Is it possible to listen without opinion, judgement or stories [i]? In this coronavirus pandemic, many people have strong opinions, judgement, and stories. For example:
— “This is ridiculous, and we are overacting.”
— “We have not been careful enough and are not being careful enough. This is serious!”
— “We have shut down our economy over something that isn’t that dangerous.”
— “People’s lives and health is more important than money or the economy.”
— “I’m afraid about possibly having COVID-19.”
— “I’m angry about the economic impact that this has caused for me.”
When we add opinions, judgement, and stories, we often add misperceptions as well as emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, and so on.
And when this happens, we tend to not be in a balanced mindset to interpret data, to communicate data, or to act on the data appropriately.
When we are in fear, it colors everything, especially the data!
But we are living in an unprecedented era! People are dying. Cardiac disease (the US leading cause of death) kills about 647,000 US people per year [ii] or 12,500 per week. As of this writing, during the past week of April 9-16, it was reported that about 18,000 people in the US have died due to COVID-19 [iii]. Similar statistics apply to Spain, Italy, the UK and other parts of the world. People are losing their jobs, unable to pay bills, feeling lonely and isolated, separated from close ones, unable to travel, and working with many other challenging scenarios. Some even have to cope with the loss of a loved one. Thus, this crisis is having significant effects on core aspects of our lives and affecting us financially, career-wise, family-wise, socially, and emotionally. Another major impact is on our mental health.
If our opinion is that this whole crisis is tremendously overstated, we may relax our social distancing actions, and we may interpret and communicate so called “facts” about data by passing along statistics proving that our whole society is overreacting. We may communicate the absurdity of shutting down our economy and how the cost of doing this wasn’t worth it.
If our opinion is that this is extremely serious, we may strictly enforce social distancing rules, even with spouses and loved family members. We may also interpret and communicate so called “facts” about data by passing along statistics proving that our society has not acted with as much prudence as it should have had. How could we possible value economic impact more than people?
Interestingly, the same “fact” may be used differently by various parties to support their own position or perspective. Thus, we are not only listening with predisposed opinions and judgements, but we use and manipulate data to support these opinions and judgements. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of March 3, COVID-19 had an estimated 3.4% mortality rate [iv]. Some communicate that this is very low compared with the 2003 SARS outbreak which was estimated at around a 15% mortality rate. Others say this is very high compared with the seasonal flu mortality rate of .1% [v]. Others say that these “facts” are not accurate and are taken out of context since there are so many people that we have not been tested (thus there could be many more that have the disease) and also since COVID-19 is still progressing, it is premature and to even quote mortality rates with any degree of accuracy.
So, what is the solution?
Zen is a Japanese word meaning “awareness”. Being Zen means being aware of what is happening and acting in the most appropriate manner, for instance with wisdom and compassion. It does not mean that we don’t have opinions, judgement, stories, or emotions. On the contrary, it means that we are aware of our opinions, judgements, stories, and emotions. And in the process of witnessing these objectively, they tend to dissolve, and we are able to act more wisely. Thus, as we practice Zen, we can move away from reacting unconsciously based on negative habitual emotional patterns.
So, with these challenges that we face in the COVID-19 crisis, let’s be aware of our opinions, judgements, stories, and emotions. What opinions and judgements do I have? Am I feeling isolated? Am I feeling insecure? Am I feeling physically contracted? Am I feeling relieved to have some space in my life? Whatever the sensation and/or feeling is, just feel it; be aware of it; be with it! This is Zen. This is why it is important to take time, even a minute to just stop and feel what we feel. We tend to not want to be with these feelings and instead hide them, suppress them, ignore them, medicate, or get fixated on them. After all, they are often uncomfortable. Yet, if we can observe them objectively, then, when we look at data, for instance from TV news, social media, or from other sources, we may be able to first really listen to the data without automatically jumping to opinions, judgements or stories. This is actually very difficult to do since our brain is trained to accept data and then make judgements (I like this, I do not like this) and then leap to stories (this means…).
Zen is non-polarized. Being Zen means being non-dual, being centered, being willing to see many perspectives and thus seeing the whole picture more realistically. Two COVID-19 trains of thought are that:
- This whole situation is blown out of proportion and the measures taken are excessive.
- We are not doing enough to take care of this serious situation.
Is it possible that both statements have some truth? If you find yourself leaning towards one of these statements or one side, then see if you can truly step to the other side and appreciate it. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Being with opposites is Zen. This also relates to what is referred to as the ‘middle path’, or in other words, not being entrenched too much on one side. In Zen, you can say any statement and then say the opposite statement and they can both be claimed as true (and both false). Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and humanitarian declared, “The opposite of a great truth is another truth.” This relates to the Zen idea of nonduality. When we pick a side, we tend to be polarized and we are not centered. If we can take a middle approach and honor various perspectives, then we are more likely to see the whole picture better and take wiser actions.
In Zen, there is a tradition of asking questions called “kōan” that is designed to bring us into deeper consciousness and awareness. For example, classic questions are “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” at a deep level of understanding and awareness. It turns out to be challenging to answer since we are not our name, what we do for a living, any role we play, or even our body since perhaps there is more to who we are than our physical presence since all these expressions are transient. A classic answer is “Not knowing!”, meaning that there are infinite possibilities, and this leads us to a more open state of mind.
This “not knowing” applies to our COVID-19 disease. There is so much we don’t know about this pandemic. Many so-called “facts” go viral on the internet that are not at all factual and misinformation seems to be rampant. People are posting many unfounded claims such as “Oregano Oil Proves Effective Against Coronavirus,” or posting about a hoax stating that the US government had created and patented a vaccine for coronavirus years ago, and this was shared with nearly 5,000 Facebook users [vi]. Do we have rich enough test data on COVID-19 to make accurate predictions? One news report showed statistics claiming that the predicted number of estimated deaths from COVID-19 has been wildly inaccurate and that we need much more test data to have a better idea about what to expect [vii]. So perhaps, it may be wise to sometimes acknowledge that we just don’t know! But we often want certainly and security. Be Zen. Be comfortable with the discomfort that we simple don’t know information about COVID-19, that many sources are biased, that many data “facts” are taken out of context, that many use data to promote their own interests, and that we don’t know a great number of other things about COVID-19 as well as about life in general.
But how long will this “not knowing” last? Again, we don’t know that either. And yet, in Zen, there is an important expression, “This too shall pass”. This relates to an important point that life and all of its manifestations are impermanent. Knowing that things change can relieve pressure.
Many scholars have said that Zen is the marriage of Wisdom and Compassion. The word Wisdom comes from ‘wis’ “to see” and “dom”, “to do”[viii], thus with wisdom, one sees what is happening and acts appropriately. This wisdom linked with compassion and love describes the essence of being Zen.
Finally, Zen is about being relaxed and not over-reacting. There is another disease happening these days that may be more harmful than COVID-19: stress! Being overly stressed leads to confused and distorted actions. For instance, in our current situation, not being careful enough which could lead to fatalities, or being too cautious could also have a high price in other ways. Ironically, stress and COVID-19 are related. When we’re stressed, our immune system is weakened, and we are more susceptible to infections such as COVID-19 [ix].
To summarize, being Zen helps us use and communicate data much more effectively and live better. So why not be Zen: aware, centered, open, relaxed, wise and loving.
Is it possible to just listen without opinion, judgement or stories?
[i] This is a paraphrased version of the first question (kōan) that is used in the Hollow Bones Zen community and a quote from Roshi Junpo Dennis Kelly.