“She who is centered in the Tao
can go where she wishes, without danger.
She perceives the universal harmony,
Even amid great pain,
Because she has found peace in her heart.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
There is little we would like more right now than to “go where we wish, without danger” and little more we desire than to feel centered. You can tell how long we’ve been in the underworld when memories from the before-times seem strange; I was recently recalling my first time meeting a colleague years ago, and it struck me as strange that we weren’t wearing masks. We can’t go anywhere without danger, and if anything, we feel too centered—because we’re always home. You can’t really go home if you’re always there.
What’s incongruous about this chapter is that it decouples danger and great pain. Modern Buddhists like to say that “pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional.” Physical, emotional, and mental pain is going to happen—hence the first Noble Truth, “Life is suffering”—but what we control is how we respond to it. Today’s suffering is tomorrow’s pain.
But pain conducted produces harmony. It reminds us that we are caught in a labyrinth, and gives us an Ariadne’s thread to fumble our way out so that we can see its brilliant design. The pandemic has been a tragedy, but the crisis, as the cliché goes, is also an opportunity to appreciate the reality and fragility of the world we have inherited and innovated: politically, culturally, economically, and ecologically entwined. Society is largely a conspiracy to protect its members from the truth, but the truth is just a broader, more concrete, and less nefarious conspiracy—that of life.
Life is the business of human beings and life forms breathing together in the same space, the background against which our religious and political stories appear childish things. The pandemic has laid bare the truth of our 21st century civilization, which is really the truth of civilization itself: our destiny is not to leave this plane or planet for heaven or space, but to learn how to live on it, how to breathe together with all of its inhabitants.
The great danger is that we cocoon ourselves with comforts inside the cave of conventional wisdom, which largely consists of conspiracy theories, some more benign than others. The pandemic must be the “great pain” that breaks this spell, and helps enough of us perceive the “universal harmony” that we can begin to face the music: climate change. Like our democracy, our home is not a given, but a goal.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”