Mindful Musings

Transcending Duality in the Time of COVID-19

By: Forrest Rivers

For a long time now, Americans have been hopelessly divided by politics, religion, wealth, geography and race. Liberals vs conservatives, religious fundamentalists vs atheists, rich vs poor, urban dwellers vs rural farmers, the white race vs just about every other racial minority group. So, is it really a surprise that this division has spilled over into peoples’ reactions to COVID-19? Combine a terrifying public health crisis with a catastrophic economic collapse and you have the recipe for social conflict. In context of the public’s reaction to the pandemic, there are two groups who have emerged in opposition to one another. On the one hand, are those people who contend (through citing medical evidence) that this virus is absolutely one of the greatest existential threats that we have faced in over a hundred years. Not surprisingly, they believe that state governments should be doing everything that is in their power to protect citizens from the pandemic—- even if it means resigning countless millions to dire poverty through mandated shutdowns and handing state governments temporary authoritarian powers to do so. On the other hand, are those who believe that COVID-19 has been badly “overblown” by media outlets who have an incentive to engineer a climate of fear in order to rack in record corporate profits. People with this belief hold that millions of hard-working Americans were needlessly laid off from their jobs and that the shutdowns should end immediately—- even if it comes at the cost of a massive spike in deaths among America’s most vulnerable. Can you see the flaws in both lines of thinking?

The “pro shutdown” people should be commended for prioritizing the sanctity of human life above all other concerns including the economy. However, the means with which those in power (with this belief) have acted has wound up inflicting mass suffering for many through a shocking wave of job layoffs, food insecurity and long-term financial ruin. Handing state governments extraordinary powers to manage this crisis, can also be perceived as a dangerous threat to our freedom and essential liberties. In contrast, the “anti-shutdown” people should be commended for bringing to light the massive economic hardships that have fallen on countless millions of people. However, their perspective can easily be taken as excessively callous and selfish because it sacrifices the priority of saving countless human lives to that of naked economic and political self-interest.

What can be done to ease the division that is now tearing this country apart amid a crisis? Fortunately, we can turn to the East for answers. All of the major eastern traditions (in particular Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism) teach that one of the spiritual teacher’s most important roles is to help all seekers intuitively recognize that all pairs of seeming opposites are connected as one. For example, day is only day because there is night. We only recognize wisdom because ignorance exists. And, the warmth of summer is only blissfully enjoyed because the cold of winter is faithfully endured. To put it another way, eastern faiths espouse this eternal truth: that the true and underlying nature of reality lies beyond all dualisms.

In Zen Buddhism, when a student comes before a Roshi(a great master), they are given a type of spiritual riddle, or Koan, to solve that is designed to break the mind from its restless stream of rational dualistic thoughts. In the Upanishads, a collection of mystical Hindu teachings, each passage exalts the seeker who, through years of meditation and the spirit of service, are able to finally see beyond all dualisms and experience the boundless essence of Brahman, or God, itself. In the Tao Te Ching, an inspiring text of Taoist philosophy, its sage-author, Lao Tzu, even goes as far to say that all seeming opposites give birth to each other:

“When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises

When it knows good as good, evil arises

Thus, being and non-being produce each other

Difficult and easy bring about each other

Long and short reveal each other

High and low support each other

Music and voice harmonize each other

Front and back follow each other.”

Seeing the inherent unity within all seeming opposites is the key in learning how not to cast judgement on another person’s beliefs or opinions. It is also the secret, then, to promoting peaceful dialogue and co-habitation. In today’s divisive environment, is it truly possible, though, to live in accordance with this valuable and ancient wisdom? Do most Americans even desire to give up their stubborn dualistic beliefs in the interest of peaceful dialogue and co-habitation? I hold on to faith that the answer to both questions is yes. Deep down, I truly feel that all people desire peace and unity with all others. It is only our ignorance (which we all have in something) that holds us back from breaking through the division.

