They need not dominate our minds, that’s my kind of title. I happened upon this work by C.S. Lewis while perusing the web this week in search of inspiration and allies in cultivating wholeness. I’m aware of Lewis, but not familiar with him or his work.
The they referred to in the title is nuclear weapons, and the piece was written in 1948 in response to the new existential crisis of living with the reality that humans and all forms of life could be wiped from the face of the earth with the push of a button. Lewis reminds the reader that humans have been living with the threat (and experience) of mass extinctions since the beginning of time, and that the inevitability of death, even of a very hideous death, is with us at all times; therefore, we should not let this new way of dying interfere with our ability to carry on with being human and doing what humans do to create meaningful and fulfilling lives. Of course, he says it much more elegantly in nearly as few words, I encourage you to read the original.
Not being familiar with Lewis’s body of work, and having found this on a website I was unfamiliar with, (one that is definitely on the cutting edge of advocacy for radical environmental justice), I decided to Google the title. I was not disappointed. Unsurprisingly, this quote is making the rounds as it seems particularly salient to the coronavirus pandemic. Not everyone is happy about it. Apparently, some people are concerned that Lewis was asking us to place the potential of a nuclear holocaust in the old denial bucket and just pretend life has not been altered. Therefore, the logical association is that people who are posting this essay are also advocating that the virus is beyond our control so we should just pretend the pandemic is nothing to be concerned about and to carry on with yesteryear’s normal.
This reaction did surprise me. It was not at all how I interpreted the advice. I saw this as a reminder not to let fear dominate my mind. Particularly the fear of death, as it is all around us, and always has been. While not familiar with Lewis, I am familiar with Buddhist practices for training the mind, and a central goal in these practices is cultivating an ever-present awareness of impermanence and the inevitability and unpredictability of death. Far from instilling a party-on-dude mentality, the Buddhist believe that these practices will motivate us to live each day with purpose, to live for our higher selves, letting go of petty concerns and to focus on what is truly important in our lives.
Taken out of context, I can see how people might interpret a call to change our relationship to death as dangerous and just plain weird. However, placed within the larger framework of an entire lifetime and a life’s purpose, and integrating death awareness with dedication to cultivating compassion and alleviating suffering, the power of the practices as whole become apparent.
So, if we choose not to let fear dominate our minds, what do we replace it with? Well, compassion of course. We can use the specific suffering associated with the pandemic, including the suffering of fear, experienced by ourselves, our loved ones, and most of the conscious world, to generate a very deep and intimate sense of compassion.
Then, from compassion, we can tap into and identify those qualities that we possess that are exactly what the world needs for us to bring forth and release. A fearful mind is a mind in a state of fight, flight or freeze. A compassionate mind is a mind in a state of approach. A combination of a mind that aims to alleviate suffering and a heart that can connect and hold fear, pain, anger, and despair leads to unlimited possibility of survival, fortitude, and yes, even thriving.
Lewis can be interpreted as encouraging us not to let nuclear weapons dominate our mind, and I cannot speak for him, but his writings speak to me with the wisdom of not letting the fear of nuclear weapons, or the fear of coronavirus, or any newly discovered ways of dying from dominating my mind.
I’m grateful to the Buddhist meditation practices for guiding us on how to use suffering to cultivate compassion. This inspiration has helped me create a new meditation, based on the classic formula for cultivating compassion, and extending this into an exercise in identifying the qualities that arise within me while feeling that compassion and then to translate those feelings into remembrances, gratitudes, and actions for being of service. You can join me in this practice via guided video here, and audio-only for download here. Although these practices come from the Buddhist tradition, there is nothing asked of the practitioner that would go against another faith-tradition or of no faith whatsoever.