The pandemic has changed so much about our physical world — how we work, how we live, how our children are educated. Less visible, but no less profound, are the changes the pandemic is spurring in our inner world.
According to Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, Google searches for “prayer” began to skyrocket as the pandemic spread, doubling for every 80,000 new cases of COVID-19. Likewise, downloads for top Bible and Quran apps broke new records.
And writing in The New York Times, Nellie Bowles reported on the trend of spiritual consultants in the corporate world. It might seem like the premise of an “S.N.L.” sketch, but it was all too real. “Employers are finding their workers atomized and agitated, and are looking for guidance to bring them back together,” writes Bowles. “Now the sacred consultants are helping to usher in new rituals for shapeless workdays, and trying to give employees routines that are imbued with meaning.” As one consultant put it, “people are showing up in the workplace with these big deficits in themselves when it comes to belonging and connection to the beyond.”
None of this should come as a surprise. The longing to connect to something larger than ourselves is universal. We all have it. It’s the same longing I wrote about in my book, The Fourth Instinct: The Call of the Soul. The Fourth Instinct is the instinct beyond our instincts for survival, sex and power. It’s our relentless drive for meaning, for self-discovery, for self-knowledge, for becoming. It’s what connects us all — to each other and to ourselves, and it’s as deeply imprinted and encoded in us as our other three instincts, but much less discussed and understood.
It’s also much more buried — except in times of crisis, when it rises to the surface. And when we act on it, it can guide us to build a firm inner foundation of strength, calm and resilience, to liberate us from the tyranny of our fight-or-flight responses. Without this foundation, we are blown off course again and again by the multiple storms of the pandemic, racial injustice, deep uncertainty and economic losses.
We answer the call of our Fourth Instinct by going inside ourselves — a process that’s at the heart of every major philosophical and religious tradition. One of the foundations of Hinduism is the Atman, our essence, which in Sanskrit means “self” or “breath.” In Buddhism, the purpose of life is a spiritual voyage to detach oneself from the desires and needs of the outside world. Sufism, a mystical tradition of Islam, emphasizes inner enlightenment and love as the pathways to ultimate truth. Judaism also has a long mystical tradition that emphasizes inner wisdom and enlightenment. The 12th-century Kabbalah talks about using meditative practices to deepen our engagement with the divine. And in Christianity, we’re told that “The Kingdom of God is within.”
As the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly put it, “It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it.” But in the midst of our frenetic lives it has been far too easy to choke the seed and forget all the avenues available to us. All of these traditions have ways of going inside and nurturing that seed that are different, and yet very similar. They’re all forms of meditation, mindfulness or contemplative thought. In Christianity, Centering Prayer, a form of meditation, was created in the 1970s by Abbot Thomas Keating.
People are often intimidated or put off by meditation because they think it’s about having to be disciplined in marshaling your attention and not letting your mind wander. But, as Cynthia Bourgeault explains in The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind, Centering Prayer isn’t about attention but intention. When a distracting thought comes into your mind, you simply let it go, and then gently return. “The effectiveness of this method is not measured by your ability to maintain your mind in a steady state of clarity, openness, or stillness,” she writes. “It is measured by your willingness, when you find itself ‘caught out’ by a thought, to return again and again and again — ten thousand times if necessary — to that state of open receptivity.” Indeed, in a training workshop Father Keating was leading, when a nun told him, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer. In twenty minutes I’ve had ten thousand thoughts,” Father Keating replied, “How lovely — ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”
We never run out of opportunities. The problem is when we don’t take advantage of them. Even before the pandemic, the world was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Worldwide, over 264 million people were struggling with depression, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million adults had experienced some form of mental illness in the previous year. “Deaths of despair” and suicide rates have been skyrocketing. And according to a survey by Cigna, loneliness has been at “epidemic levels” in the U.S.