For example, many of the people in support of the shutdowns tend to reside in more urban areas, lean more liberal politically and work in higher paying white-collar jobs. Not surprisingly, these people have more favorable views of the shutdowns. Why? Because due to their dense populations, urban areas have suffered far higher casualties (so far) from the virus and it is much easier to transition white-collar occupations to remote work amid the shutdowns. Of course, white- collar workers have faced many inconveniences and some have even been laid off from their jobs, but the overall economic impact on this group has been negligible compared to the struggles faced in blue-collar occupations. Short of being raised in a working-class family or having lived in the countryside, what does a liberal, white-collar urbanite truly know about the very real economic struggles now being felt by more conservative and rural laborers? From the latter’s point of view, they are watching their multi-generational farms and businesses shut down and livelihoods dissolve in response to a crises(mostly) taking place a far distance from where they live in cities. Further complicating matters, from this perspective, is that the strictest shut down measures have been ordered by other liberal, wealthy urbanites. Flipping the script, what can a more conservative, rural blue-collar worker truly know about the extent of mass-suffering being felt in urban areas like New York City where the death toll from COVID-19 is so high that morgues are literally unable to store all the bodies? If such a person visited a city for even two days and talked to family members and hospital workers (like my sister who is an ER doctor) who watched a loved one or patient die from the disease, would they still think that the media’s response to this virus is being “overblown” and demand the immediate openings of state economies?

In these troubled times, we must transcend our dualistic way of seeing the world and incorporate the wisdom of Eastern traditions into our day to day lives. This means, that we also need to learn more about the “other perspective,” and see that our ways of seeing the world are really not that different. After all, is it really difficult to imagine that if this crisis goes on long enough that people in rural areas won’t soon be facing a serious death toll from the virus as well? Is it really difficult to imagine, that if we are forced to endure another round of shutdowns that white-collar workers won’t soon be facing mass unemployment, too, under increasingly extreme orders taken by governments?  In fact, if we really broaden our minds and sharpen our awareness we may find that all beliefs we harbor on this virus wind up folding upon each other in the end…. just as Lao Tzu said of all seeming opposites. Regardless of our personal opinions on the virus, we are all having to collectively confront our fears of death and poverty as well as accept our loss of control. It seems to me that we have much to find common ground upon. Finding common ground is the easy part. The harder part is choosing to let go of our egoistic conditioning that sees things as black and white. The Choice is yours!





Mindful Musings

Look to Bhagavad Gita as Inspiration in our War Against Ego”

image of hindu god  Krishna with cow, peacock , flute

By: Forrest Rivers

It is no longer a secret that western society is degenerating right before our very eyes. It appears that our bad collective karma (born from the seeds of unjust and immoral actions) has come home to roost. The Western world’s longstanding crusade to plunder the Earth through its predatory commercial schemes has set off a series of moral crisis’ that humanity has rarely seen. One could point their finger at the catastrophic onset of climate change, our feeble response to the COVID-19 crises, the rampant militarization of the globe, the collapse of our financial system, the shocking frequency of mass violent events and the worsening opioid drug epidemic to demonstrate our society’s troubled path. The signs of such an impending breakdown are becoming more obvious to us all. However, less obvious are the root causes and hopeful solutions for it.

More now than at any other juncture in recent history, the one thing that defines western culture is it’s glaring absence of spirit, love and wisdom. Put another way, Western civilization’s guiding ethos appears to be that of ego, division and ignorance. Bred by this society to all become complacent and narcissistic; the illusionary ideologies of consumerism and nihilism have been emphasized as natural expressions of our nature. Sadly, positive end goals for our species like universal humanitarianism, ecological unity and world peace are deemed impossible to attain. If we listen to our politicians and media talking heads speak, it can be tempting to give into the negativity that pervades the world today. However, If we all do as counterculture icon, Timothy Leary suggested we do a half-century ago when he famously said “turn on, tune in, drop out”, we might ignore all the negativity and intuitively recognize that  we, as one human family, are participants in a metaphysical  war of light and dark forces. The essence of those forces are spirit and ego.

Typically, when we hear the word “war”, we may think of a conquering army, innocent people killed or the awful images of physically and emotionally broken veterans returning home from battle. However, in metaphysical reality, the meaning of war deepens. Metaphysically speaking, one could interpret all worldly phenomenon as manifestations from the spiritual plane.  It is true that all attempts to interpret reality are decidedly personal and subjective. However, an argument could be made that we are all just actors in an incomprehensibly cosmic screen play (what Hindus call Lila). This belief, as many followers of Eastern religions espouse, points to a world where we have all been divinely assigned unique roles (in physical form) in accordance with our karma. We assume these roles in a way that reflects the present interaction of all contending forces in the Universe and their quest to achieve balance.

