by Tuệ Mẫn
The Covid-19 pandemic is the most serious disaster the world is facing. The pandemic has a negative impact on many aspects of human life. Although numerous reports and statistics emphasize economic damages, they seem to pay less attention to psychological injuries or problems caused by the pandemic. Whereas, in reality millions of people are living with stress, fear and despair because of Covid-19. According to a report by the United Nations:
People’s distress is understandable given the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives. During the Covid-19 emergency, people are afraid of infection, dying, and losing family members…. Not surprisingly, higher-than-usual levels of symptoms of depression and anxiety have been recorded in various countries. (2020, p. 7)
And the most dangerous thing is that some people tend to use unhealthy means to neutralize their negative emotions:
To deal with the stressors, people may resort to different negative ways of coping, including use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco or spending more time on potentially addictive behaviours such as online gaming. Statsitics from Canada report that 20% of the population aged 15-49 increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. (p. 7)
It’s so painful. This time may be one of the darkest periods in human history when many people are facing extreme fear and hopelessness. They even have the feeling that the world is coming to an end and everything is falling apart.
Fear is understandable. However, the important thing is how people repsond to their fear. In this paper, I want to analyze two visions of response: the setting-sun vision and the Great Eastern Sun vision, to borrow the terms used by Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa. In the former vision, people not only feel trapped in their own fear but also solidify it, while in the latter vision people can weaken their fear and let it go.
First of all, I want to introduce the two concepts of the setting-sun vision and the Great Eastern Sun vision used by Trungpa although he employed these concepts to refer to something larger than fear:
The vision of the Great Eastern Sun is based on celebrating life. It is contrasted to the setting sun, the sun that is going down and dissolving into darkness…. The setting-sun point of view is based on fear. We are constantly afraid of ourselves. We feel that we can’t actually hold ourselves upright. We are so ashamed of ourselves, who we are, what we are. We are ashamed of our jobs, our finances, our parental upbringing, our education, and our psychological shortcomings. Great Eastern Sun vision, on the other hand, is based on appreciating ourselves and appreciating our world, so it is a very gentle approach. Because we appreciate the world, we don’t make a mess in it. We take care of our bodies, we take care of our minds, and we take care of our world. The world around us is regarded as very sacred, so we have to constantly serve our world and clean it up. (1984, p. 14)
Sadly, as Trungpa observed many people tend to choose the setting-sun approach to dealing with their fear because they think it’s safe:
[I]n general, we are much more accustomed to the darkness of the setting-sun world than we are to the light of the Great Eastern Sun. Therefore, our next topic is dealing with darkness. By darkness, we mean enclosing ourselves in a familiar world in which we can hide or go to sleep. It is as though we would like to re-enter our mother’s womb and hide there forever, so that we could avoid being born. When we are afraid of waking up and afraid of experiencing our own fear, we create a cocoon to shield ourselves from the vision of the Great Eastern Sun. We prefer to hide in our personal jungles and caves. When we hide from the world in this way, we feel secure. We may think that we have quieted our fear, but we are actually making ourselves numb with fear. We surround ourselves with our own familiar thoughts, so that nothing sharp or painful can touch us. We are so afraid of our own fear that we deaden our hearts. (pp. 26-27)
However, for Trungpa, though fear is undesirable, fearlessness begins with fear:
In order to experience fearlessness, it is necessary to experience fear. The essence of cowardice is not acknowledging the reality of fear. Fear can take many forms. Logically, we know we can’t live forever. We know that we are going to die, so we are afraid. We are petrified of our death. On another level, we are afraid that we can’t handle the demands of the world. This fear expresses itself as a feeling of inadequacy. We feel that our own lives are overwhelming, and confronting the rest of the world is more overwhelming. Then there is abrupt fear, or panic, that arises when new situations occur suddenly in our lives. When we feel that we can’t handle them, we jump or twitch. (p. 10)
In addition, Trungpa observed how people tend to react to their fear:
There are innumerable strategies that we use to take our minds off of fear. Some people take tranquilizers. Some people do yoga. Some people watch television or read a magazine or go to a bar to have a beer. From the coward’s point of view, boredom should be avoided, because when we are bored we begin to feel anxious. We are getting closer to our fear. (p. 21)
In what follows, I don’t go deep into Trungpa’s two visions mentioned above, but I just want to borrow his terms and his general ideas to analyze the fear many people have and the ways they deal with it.
