Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche_Light in Times of Darkness: Three Reflections

Light in Times of Darkness: Three Reflections

Usually we take our life pretty much for granted. We go along for years, moving through our days propelled by habit. We go on like this until our daily routine becomes quite mechanical.

We wake up to the sound of our alarm. We brush our teeth and put on our clothes, head out to work, and before long it’s time to pick up our kids from school. We go home for dinner or out with friends, then we’re tired and go to sleep. The weekend comes and we’re off to the park or beach to have fun.

Then here comes Mr. Monday and once again we wake up to that annoying alarm. We repeat the same ritual for years without a break, without questions.

A New Kind of Alarm for A New Day

Now, quite unexpectedly, starting sometime in December, we were awakened from our usual routine by a different kind of alarm: this global pandemic. This alarm has abruptly cut our routine. Now almost every community in our world is somehow affected by this pandemic.

Now we can no longer wake up to the same annoying Monday morning alarm. But we can wake up to this new kind of alarm. We can start a new day and create a new routine in this new space.

Being in this new space is a little bit like going back to the very beginning, the starting point. Now we have a clean slate. Here we have such a vast sense of openness, rawness.

But having all of this space is a little scary, isn’t it? When there is a lot of space in a conversation, it’s kind of uncomfortable. So these days we feel a sense of groundlessness and an element of fear because we’ve been stripped of our usual routine.

It is as though you are preparing for a big meeting or an important job interview, when suddenly all of your clothes fall off. All of your clothes just drop to the floor: your tie, your jacket, gone. You feel quite naked!

In that kind of moment we really don’t know what to do. We face the unexpected reality. There’s a little sense of groundlessness, of not knowing, that creates fear. And that’s fine. That’s okay.

This space, this openness, so raw and naked, is the great opportunity for a new beginning. But the opportunity is only a condition. The real opportunity is you. You yourself are the opportunity.

We all know it’s been very difficult and challenging for everyone to be in this lingering, dark situation, so to speak, where we cannot go out and do things. We can’t be close and hang out with our friends and family. But if you think about it, do we really want to be so close with our family and friends all of the time? It’s interesting.

Clearly we can’t go on with our usual lifestyle. So we are facing this difficult situation in many parts of the world now in lockdown, where people are observing social distancing. Many of us are feeling isolated and lonely due to social distancing. And feeling bored, not being able to go out and do things.

It’s been a bit of a shock, to be sure. But this shock is our wake-up alarm. When you wake up with an alarm, it’s kind of a shock and you’re a little bit startled.

Many people are also feeling anxious. We don’t know where we will go from here. The future is uncertain. But if we contemplate a little, we realize that the future has always been uncertain. We tend to think it’s predictable: “Wednesday I’ll get up and go to work.” It may seem to be predictable, but in fact the future is uncertain. And it’s always like that.

Growing Closer in the Heart

But perhaps in this new beginning we can find a greater future. The future doesn’t have to be completely uncertain. We can make the future from what we do today.

Whatever we decide to do today, it matters. Because if we do it wisely and with a sense of kindness, if we engage in meaningful action, we can actually create a better future. What will that future be like? We can see it in what we are doing today. We have a great chance here to create a better future from this new beginning. So don’t worry!

We may be feeling kind of down and isolated because of the six-feet rule. But if we take this opportunity to do a little contemplation –– if we can be wise and go kind –– perhaps we can grow closer in the heart. I’m not asking you to go closer physically. But in our heart, in our mind, it’s possible. We can actually begin to feel closer to one another than before.

This six-feet rule is giving us a great chance to look at our mind’s habits, tendencies, and impulses. The social distancing policy is urging us to reflect more seriously on our relationships. So it’s a great opportunity we have here.

Instead of getting irritated, we can use this situation in a positive way. We can already see that it’s teaching us about our general misconceptions. What do we mean when we say we’re “close” to someone? It’s not measured in feet or in a physical distance of meters, is it?

Now we can consider what closeness, including physical closeness, really means. Social distancing gives us a chance to feel internally close, to feel the preciousness of someone who is “out there.”

If we are measuring how close we are to someone, it is measured by our heart. It is the genuine love or kindness we feel towards someone. From that point of view, we’re always close to those we want to be close to.

So this social distancing of six feet or 1.5 meters cannot actually make us more distant from each other. If anything, it’s bringing us closer.

In most modern cities, when you walk outside you naturally keep this distance of six feet anyway. We never really want to be too physically close to people. We don’t want to be that physically close to our friends, let alone strangers. Before social distancing, if we were taking public transportation, given the choice, we would prefer to sit six feet away from people and be alone. And we would enjoy it!

But the strange thing happening now, maybe it’s the pandemic in the air, is that now we want to be close to people, even strangers. We can clearly see how this mind works, can’t we? It’s kind of a rebellious mind, Rebel Buddha.

So it’s a great time to reflect on how this social distance of six feet or 1.5 meters will actually bring us closer. Maybe a while ago we didn’t want to see our mother-in-law. And now we are longing to see her.

