess of yang energy? In some sense it is, no doubt. We don't know for sure whether the virus is literally our own doing, but we do know that its spread depends on our very active lifestyle, on thousands of airplanes constantly flying around the world, on the planet being enwrapped 24/7 in a web of exchanges, contacts and interactions. on overpopulation and concentration of population in huge cities (the urban population has surpassed the rural population of the globe in recent years).
Many of those contacts are precious to us and we wouldn't want to do without them. But what I am suggesting is that the overall pattern is out of balance. The excess of activity, the excess of yang needs to be counterbalanced by the inclusion of a corresponding amount of yin, of what Laozi calls "non-doing". The rush up to heaven must be balanced by roots in the ground, the masculine by the feminine.
This is the great opportunity the present confinement is offering us. When the movement outwards is prevented, the energy can only move inwards. When all distractions are removed, we realise that silence is there. It has always been there, as the background of all experience. It was waiting for us to listen to. Deafened by the noise of all our activity, we have lost the ability to listen to the silence. Now that our streets have become silent we hear birds chirping.
The signs of the unbalance, the indications that "normal" is off center, have been there for quite some time. Our oceans are full of plastic, species get extinguished on a daily base, biodiversity gets lost, forests are destroyed, the planet is warming up: our relation with Mother Earth is of greed and neglect. But many still shrug the threat off, as something that maybe the next generation will have to deal with, undoubtedly through some clever new technology, through even more yang.
No one was expecting THIS. The fragility of the system jumped up in front of our eyes. It is a lesson impossible to ignore. We suddenly found ourselves sliding back a few centuries, to the times when the plague was running wild across Europe. We can only wish we will remember when the crisis is over. So that the return to normality will not be a return to "business as usual."
But the ultimate lesson of the present drama goes beyond the frailty of the system. It is the essential frailty of the human condition, the essential frailty of life. That is the lesson that can only be met on the most personal and intimate level. It is the encounter with the great Teacher, death. Whether one believes in the after life, in some form or another, or in the great vacuum of non-being, the Teacher stands there with open arms to welcome us. Its closeness is the ultimate meditation. The ultimate reminder of the preciousness of each moment, of the eternity of this moment.