The pandemic has only amplified this crisis. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “depression symptoms in the U.S. were more than 3-fold higher during COVID-19 compared with before the COVID-19 pandemic.” Another study in Science Advances found that job losses and even reading pandemic-related news were linked to rising rates of stress and depression. “The pandemic,” the authors write, “represents a mental health crisis of unprecedented scope and scale.”
Part of people feeling adrift and atomized and finding themselves disconnected and in despair has been the result of our culture’s costly error of conflating organized religion with our need to answer the call of our Fourth Instinct and nourish our inner selves. The decline of organized religion has caused millions to also deny the reality of spiritual truth. But the preoccupations of our daily lives can never satisfy our deepest needs. “Atheist that I am,” philosophy professor Jesse Prinz wrote, “it took some time for me to realize that I am a spiritual person.” Or as Goethe put it, “this life, gentlemen, is far too short for our souls.”
It doesn’t matter what we call this spiritual part of ourselves, or what practices we introduce into our lives to help us connect to it, but it does matter whether we acknowledge it and incorporate it into our lives. When we don’t, we amputate from our experience both a fundamental truth and thousands of years of Western and Eastern wisdom that celebrate this part of ourselves. Not to mention some of the most profound poetry and literature. As the title character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt says, “The world behind my brow, that makes me what I am and no one else.” And it’s a huge metaphysical misunderstanding with millions of casualties proliferating all around us to forget that our strength and our happiness lie in the connection to the world behind our brow. And that indeed life is shaped from the inside out.
“Everybody worships,” said David Foster Wallace in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. “The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” We now know through the latest scientific findings that if we worship money, we’ll never feel truly abundant. If we worship power, recognition and fame, we’ll never feel we have enough. And if we live our lives madly rushing around, trying to find and save time, we’ll always find ourselves living in a time famine, frazzled and stressed.
“On one level, we all know this stuff already,” Foster Wallace added. “It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” And when we don’t, and our spiritual foundation weakens and even crumbles, we wind up in the middle of an epidemic of burnout, depression, anxiety and deaths of despair like the one we’re facing right now.
As the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” When we have learned to sit quietly in a room alone, even for a few minutes, we can maintain that inner connection that is our source of resilience whether working by ourselves or in a chaotic too-crowded house full of working-from-home and remote-schooling family members.
The need to nurture our spiritual selves isn’t some fairytale. This pre-existing inner harmony is also expressed in the universe. The scientist searches out the harmony in randomness and the unity in fragmentation — which accounts for Einstein’s remarkable observation that “without the belief in the inner harmony of the world there could be no science.” Rhythm and harmony, order and symmetry, even color and flavor, are terms regularly used by astonished scientists reporting on their discoveries — even the term “quark” was borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
Everything is connected to everything else; every thing, every molecule, every rock, every living form, even empty space, is infused by the same force. The moment we begin to change the world starts changing with us. The theoretical physicist John Wheeler was a proponent of the idea of “genesis by observership” — that by bringing our consciousness to bear when observing something, we are selecting, and in essence creating, one quantum possibility among all the countless others. “To Wheeler we are not simply bystanders on a cosmic stage; we are shapers and creators living in a participatory universe,” wrote Tim Folger in Discover. “Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself — and building itself.”
So the choices we make, and what we choose to give our attention to, literally help create the world we live in. Another, more poetic way to put it comes from Wallace Stevens’ Man with a Blue Guitar:
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
This man replied, “Things as they are
are changed upon the blue guitar.”
Things as they are are indeed changed even by small changes in perception which result in changes in behavior and, cumulatively, in large changes in culture patterns. These are challenging times. People are stressed and anxious. And that’s when this buried longing comes to the surface. When our lives are disrupted, and so much of the usual noise quiets down, we are much more likely to listen to the call of that longing embedded within us.
It is indeed true that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And whether in the life of an individual or in the life of a community, this moment of crisis, filled as it is with countless tragedies, is also the moment of the greatest opportunity for renewal.
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