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In the world of spiritual support and mental health, there has been a big push to offer services online to help people cope with the sudden change and loss spurred by the COVID-19 crisis. Lama Rod Owens is one meditation teacher who has begun offering daily meditations and dharma talks on social media and through his online sangha, Bhumiparsha, which he co-founded in 2018 with Lama Justin von Budjoss. A graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, Owens is the co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, and the author of the forthcoming Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger.
Owens also has wisdom to share for those feeling alone at this time. He spent three years “socially distanced” on retreat in upstate New York as part of his training as a lama in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Tricycle recently sat down with Owens via video conference to talk about how we can work with the challenges and consolations of the pandemic from a tantric perspective.
During your three-year retreat, what did you learn about the effects of solitude on the psyche? Normally, we stay busy and moving and distracted all the time. Now we’re in this period where many people aren’t working; they’re sitting around, and they’re forced to deal with their minds. People might also be struggling with boredom. I had to confront that [reality] strongly on retreat. I learned to give everything space, which is the root of my teaching right now. I [learned to] look at boredom and say, OK, there you are. Same for the pain or the suffering or trauma that came up: OK, there you are. Welcome, and here is a lot of space for you to roam in.
I also experienced a kind of heartbreak. It was an intense period of learning how to have gentleness, patience, and kindness. I learned how to be alone with myself, which meant I had to work through the trauma and the hate and all the ways I struggled to love myself. In order to sit with myself, I had to unpack all the histories and narratives [that affect my life].
You’re saying that there are gifts that come from practicing radical self-acceptance in solitude. Yet that’s not easy. The tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, is about doing the hard work while we have the chance—for example, contemplating death and dying [while we’re still alive]. Right now, there is a tremendous amount of heartbreak, trauma, and mourning. This is an apocalyptic moment. The veil has been ripped. We may be seeing capitalism in a different light, or seeing the inconsistencies and lack of care and ability in our governments. We also may be seeing that these systems don’t care about us—so we have to care about each other. In a sense, we are dying, but we’re also preparing to be reborn. That’s what excites me about this—that we have this incredible opportunity to reset and re-emerge into something new. And even though we’re sitting in place in quarantine, we’re changing. The whole world is changing.
But we didn’t choose to go into lockdown, and that lack of agency can negatively impact what could otherwise be an opportunity. Most people have never trained in quarantine or sheltering in place, and many of us don’t have the skills to work with what it means to be isolated.
We also may not realize that this is a period in which we are accumulating vast amounts of trauma. When quarantine ends we won’t just transition, we’re going to need to go through a re-acclimation period, and some of us may need mental health therapy during this adjustment. Right now, we’re just trying to deal with the moment. We’re trying to survive, and take care of people, and avoid getting sick, or manage sickness. Because of this, we may not have the capacity to deal with post-pandemic right now or envision a new future. And that’s OK.
You mentioned this pandemic has caused certain people to see our systems of government in a different way—and perhaps made evident the inequity in our systems. How can we support people who are in unfair positions? I’m feeling sort of helpless at home—I have energy to mobilize and want to be a source of support, but I don’t want to cause more harm in my efforts. Exactly. It’s a conundrum for many of us. For me, I have to trust that I can work from the place where I am. Wherever we find ourselves, we have to live there, for now, and do the work that’s been given to us in those locations. When we move out of the pandemic into this post-pandemic space, we can start to do something different. If we are sitting in a lot of privilege, the question may be: How am I going to emerge from this with a new relationship to my resources? How am I going to engage in the work of actually deconstructing a system that has created this kind of hierarchy that I have enjoyed?
As I’ve said before, we’re not all going to make it [through this pandemic]. I hate to use a cliché but, that’s life. And that’s not an excuse—life and what Buddhists call samsara isn’t supposed to be fair. There is suffering here and karma that informs the experiences that we’re having. No one deserves the suffering, but we’ve also contributed to it. We’re not helpless bystanders.
From what I understand of karma, it’s not what happens to us, as much as what we do with what happens to us—which may mean that the appropriate response to today’s grief and loss is a sense of acceptance. And compassion too. We need the compassion for the reality of being human. There has to be a gentleness and kindness and recognition of the basic fundamental discomfort we’re all experiencing. We’re having slightly different experiences, but we’re all moving through this together. For some of us, this may even be an opportunity to rest or have fun—to add new pleasures to our lives. Of course, many of us are still working. Even if you’re working, take an opportunity to add more fun to your day. Figure out what fun feels like for you. What sparks pleasure?
It’s hard to enjoy all this time off when you don’t know when your next paycheck is coming. This is a super anxious period for many because there’s so much insecurity. We have to take that seriously, and find some balance. All along it’s important to contemplate impermanence and death. When we do that, we begin to understand that this is what’s always happening. We’re always in between something. We’re always in and out of the moment. What does it mean to show up to the anxiety, the fear, and the terror in this moment? How can we give that space? We can use whatever tools we have to work with that energy and to come into a different relationship with our lives and with the world. That’s the preciousness of this opportunity.
You posted a beautiful prayer for sustainability on your website where you invoked guides, benefactors, ancestors, and even the Earth. One’s relationship with mentors and deities is an important component of the tantric tradition. How can these mentor beings support us at this time? I think we always need a source of refuge to hold us. We need a belief system that we can rely on to support us through these hard and overwhelming experiences. Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about what it means to take refuge. I believe that this is a time when the beings of the unseen world are trying to touch into this world to help. But many of us don’t have faith in the belief that we can touch into that realm in a really direct and powerful way—that we can access the wisdom of our ancestors, due to histories of colonization and industrialization that cut us off from these beliefs.
Much of my work is about teaching people how to open up to that source of resiliency, energy, and love. We can feel really helpless and alone and just thrown out into the brutality of the world. And I just don’t think that’s the whole truth of things. I believe there are beings ready to support us and to love us if we just open our minds to that.