Yesterday it was declared that we are mandated to stay inside for the entire month of April; that is another four weeks. And what about May and June? How can we see this through? I feel at a loss myself, and wonder if I should wile away time playing Fortnite with my fifteen year old or watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island or Scooby Doo. I struggle to make sense of the shutdown, the distance, the enormity of the worldwide quarantine. How are others coping? Are people taking shots of vodka, getting high, sleeping late, eating more to get by? The medicine I have come to is a teaching I picked up from the street-wise, Bu-Jew, dharma teacher Bernie Glassman on Bearing Witness.
Feeling powerless and in the grips of uncertainty, the practice of bearing witness seems most apt at this time. Bearing witness suggests to be with what is, as it is happening. It is a practice in presence, neither denying, rejecting, or ignoring the way things are. As witness, we are not separate, remote like satellites, observing from on high, but rather find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of it all. By bearing witness we feel whatever is arising whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We learn to witness disaster, uncertainty, and fear as well as the harmonious and the sublime.
In the Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths, the first is testimony to the suffering inherent in being. Quest on the spiritual path necessitates a face to face encounter with deterioration and loss. Thus, we come to bear witness to the suffering of the world. Could it be that to date we have not been looking hard and long enough at the world in pain? Daily reports on CNN, NPR, or Twitter bear witness to trials of tragedy: the infected man dying alone without the comfort of family, faces of fear at the window, lovers separated, strained marriages crumbling, coffins stacked high in the morgue. In bearing witness, we attune to a living tremor of sorrow. As a result, we build a kind of staying power to be with the collective trauma and tears of our time.
In this strange time of social distance, we do not go cold. We do not turn away from the world, dispassionate and aloof. Rather by bearing witness we come straight from the heart. Our hearts bleed concern, loving kindness, and nurturance. We acknowledge our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of all we love. In bearing witness, we garner both the resiliency and love to withstand the fate of the world, come what may.