The warmth of meditation to save us from virus-anxiety
Zen master Dario Doshin Girolami was interviewed by the Italian paper Il Fatto Quotidiano: “It’s not useful to distance oneself from fear. For the Buddha, sickness and death are part of life, too.”
Buddha said that life is suffering, because everything is conditioned by our mental states, by desire and aversion, by restlessness and vanity. But a pandemic has its own terrible, objective force that breaks down and crushes the lives we had imagined for ourselves. Can we escape from the effects of that violence with the help of Eastern philosophy, for example, with Zen? Dario Doshin Girolami is the abbot of the Centro Zen L’Arco—Zenmon Ji of Rome. He teaches in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition, one of the schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism. which places particular emphasis on sitting meditation, or zazen (za = sitting, zen = meditation).
Sensei (Teacher) Dario, two of the cardinal principles of Buddhism are, first, the impermanence of all things and, two, the insubstantiality of the “I.” The pandemic, however, affects us deeply—should we distant ourselves from it?
On the contrary. The pandemic shows us very clearly just how impermanent reality and our body are. As the Buddha teaches, everything is in a constant process of change. Everything lives and everything is dying. This is the Truth. It’s not a matter of distancing ourselves, but of deeply accepting it, by opening one’s heart to it. What’s more, we know that because of impermanence, this difficult time will eventually pass.
It’s hard to understand that it’s all a projection of our fear. Is the pandemic real, or not?
It is of course real, just as our fear is real. Fear is a natural reaction. All the same, it is possible to learn, through meditation, to not become hostages to fear, and to see the situation for what it is, without feeding one’s anxiety.
Buddhism and Stoicism have this in common: The Dalai Lama said, “If something can be done, do it, there’s no need to worry about it; if nothing can be done, to continue to worry about it will not help.” It’s like Seneca.
If we are stuck in traffic, what sense is there in getting angry? If we can take another street, let’s do it. But if there’s no alternative, the only effect of obsessing on negative thoughts is to make us feel even worse. This is certainly similar to Seneca’s Stoicism, but to my way of thinking, the ideal of apathia [impassivity] proposed by Stoicism lacks the kind, warm aspect of compassion that is central to Buddhism.
How does one meditate? I mean, in practice.
All you need to do is sit down on the ground with your legs crossed, or in a chair, and focus your mind on your breath. To make a stronger connection to the sensation of breathing, you count your breaths: one inhalation and exhalation counts as “one”; when you reach five, you start over from one. If you get lost, if your mind wanders, you start again from one. And you continue like this, maintaining silence and not moving. Initially, five minutes is enough; then you gradually increase the length of time to thirty or forty minutes.
What effects does this have?
The essence of meditation is to be in the present moment. No matter where the mind runs off to—with ever-accumulating mental states, obsessive thoughts, worries, and fears—the body is always in the here and now. The practice therefore consists of bringing the mind back to the body, by means of the breath. In addition to having a calming effect, it has the same characteristic as the present moment: it lasts a brief moment, and then goes.
What determines all this? Our greed? Our overweening ego, which ravages everything that exists?
The Buddha teaches that ego-driven greed is the root of all existential suffering. I don’t believe that greed generated the Coronavirus—viruses have always inhabited this planet. But the indiscriminate exploitation of the planet’s resources and the destruction of animal habitats has contributed, and will continue to contribute, to the greater diffusion of this and other viruses.
Do you think that this event reveals what reality is, according to Buddha, that is, suffering?
In the Zen perspective, reality is impermanent and has no substantial, enduring self. If we don’t adapt well to that reality, then our lives will be ones of suffering. If on the other hand, we adapt well to it, we can live this same reality with serenity. We have the choice. How would we like to live this event?
All the same, the image of the military vehicles transporting the coffins at Bergamo was traumatic.
Buddha teaches that sickness and death are part of life, they are two aspects of the same reality. It is we who separate them, and so, we suffer. We interpret sickness and death as injustices, rather than as natural events. It’s not a mistake, that a flower falls. It’s the way of things. So I didn’t find the image of the tuck with the coffins traumatic, but I did feel great compassion.
Did the image of the pope, alone in St. Peter’s Square, strike you?
Deeply. It made me think of the desolate emptiness of our society. But his words encouraged us to bear up, to not lose ourselves, to help one another as neighbors. The astonishing silence of the square represented for me an extraordinary invitation to listen, really listen, to one another, and to find our truer and more authentic nature, which, for Zen, is a luminous nature.
What does it mean, that we are all interdependent?
Interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. My breath depends on plants and the sun. Without these, I could not live. The bread I eat comes from grain (and from the sun, from rain) that someone has cultivated. Our existence depends on others. the more I understand this, the more I can open my heart to compassion.