How Solitude and Retreat Time Support Your Mental Health

So we’re feeling kind of isolated and lonely in this quarantine situation. But perhaps we could develop a better habit, of enjoying this time as a time to be with oneself, or have some “me time.”

From a Buddhist perspective the quarantine, or isolation, is like meditation time or retreat time. We call it solitude. The dharma teachings usually say that solitude is actually positive for you. Because it’s a time to connect more deeply with ourselves.

It’s true that being in solitude can be challenging. But it’s also an opportunity for what we call meditation, for working with our mind both physically and mentally. Physically, we can do yoga or tai chi, and mentally, we can do different kinds of concentrations and exercises. Engaging in such practices can be a great support for us to derive benefit from this time of solitude.

Solitude can rejuvenate your mind and recharge it.

Even your phone needs to be alone for a little bit, in order to function well, doesn’t it? Your phone cannot be with you all of the time, 24/7. It needs a little solitude. You connect your phone to the cable, the power source, and then leave it alone for a while. Let it have some alone time.

Our human mind needs alone time too, doesn’t it? It needs time to recharge and rejuvenate. And our current situation is a powerful time for doing that.

I read this article recently describing some research on the effect of solitude. Researchers found that solitude, a little time being alone, is actually very good for your mental health.

This research says that teenagers who spend a moderate amount of time alone during the day are better adjusted, that they do much better psychologically as well as in terms of achievement. They studied indicators such as depression, teacher ratings, problem behaviors, and grade point average.

The teenagers who spent some time alone felt less self-conscious, reported a higher level of concentration, and had lower rates of depression and alienation. They reported feeling better overall and also felt better about being alone.

So maybe we can use this time of isolation as solitude. Maybe we can take advantage of this time to get all these positive points to improve our mental health. We might begin to enjoy solitude. Then we can say bye-bye to loneliness. That could be a good song lyric: “Bye-bye loneliness.”

These times are giving us a chance to re-examine our mental habits and routines. At the same time, this situation gives us a great insight into how interconnected, or interdependent, we are with each other.

Even while we are longing to get back to our usual sense of normalcy, it’s also vital that we take advantage of this opportunity. We need to see things clearly, bringing a sense of kindness and wisdom to this situation, so that we live our life meaningfully. If we do this, we can have a great, new beginning.

We are all in this together. The world has never been so united.

Taking Advantage of Our Opportunity

This is a great opportunity for us, but it’s kind of a forced opportunity. Isn’t that nice? Usually we have to look so hard for opportunity but this time they forced it on us!

But if we only see it as a forced solitude, or forced distancing, we will not be able to reap the great benefit of this situation. So instead of seeing it as someone forcing solitude on you, you can see it as opportunity knocking on your door. Opportunity is there, ready and waiting.

It’s a good time to do a reality check on our habits and tendencies, our mind and our world.

Usually we engage in our daily life as if it’s a mechanical routine and we tend to get a little bit robotic. Ordinarily we don’t question our minds or do much reflection. As a result, our lives function in a kind of darkness. And sometimes we can see that; we’re not stupid. We see that and yet we have a hard time finding the courage to break that habit.

But right now, in this very moment, the global pandemic is forcing us to break that habit. Now. It’s helping us to be, almost accidentally, a kind person. For example, we wear a mask to protect ourselves from getting sick, but accidentally it also protects others from catching any disease we may unknowingly carry. There’s a kind of accidental kindness going on there.

The pandemic is also helping us develop some nice positive habits such as washing our hands. In the future we won’t have to worry about shaking hands with anyone because we’ll know they have clean hands.

So now we have this chance to break the chain of our robotic habits. At the same time, we seem to have a little difficulty using this opportunity. Because we don’t like being forced, right? We want freedom. And we want everything to come from us.

But in the end it’s the same. While it may seem we’re being forced, whether or not we take advantage of the situation is entirely our decision. Nobody can force us to do anything and nobody should. We decide.

So we are now presented with the opportunity of quarantine. It is spread out like a great buffet of opportunity before us, and we get to decide what we want to eat. Our whole experience depends on our minds’ outlook and attitude toward the situation. Whether we are in the midst of a global pandemic or not, as long as we don’t work with our mind, we will experience pain.

I heard this beautiful line on a TV show the other day: “There’s a pain that uses you, and there’s a pain that you use.”

Our whole experience depends on our mind, our mental strength.

Remember when we had the choice to go out and connect with the whole world? We kept asking for more privacy and personal time. Now that we have this personal time and so much space, we feel lonely and ask our friends, “Why didn’t you connect with me?” And our friend says, “Oh, the last time we talked you asked for personal space.” It goes round and round and round like that.

So it’s important to change our outlook to welcome this opportunity to work with our mind and develop its strengths. This is the key to overcoming any challenge, loss, or painful struggle.

As they say, when you lose something in your life, don’t lose the lesson.

So let’s open our arms to welcome this change!

