Corona-thoughts: the virus as an alien

**Spoiler alert**  There is a twist at the end of the Watchmen. To foster unity among the nations, and avoid a nuclear apocalypse, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion. And it works: nothing beats a common enemy to create a sense of unity.

This is a common trope in many sci-fi narratives, from Independence Day to the Three-Body Problem. Bring in the aliens, and our petty fights falter in the face of the new menace.

Could this be what Covid-19 is offering us? A common, non-human enemy threatening to kill us all, and against which we could all rally?

A need for grief

As environmental collapse threatens, we need to grieve the future we thought we had, and the person we thought we would become. Grief for the plans and goals and trajectories we thought we were on, and which will not happen.

This grief is painful, but as long as we block it off, it will prevent us from integrating the truth of our situation. Leave us disconnected from the real, and each other. While, if we were to let ourselves feel the things that come with this new future, we might hope to build a new sense identity, start a new story, and imagine a new world we can build together.

But for this, we need to accept that this world is in its last gasp, and the pain that comes with it.

On repentance and Upheka

Upheka, if we practice it, creates a measure of freedom from past determinations. If collectively practiced, it might lead to a world of greater freedom. Repentance says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past. It is a narrative re-writing of the past in a present that connects to God – in hope that the future can bring absolute consolation. It comes with an overflow of emotion. Upheka meditation, in the same way, is a detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, by their own weight, will lead to positive consequences. It is anchored in the present, finding its boundless possibilities.

In a complex system, the consequences of our action are radically uncertain. Calculated efforts to control outcomes might have severe unintended consequences. Therefore, holding on to firm values becomes a better way to lead our lives. I was invited to write about my biggest fear for the future at a leadership retreat that I joined a few weeks ago. I realised that, after three years working on global catastrophic risk, I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, the deaths of billions, resource exhaustion. My fear had gone deeper, touching on the moral and spiritual consequence. Should we try to stop climate change, or reduce its effects – certainly we should. But there is another task ahead: when the consequences come, how will we live then?

Telling truth to power

It order to tell truth to power, we must understand where power lies, so we know what language to use. So far so good, but sharing the same grammar and vocabulary so we can tell truth to power, is it not a first step towards collusion? And so, rather than telling truth to power, should we not simply defiantly pretend it doesn’t exist, until it disappears on its own?

On repentance and equanimity

Repentance, if we practice enough, can liberate us from the burden of past determinations. It says, I do not want my future to be determined by my past – and believe I can get rid of whatever ruts are currently there in my life. It comes with tears, melting the solid shape of our individual past: in the moment of repentance, we are fully present with God – that is, with everything that is. New connections can be made then, and a different trajectory becomes possible.

The same is true of Upheka meditation, or the practice of equanimity: it is a deliberate detachment from the past, an appeal to take actions today that, on their own impetus, will lead to positive consequences.

A dangerous blindspot – leadership and uncertainty

I was talking with a friend a while back about her work coordinating high stakes meetings. We were discussing uncertainty – the growing need to consider it. She told me, ‘in big business and high level meetings, every minute counts. By the time you arrive there, you need to have no uncertainties or elements that are out of your control.’

I reflected afterwards: is it the case that the people running our largest organisations, because of their very function, or the dominant norms surrounding them, are plagued by an illusion of control, an illusion of certainty? Admitting uncertainty is a sign of inadequacy; acknowledging the limits of control, a sign of weakness.

Yet uncertainty, and limited control, is the basic human condition. As we see now: because a wet-market somewhere, a sneeze, a handshake, a wrong move, a political leader saying ‘don’t talk about it’, we have a global pandemic on our hands.  Certainties shake – travel is disrupted, schools closed, countries cut off. Covid-19 simply magnifies our limits. The best we can do is reduce uncertainty to some degree; what we can control is so little, compared to what eludes our capacity.

And so, if we do not accept this radical uncertainty as a premise, we live in an illusion, and everything we believe is untrue. How concerning, then, that our leaders – or so it seems – live their life in such disconnection with the real?

On Uphekka – equanimity

From September to December 2018, I will explore the Buddhist Tradition of the Brahmavihara – four virtues or ‘sublime attitudes’ and a set of associated meditation practices. I am conducting this project in parallel with Patrick Laudon in Tokyo. Each month, we will focus on one of the virtues, starting with a daily meditation on the first week, then observing its impact on our daily life, and finally reflecting on the reasons for this impact, capturing the experience in a short written reflection. This is not an attempt at embracing Buddhism or meditation, but rather, explore how inherited frameworks can apply in a contemporary setting.

Uphekka – equanimity – is the capacity to remain unaffected by the flood of emotions arising from the constant ebbs and flows of social interaction. The meditation calls a person to mind and, without breaking contact, repeats: ‘May you be responsible for your own happiness. Every creature is responsible for their own karma’.

Cold? Yes – and respectful. Uphekka warrants other people’s right to emotional independence. As my virtue-buddy Patrick underlined, it evokes the distance between a therapist and their patient: it creates an open space to reveal and process complex emotions without the fear of rejection, or the fear of dragging others down the spiral of our own despair. Uphekka captures the Shakespearean ideal presented by Hamlet – ‘Give me a man who is not passion’s slave, Horatio, and I shall hold him to my heart of hearts!’ For in the heat of passion, the perfect friend may not be they who join in our turmoil, but they who gently cool us down.

The world has its own determinism, recognises Uphekka. All living creatures suffer the consequences of their actions. This came real to me professionally during those weeks, as I leave a role I started three years ago. We finished a major project in June, leadership changed after that, but no new direction emerged – or if it did, the stars did not shine bright enough to reach from Northern Europe, where the organisation is based, all the way down to Melbourne. In the face of ongoing uncertainty, I diversified my commitments which, in turn, increased structural tension. As the year – and my current contract – came to an end, things unravelled. Should I believe in statements that I was highly valued, things would improve, and all we needed was a bit more patience – or acknowledge that the combined mechanics of distant timezones, portfolio careers, cultural differences and internal restructures had a logic of their own, making exit a better choice? Rather than strive to keep this long-distance professional relationship alive any longer, I accepted gravity, and let myself detach.

Uphekka is a melancholy virtue: it embraces the sadness of things that pass, and our incapacity to save them. Cherry blossoms that fall off the branch and decay. Mono no aware. Lacrimae Rerum. No matter what we may desire, says Uphekka, things will evolve, under the deep influence of forces we cannot resist. This applies to the world at large, and the minds of others. Best, then, to calmly sit by and repeat, ‘may you be responsible for your own happiness. I hope that you behave in such a way that the mechanical consequence of your actions will bring happiness to you.’

One of my oldest friends, a refugee from communism, once told me that the freedom to fall straight on your face is a fundamental right. This requires Uphekka. For if your failure affects me, I will deter you from taking risks; but if I can remain unaffected by your collapse, then I might let you try. Could Uphekka, then, be the condition for a more resilient world? Last Sunday, I joined a philosophical dinner. The topic was ‘peaceful revolutions’. It struck me, as I followed the conversation, that when we consider ways to prevent conflict, we tend to focus on actions – how might we stop whatever will precipitate an entire system into chaos. Meanwhile, we disregard another form of intervention: develop and encourage emotional resistance – whether to pain or boredom – and by doing so, reduce the likelihood that our social fabric will rip under pressure.