Have you ever been there when someone is dying? If you have (and depending on the nature of the death) you may have noticed the phenomenal quality of love when death is close. When loved ones assemble in witness of a life’s twilight hours, love takes form and becomes, for some time at least, a palpable, almost personified presence. ‘Love was always love’, writes Gabriel Garcia Marquèz in his celebrated novel Love in the Time of Cholera, ‘any time, any place, but it was more solid the closer it came to death’.
As a world-wide community we find ourselves in a state of virtual vigil at the deathbed of many, many people, both known and unknown to us. The inability to assemble makes sorrow more acute and more lonely. In grief and in love we are turned inside-out, our fleshy vulnerability exposed, raw, howling for human contact. If we are lucky and mindful, even as the scar tissues begin to form, we can retain the direct empathy that accompanies such open-heartedness.
As we stand witness at the demise of much that we have known and accepted and expected, a sharpened awareness of the trembling fragility of our societal structures underpins our everyday actions. Our cultural and political architecture, our hypocrisies, our complicities, our inequalities and everything we take for granted, is laid bare. What and who we love and value, and how, has become poignant and tangible on a global scale.
Space and time have changed their meaning. They are stretching and bending, contracting, expanding and aligning in unusual ways; some pleasurably, some dragging along a heavy pack of frustration and longing. We are removed from one another physically, spatially, over an unknown period of time, and it hurts in very many ways. Yet as a species we are displaying more presence of awareness perhaps than ever before. Social isolation and distancing, as a great act of solidarity and self-discipline, has demonstrated increased, and increasing, awareness in human thought, speech and action. We are experiencing an unprecedented shift in consciousness; from individual to collective, from isolated to interconnected.
The many physical, emotional and economic hardships that this virus and the subsequent prolonged lockdown are causing are lamentable, and for many are utterly tragic. But a stripping back of everything but essential human activity has left a space. An external space that nature is recovering and inhabiting with abundance and abandon. Cleaner air and oceans; a proliferation of flora and fauna of all kinds, in environments more conducive to their success; this is surely something to safeguard, to cultivate, to insist upon maintaining?
Our contemporary shared experience of opening spaces developing hand in hand with enhanced awareness and healthy habitation is entirely consistent with yogic processes. Indeed, the process of stripping life back to its essential elements feels profoundly familiar to anyone engaged in a daily spiritual practice. Through a disciplined practice of āsana (posture) and prānayāma (control of breath/life force), we are not creating new spaces, but rather discovering and cultivating what was always there; tapping into something that usually we are too busy, too occupied with external affairs, to notice.
Movement into and within and out of a series of archetypal postures, or breaths, invites us to inhabit an exponential internal spaciousness (ākāśa). In that space resides freedom of choice (svātantrya). So how do we choose to respond to our conditions? What do we maintain and cultivate, and what we discard and move on from? Through this conscious sorting process emerges an enhanced experience of embodied awareness. ‘We are love’s body’, writes Nan Shepherd, ‘or we are undone’.
From the more spacious viewpoint in which we are now collectively situated, the component parts of our human society can be seen for what they are. Rampant consumption, ecological destruction and the kind of gross economic expansion that benefits the richest few have, for the moment, reduced or ceased. Currently the poorest and most vulnerable are suffering the most. We have proven that complete systemic change is possible, feasible, practical. And now we can make it just, if we find that something worth insisting upon.
A friend wrote to me recently ‘may you journey out and journey in…may everything rise’. Her words led me back to some of twelfth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart: ‘What a man takes in by contemplation, that he pours out in love’. Let’s decide now then, from inside looking out and in the painful, shameful exposure of our defective structures, what to cultivate and what to discard. Let’s allow our grief-ripped hearts to continue pulsing openly, in a unified rhythm. Let’s balance our actions with proper contemplation, with compassion, and be ready to implement the kind of transformation we want to see, inside and out. This is our opportunity, individually and collectively. Let’s take it.