Three Points for Reflection

1. First, acknowledge the fear. Instead of running away from fear, or reacting with fear, it is important to work with the fear directly. To do this, first we need to acknowledge and accept the experience. The more we accept the fear, the more we can actually appreciate and enjoy the fear, believe it or not.

The more we fight and run away from fear, the more suffering we have. So “working with fear” means directly facing the fear and allowing ourselves to experience it –– somatically and psychologically.

As we do this, it’s important to look at fear without adding the label “fear.” We just stay with the sensation, just the feeling itself.

Fear itself isn’t actually a problem. But when we add the label, the term, or the concept of fear, then it becomes a problem. The original experience of fear itself is our intuitive intellect. It’s a form of wisdom. And it’s a good thing to have this intuitive kind of fear.

When you get too close to the edge of a cliff, your body reacts with fear and you naturally step back. We’re not labeling it. We just feel it and instantly step back. That’s good! We shouldn’t get rid of that kind of fear.

This intuitive fear itself, without any term or label added, is not the problematic state of mind we call “fear.”

Fear of fear is the real fear.

Isn’t this the case? You can see this when you have an appointment with the dentist. Once you’ve arrived at the office and you’re sitting in the dentist’s chair, it’s okay. But when you look at your calendar a week beforehand and see your appointment with the dentist is coming up, there’s so much fear!

So it is our concept of fear that we need to transform. In order to work with that, it becomes really important for us to reflect on the reality, the impermanent nature, of our external and internal world.

So much of our fear of fear is connected with the idea of change. Sometimes we don’t want to change and fear comes up. Even when we do want to change, we may fear the unknown aspects: what will life be like –– what will “I” be like –– after this change?

But when we understand the reality of impermanence, we know that change is not optional. There’s no form saying: “If you want change, click here and if you don’t want change, click here.” We need to reflect on that. As everything is in the nature of change, there’s no real sense of full control.

Change is taking place all of the time, in every moment. We can’t control that. Change remains inevitable. Due to the nature of impermanence, you can’t predict anything 100% precisely. In reality, things are more like chaos theory, where even a slight change can have a big impact.

2. Second, we need to understand our interdependence. This pandemic situation has made it so clear how interconnected we are, and how dependent we are on each other.

It’s always been like that. The reality is interdependence. The Buddha taught that. We have often had a hard time seeing it, but now we can easily see the connection between ourselves and all of the other people we depend on. We’re more aware of our food sources, of farms and farmers, grocery stores and workers. Makers of toilet paper. All are very important to us.

Now we really appreciate the Amazon drivers, the doctors and nurses. We’re all interconnected and we see how important each one of us is.

We may have held a misconception about our independence, that we were somehow existing independent of others. But at times like these when our interdependence becomes so clear, our sense of self and other, us and them, can finally break down. We can have the clear realization:

Our survival depends on one another.

We can see that we have a kind of responsibility to each other. If we can understand the nature of our interconnectedness or interdependence, we can see the wise truth.

3. Third, let’s cultivate kindness and compassion. Intelligence and interdependence must walk hand-in-hand together.

Kindness, compassion, is the wise intelligence of interconnection in action.

When you feel a sense of concern for someone else’s challenge, difficulty, and pain, it creates a kind of spaciousness and openness in your heart. There is a magnanimity and resiliency in your heart, or your mind. Feeling this open, spacious sense of kindness, compassion and love, you become much more capable of dealing with your own suffering.

On the other hand, if you close your heart to others and relate to every situation purely from a self-centered view, then even the smallest problem will become enormous. Allowing yourself to feel this kindness or compassion or love, actually creates a greater sense of space in your heart, a sense of freedom.

This kindness or love should not have any cause. For example, if you say, “I love you because . . . ” there’s a problem there.

We don’t need a reason to be kind and loving. We need to be kind to others without a “cause.”

So let’s try to practice kindness towards everyone during this pandemic situation. Let’s be generous and compassionate to one another.

In the Emotional Rescue book there is a section called “Twenty-four Hours of Kindness” (It begins on page 114). Let’s try to do that, just for one day. You don’t have to be in retreat for 24 hours. Just try to bring a sense of kindness and love into your day, for 24 hours. There are specific exercises in the book to help you do that.

Isolation is a great opportunity for meditation.

I saw this quote: “Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.” Right now we may feel we’re having to give up many things in our life. But let’s see how we can use this time positively, with a positive attitude. Let’s see how we can reap great benefit from it.

Please be wise. Listen to the experts, scientists, doctors, and all of the wonderful guidelines we’ve been given.

Go kind. Be helpful and supportive to everyone around you who needs support and help. Wear your mask! That’s being kind. Wash your hands. That’s going kind.

And live fully. Live your life fully. You don’t have to stop. Life definitely hasn’t stopped. Life has not been locked down. So live fully, make the best use of it. Enjoy!

You are all in my heart and my prayers. Please stay healthy and strong, be wise, go kind, and live fully.


These teachings were originally given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in a program hosted by Kamalashila Institute on May 5, 2020.