Why I’m an Optimist
I have felt jubilant these past weeks on hearing the news of successful vaccines. Then, this week, on ‘V-Day’, I felt joyfully moved listening to the news report about Margaret Keenan being given the first Covid-19 jab at University Hospital in Coventry. To be sure, the pandemic with all its restrictions and losses is not over, but we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. I imagine that return to ‘normality’ will be very gradual – just as we experienced the slow accumulation of loss – loss of freedom of movement and association, of income, of opportunities and maybe even of loved ones, we will experience the joys of gradual recovery of at least some of our losses. And maybe, for a period, we won’t take our blessings so much for granted.
The pandemic is providing an extended lesson in loss and gain. The Buddha teaches equanimity – even-minded, unperturbed steadiness in the face of these two ‘worldly winds’ of loss and gain. He teaches us to temper our losses though detachment and to temper our gains through keeping one eye on their impermanence.
I think that recovery calls for celebration, for sure. There is much to celebrate. Two triumphs stand out for me – the scientific community that developed the vaccine in record time and the NHS that has been on the front line of fighting the virus and now has the humongous task of administering the most extensive vaccination programme in history. However, in the midst of the joy and celebration I wonder if I can make use of the pandemic experience to find more balance in my attitude towards loss and gain in general and edge my way towards greater equanimity in life.
I find that reflection on a teaching, attributed to Padmasambhava and sometimes described as the Four Reminders, is a great help in cultivating equanimity. The four teachings can be looked at in two pairs that balance each other beautifully. On the one hand life is a precious opportunity to awaken to genuine happiness. On the other, this body is impermanent and death is certain. These are a call to joy and delight balanced by a salutary antidote to attachment. The second pair of teachings is that this world is full of uncertainty which we cannot master, but through training we can choose to respond skilfully to whatever gains and losses life throws at us. We can face loss with dignity, confidence and ultimately with a profound sense of freedom, not dependent on circumstance. All our experience, however painful, can rebound to our happiness. Reflecting on these teachings, I wonder how could I not be an optimist!
The Four Reminders are the subject of our online City Retreat over the New Year from 30 December to 2 January, led by Bodhilila and Prajnanita. What an opportunity to come together as a Sangha and work with all the ups and downs that Covid-19 has landed us with in 2020 and to prepare for those it still has up its sleeve in 2021. Hopefully see you there!