Of course, according to this same eastern worldview, no dueling forces in the cosmos are actually in any real conflict. Light and dark forces, good and evil energies as well as ego and spirit ONLY APPEAR to be in direct conflict to us from where we are standing. In our culture of “black and white” duality, we tend to dismiss the interconnected nature of seeming opposites. In reality, dark is needed to bring light; evil must be realized to know the meaning of good; one must first be ignorant to be wise and all of us must transcend the vanity of ego before we can taste the sparkling springs of living spirit. In a metaphysical sense, then, “war” is not strictly a conflict of polar forces that takes place outside ourselves. Rather, war is also a contest between the prevailing forces of nature WIITHIN ourselves as well. This “inner war” is akin to the kind described in the epoch Hindu text: The Bhagavad Gita. In that sacred book, the great warrior Arjuna, is encouraged to fight a spiritual “war within” by Krishna, his charioteer, guru and God incarnate in disguise. To be sure, the setting of the Gita takes place on an actual physical battlefield, but it becomes clear that the real theme of this story is the war within oneself.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the divine being of wisdom and compassion, instructs his faithful disciple Arjuna on how to achieve self-realization. From the onset of this incredibly beautiful and moving scripture, it is clear that Krishna equates the pursuit of self-realization with the surrender of one’s own ego before that spirit behind the forces of nature. Of course, Krishna represents one unique and perfect manifestation of that spirit in form. It is fitting, that Krishna encourages Arjuna to give up all selfish craving and focus his devotion on him:

“All those who take refuge in me, whatever their birth, race, sex, or caste, will attain the same goal; this realization can be attained even by those whom society scorns. Therefore, having been born in this transient and forlorn world, give all your love to me. Fill your mind with me; love me; serve me; worship me always. Seeking me in your heart, you will at last be united with me.” (Bhagavad Gita)

Arjuna represents the perfect disciple through his unwavering faith and devotion to Krishna. Yet, Krishna still cautions this great warrior about the pitfalls on the path to self-realization.  In order to break free from the hellish grip of ego, one must first learn how to still their mind through meditation and cultivate an attitude of detachment from the fruits of one’s actions.

On his first point, Krishna is crystal clear as to why all sincere spiritual aspirants should try to practice meditation…to achieve inner truth and peace:

“The Supreme Reality stands revealed in the consciousness of those who have conquered themselves. Those who aspire to the state of Yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions. When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place. In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the Self reveals itself. Beholding the Self by means of the Self, an aspirant knows the joy and peace of complete fulfillment.” (Bhagavad Gita)

On Krishna’s second point, he explains to Arjuna that devoting one’s life to the path of selfless service (Karma yoga) is both the highest calling of mankind and the surest path to self-realization.  In order to selflessly serve and fulfill one’s “dharma” or divine plan, all serious men and women on the spiritual path must first renounce the fruits of their actions. In other words, all beings must learn to act without expectation of worldly rewards or acknowledgments:

“Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. Brahman is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law. Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life. You have the right to work, but never to the fruits of work. The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna, the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves. Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion.” (Bhagavad Gita)

As a culture we cling to all the external pleasures of the world that Krishna warned Arjuna about. The game of today…is wealth, power and fame. We play it to enhance our image and name. Sadly, our culture’s obsession with pursuing selfish materialistic desires just winds up creating more suffering for the world.  When you remove a sense of the sacred from life and assign it a commercial value what deeper elements remain? If the world’s rain forests disappear and endangered species go extinct, who cares? So long as western logging and mining corporations maximize profits and more wealthy businessmen grow richer. Likewise, who cares if one million civilians die from another senseless war? So long as the pockets of national leaders and oil investors’ grow fatter the horrors of war are justified. Finally, who cares if thousands of young men and women die on the streets from opioid overdoses? So long as there is money to be made off others’ addictions, we will continue to look the other way.

Fortunately, for us all, Krishna cares! Deep down, I believe we all do too! Like all great saints from every spiritual tradition, Krishna’s message is one of peace and personal transcendence. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna hands us the very spiritual weapons we will need to successfully wage war on our egos. In the end, is it really too much to ask for everyone to practice mindfulness and act selflessly? All of us are far more capable of evolving in the spirit of oneness than we give ourselves credit for!


Author Bio:

Forrest Rivers is a lover of the Earth and author of the book: The Hippie Revival and Collected Writings(https://www.amazon.com/Hippie-Revival-Collected-Writings/dp/1515396959). He lives in the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Feel free to reach out to Forrest through email: forrestrivers4@gmail.com or leave a message on his website: forrestrivers.com