Let us go back to the issue of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on many people’s world views and their (re)actions. First of all, we cannot deny the fact Covid-19 is a destructive force. Even, in some parts of the world it seems uncontrollable, taking numerous lives. Perhaps, this is the time when many people, regardless of religion, begin to feel the impermanent nature of the self more clearly than ever before. In the past, we might have heard stories of impermanence, but they were still too remote. Today, due to the Covid-19 crisis, we realize that impermanence or death may happen to anyone any time. This truth is so harsh. Then many of us begin to question the meaning of life. What is life? Why do we have to put great efforts into many things while eventually everything will fall apart and become nothing and death is the end point? This reminds me of the Buddhist view of self: everything, our self included, is not solid. Here, at this point people begin to choose a way to deal with their own fear and distress. As I mentioned earlier, a number of people in the world adopt a negative way to neutralize their fear: avoidance. It is obvious that using drugs, consuming alcohol or being addicted to games are various forms of avoidance. Yes, they try to avoid their fear. Unfortunately, they may not know that while they are doing so, they are solidifying their fear. By solidifying their fear, I mean that they unwittingly perpetuate their fear while in fact it goes over time. Many people may not stay calm enough to recognize that everything is not permanent or solid and that fear is not an exception. Fear is not permanent or solid either. But people tend to run away when they smell the first hint of fear. They do not stay with their fear long enough to see that it will go on its own. Before they can recognize this truth, they try to escape from their own fear. They are unaware that their avoidance unintentionally feeds their fear. Avoiding fear is synonymous with not only acknowledging its power but also giving fear more power. I agree that fear or other negative energies are sometimes very powerful. However, as Buddhists we should not forget one thing: no matter how strong they are, they are groundless or impermanent. They are like dew, which will melt in the sun. The sad thing is that in reality dew is still there, everywhere. But the problem does not lie in the existence of dew but it lies in that many people choose darkness and do not let the sun come. Yet worse, they do not believe in the existence of the sun, let alone its power. They do not believe in a larger world beyond their cocoon, or sleeping bag, with the warm sunlight, which has a magical healing power. Consequently, they let their fear destroy them before the coronavirus can. This reaction to fear is based on the setting-sun vision articulated earlier.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach to coping with fear, which is grounded in what Trungpa called the Great Eastern Sun vision. In this vision, there is no absence of fear. But the fact that people are brave and calm enough to go beyond their own fear makes a difference. They still have fear in the beginning, but they don’t feel trapped in it. They are willing to step out of their cocoon and carry on as warriors. Of course, there is some pain in the process, but they acknowledge the “no pain, no gain” principle. Then their patience and bravery are rewarding: they begin to see the sunlight. In other words, they begin to connect with the greatest healing and comforting energy. (I will explain the deep meaning of the sun afterwards). This is not an abstract concept. It is real experience.
From the Great Eastern Sun point of view, as Trungpa said above, you appreciate the world rather than avoiding it even when it does not work in the way you want. Indeed, if you take a gimpse into the reality, you will recognize that although the pandemic is destroying lives and other things, in some aspects it is facilitating connections: connections with other people and connections with divine beings beyond human beings. Indeed, we have heard numerous stories of kind-hearted volunteers who, despite the high risk of infection, are willing to help others. We may not know that many monks, nuns and other spiritual practitioners everywhere are silently and sincerely praying for the world. Although their actions are intangible and hence are not always recognized, the positive and healing energies generated by their actions actually exist and work. When we are aware of and appreciate these good deeds, our sufferings and fear are considerably relieved. In fact, these good actions are just a part of the sunlight. The sun I want to mention here is the sun of wisdom and of unconditional compassion, which has a magical healing power and which only comes from the awakened mind, both individual and collective. This is not an ideal state, too remote for us to attain. We can have it right here and right now as long as we are willing to practice. By “we” I mean not only individual spriritual efforts but also collective ones. I understand that some people do not believe in this healing power. This is simply because they have believed in the power of negative forces for a very long time. As I put earlier, when we trust something we intentionally or not give it (more) power, and finally it, in this case, becomes so powerful that it controls our lives and causes sufferings. In the same way, the coronavirus and the fear it has brought about is so powerful that many people believe that they are too solid and hence too hard for them to cope with. Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, no matter how solid they seem, all kinds of sufferings are impermanent or groundless by nature. They are like dew, and dew will definitely melt in the sun: the sun of wisdom, compassion and healing energy. Acknowledging this, what we should do right now is cultivate an awakened mind-heart, nurture compassion, connect with others and especially with divine beings. Some people may deny the existence of divine beings or their power. Ironically, instead of having faith in these healthy and positive enegies, they fear and unwittingly empower negative energies. They are very humble before these negative forces but are arrogant before sacred beings. In the name of science, human beings tend to reject spiritual strengths. Anyway, the Covid-19 pandemic has taught human beings a lesson on humility. It has shown that human beings, no matter how smart they are, still have weaknesses. For this reason, human beings need to connect with divine beings beyond them and sincerely ask for help. They will definitely help as long as human beings have deep faith in them. For example, Buddhist communities may get familiar with the image of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. One of her vows is that she will manifest herself wherever sentient beings need help.
In summary, in this paper I analyzed two visions of dealing with fear (or other negative emotions) during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the setting-sun vision, people avoid their fear and have negative actions as well as negative attitudes towards it, which, ironically fuels their fear and possibly destroys their lives. In the Great Eastern Sun vision, people are brave enough to go beyond the darkness of their fear and receive sunlight. The sun throughout this paper is the sun of wisdom and compassion, which has a great healing and comforting power. The important message I want to convey is that no matter how strong sufferings are, they are inherently impermanent. Certainly, they will go away. But human beings can speed up the process with the sunlight coming from their awakened individual and collective minds of wisdom and compassion.
Trungpa, C. (1984). The sacred path of the warrior. Boston: Shambhala.
United Nations. (2020). Policy brief: Covid-19 and the need for action on mental health.