Riding the Wave — Virus Denial

Ed and Orly Wiseman recently made a film about our counseling program and how we have introduced the Steps-A Program of Jim and Liz Mazza in our schools. The Steps-A Program offers a structure for introducing students to the skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to improve coping and reduce risk of more serious challenges developing.

Ed and Orly called the film Riding the Wave after one of the DBT skills taught in Steps-A Program. It’s one that many of our students embrace. In the current crisis, we are all riding the waves of anxiety.

            I certainly am.

The question is how do we work with our anxiety, how do we live with our anxiety? Sometimes the waves last a while.

            On the second day of working remotely, I read Steve DiSalvo’s reflection on his first day of online teaching. Steve is a high school English teacher and also a gifted musician.  He was sharing the experience of meeting remotely with his classes and especially his music students, many of whom brought their instruments and shared their music with their peers. I could feel Steve’s joy in sharing his music with his students. I could feel the positive energy that flowed from his remote engagement with his students, felt the healing energy, envied the virtual normalcy. I smile, and then go back to riding my waves of anxiety.

            I talk on the phone with Big Nick, a fellow Bucks member, about a possible real estate deal. Richmond Prep, our fourth charter school, is scheduled to open in a year and a half — September 2021. We are looking for a home for the school, and the virus threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the works. How will we get this done?  Big Nick is still going into his office. Our schools have been closed for three days. Big Nick still shakes hands with people. Even before working from home, I had begun doing elbow bumps. I envy Nick’s ability to deny the danger. I smile. I go back to riding my wave.

            I know at that moment that I wish I could escape from the awareness of my current experience, and all the uncertainty that surrounds this virus pandemic. I envy Big Nick. I want to be back in my normal routine. For weeks before the school closing, I was being encouraged to work from home. My age, — I’m 77, — puts me in the high risk category. I thought about it. But I knew I felt better at work. Denial feels better in the moment.

            There is a Zen story about two Zen masters, both named Hyakujo, both abbots of a  monastery on the same mountain, both taking the name of the mountain, but separated by a very long span of time .The Zen story calls it 500 fox lives.

            A long time ago, the earlier Hyakujo was asked if enlightened people were free from cause and effect. He answered, “Yes,” and fell into a life of fox, lived 500 lifetimes in a fox body. To me, this early Hyakujo seemed to be offering the possibility of denial.

I have never appreciated denial. And I never appreciated this earlier Hyakujo. I have never thought of myself as a stick-your-head-in-the-sand-type ostrich.

Holocaust deniers terrified me. They were the Nazi underground who would murder me given half a chance.

The climate deniers terrify me too, but not so much for me, — I am old enough to die from other causes before the climate crisis catches up with me, — but for my daughter Jamie who is young enough to suffer from the all-too-pervasive denial.

            But right now,  I want to be a virus denier. Or at least, I envy the deniers.

At home, off from the incredible busyness of business as usual in the schools = one meeting after another – the pace is a little slower. That busyness would keep my mind off the threat of the virus. Even in meetings at home, teleconferencing, even in the midst of discussion, I see our home walls in the background. The virus is ever present. I am no denier, but I am wishing that I was. I would like to forget. I know I am feeling a huge amount of stress because I feel it in my teeth, even though when I notice, my teeth are not clenched. They must be stressed when I am not noticing.

Five hundred fox lives later, the second Hyakujo offers an alternative answer. The enlightened person does not ignore cause and effect. My teacher, Zen Master Bernie Glassman, in teaching about the realization and actualization of the enlightened way told us, “I am a scientist. I know that smoking cigars is bad for my health, can cause cancer and other life threatening conditions. That is realization. I keep smoking. I have not actualized what I have so clearly realized.” Cigar smoking no doubt contributed to Bernie’s illness and too-early passing. Denial is a trap into which we all fall.

I never appreciated the early Hyakujo until now. We are all subject to cause and effect, we will all sometimes be frightened, and we will all fall into denial. But there is another possibility, another side of the story along with not ignoring cause and effect.

Zen practice gives us tools to notice falling into denial, enables us to wake up. Living in the moment, I am free from cause and effect (although that is only one side of the story). Not ignoring cause and effect, it seems I am washing my hands all the time. Still trying to get out for daily walks, I am avoiding people who are passing, trying to make sure I can stay six feet away. As time goes on, taking precautions and living with cause and effect is becoming easier.

Zen practice is all about impermanence. Roshi Jishu taught me to sit still with my unpleasant feelings, my fears, my demons, as they arose while I was sitting on my cushion. Sit still, breathe. The feeling will pass. Pain in knee. Anger at the teacher. All feelings will pass. Sadly perhaps, good feelings pass as well. Today I glimpse a second side.

On and off the cushion, I make use of a meditation practice which I learned vicariously from Pema Chodron, a successor of Trungpa Rinpoche. This practice, tonglen, at first seemed very counterintuitive to me. Stressed by fear, I practice breathing in the fear. I think intuitively that I should breathe out, get rid of, the noxious feeling that is stressing me. In tonglen, I breathe in Fear and I breathe out Joy. Breathing in my fear and the fears of the world, breathing out joy, I smile. Big smile. In the moment of just this, things as they are. I smile. Just joy. No cause. No effect. No denial. Just joy. In this moment, free from cause and effect.

Riding the wave, living hunkered down is becoming normal. There is joy in being home. And there is fear. And there is even an occasional flash of envy of the deniers. Maybe they are at less risk than me. I am doing what I can at my age to get through this safely. Breathing in fear, breathing out Joy. Enjoying this moment at home.

I smile and go to wash my hands.