In Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is inextricably tied to an ethical approach to life that upholds virtuous, non-violent action. Image: iStock

Calling the Covid-19 pandemic the worst crisis since World War II, one that may bring a recession with “no parallel in the recent past,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has urged world leaders to understand that “humankind is at stake.”

The numbers of infections and deaths attributed to Covid-19 are increasing exponentially. Human activity has come to a halt with worldwide community lockdowns, quarantining and social isolation. The dystopian future projected in science-fiction movies seems to be here: surreal, empty airports; eerie, ghost-like city centers; a still landscape without humans.

As human interaction shifts more and more online, faith groups, psychologists, yoga and Pilates instructors and innumerable others are offering helpful services to grief-stricken, fearful and anxious people via webinars, zoom meetings and the like. One of the most popular of these offerings is mindfulness meditation, which teaches individuals to find peace and stability within themselves amid the tremendous uncertainties and frightening realities around them.

For example, a webinar by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), on March 25 attracted more than 21,000 people from 115 countries and had more than 96,000 subsequent views as of this Sunday. Kabat-Zinn’s stated vision is to make the whole world an “MBSR classroom.”

Indeed, mindfulness – the cultivation of present-moment awareness and equanimity by focusing on breathing and body sensations – is based on Buddhist teaching, and is a valuable tool for finding the much-needed inner solace and guidance for these challenging times. Mindfulness practice can also help develop sensitivity to the realities of impermanence, suffering and interdependence of life and cultivate compassion toward the self and others. Both have acute relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Diverse schools of mindfulness meditation have become popular in the West over the last few decades, with leading advocates from corporate, media and Hollywood elites. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who predicted a huge threat of a global pandemic in 2015 and conducted a simulation in late 2019 predicting up to 65 million deaths due to a coronavirus, is reportedly a “dedicated if not obsessive meditator.”

Leading tech companies, consulting firms and banks including Google, Apple, Deutsche Bank and McKinsey and Co promote employee meditation to relieve stress and increase productivity. It is said that “in Silicon Valley meditation is no fad, it could make your career.” Ironically, even the US military is teaching mindfulness meditation to enhance the performance and resilience of soldiers.

However, these profit- and power-focused approaches to mindfulness ignore the dangerous global and national policies that harm people and the environment, so that the core principles of interdependence and compassion become mere platitudes.

In Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is inextricably tied to an ethical approach to life that upholds virtuous, non-violent action. The corporate approach to mindfulness, on the other hand, does not offer direction or tools to understand how socio-economic forces have contributed to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and to the interrelated ecological and social crises. Nor does it help explore the ethical criteria and actions needed to create sustainable and socially just development. Referred to as “McMindfulness” by critics, it can be argued that this form of mindfulness actually weakens interest in social-change activism and social transformation.

Expanding mindfulness

Mindfulness practice calls for awareness of the present moment and seeing reality objectively. The Buddhist teaching also calls for an understanding of the causes of suffering, as exhibited in the current pandemic: greed, hatred and ignorance. How can we focus the awareness, wisdom and compassion provided by mindfulness to challenging the prioritization by many governments of profit and defense over universal health care, an imbalance that has left so many vulnerable to Covid-19?

India, the biggest importer of weapons in the world, spends nearly five times as much on defense as on health care. When US President Donald Trump visited India amid the spread of the coronavirus in February 2020, he signed an agreement facilitating an arms deal of $3 billion worth of weapons from the US, the world’s biggest producer of armaments. Interest in the expansion of the US-India alliance against China in the Indo-Pacific region prevailed over health and human security even after the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

Given the lack of basic necessities, thousands of migrant workers in Indian cities have been forced to find their way back to their villages since a lockdown was declared on March 25, often walking hundreds of kilometers without food or water. In New York and other epicenters of the disease in the US, thousands of people without health insurance or steady incomes are forced into food-service work, as home health aides and other jobs that are declared essential. Many doctors and other hospital workers in the US and elsewhere have to work without adequate access to masks and protective gear, putting their lives on the line.

The pandemic clearly shows that the health of the self cannot be separated from the health of the other. Still, corporate interests and policymakers are continuing their socially and environmentally destructive agendas, ignoring the fundamental biological and social principle of interdependence.

In this context, how can mindfulness meditators and others protest the inhumane acts of the International Monetary Fund withholding emergency loans requested by Venezuela and Iran to fight Covid-19, assumedly because of US political interests? Likewise, how can we bring awareness and compassion to the reality that energy companies like TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) are seeking to continue such controversial projects as the Keystone XL Pipeline during the Covid-19 crisis, disregarding protests by indigenous communities who would be most affected?

Post-Covid-19 world

Everyone is waiting for the vaccine, the technological fix that will presumably eliminate the virus threat and allow the world to return to “normalcy.” When we eventually come out of quarantine and isolation, what kind of world will we step into? A healthy, happy, secure world for all?

No, unfortunately, it will most likely be an even more unsustainable, unequal, corrupt and repressive world than what we had in the pre-Covid-19 era. In the US alone, coronavirus-related job loss is estimated at 47 million, with an unemployment rate of 32%. While the US Senate stimulus package just passed will provide minimum support for workers, the $500 billion corporate bailout package to the airline and other industries will allow them to get back into business without environmental and social accountability.

Ecologists are saying that Covid-19 is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of mass pandemics caused by increasing habitat and biodiversity loss due to human encroachment and climate change. Indeed, if we don’t redress climate change and environmental collapse soon, the next coronavirus pandemics will likely make life on Earth even more precarious.

In the tradition of emergency responses eroding our social liberties, if we are not vigilant of the increased technological surveillance and state and corporate control over our lives and widespread loss of civil and democratic rights during this crisis, we may not be able to get them back.

In the midst of the pandemic, Bill Gates is calling for a “digital certificate” to identify individuals receiving the upcoming Covid-19 vaccine. Backed by a massive organization called ID2020, these certificates are expected to be used to grant access to other social and economic rights and services. Mass vaccination to eradicate Covid-19 is seen as the opportunity to introduce a worldwide digital ID, and ID2020 is already testing one in Bangladesh that is “biometrically linked” to fingerprints.

Reportedly, a “covert way to embed the record of a vaccination directly in a patient’s skin” – called a “quantum dot tattoo” – is also being researched at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mindfulness and activism

In response to this unprecedented crisis, if more and more educated and relatively privileged mindfulness meditators simply turn inward, they will become a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. Sitting on a cushion and closing one’s eyes to escape the fear and horror, only turning inward, we fail to extend our awareness to these developments and their ethical, social justice and ecological implications.

We cannot let mindfulness practice drawn from the Buddha’s profound teaching become a new soma, the suppressive-escapist elixir distributed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to pacify, silence and disengage people from difficult and painful social realities.

But the silence of meditation practice and the collective action of social movements need not be antithetical; in fact, they can complement each other in creative and diverse ways. We need to explore the many ways that the inner transition of awareness, compassion and resilience from mindfulness meditation – and other practices, such as communion with nature, prayer and chanting – can be applied to an outer political and economic transition in order to meet the unprecedented challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic recession and the survival of humankind.

Faced with the deranged and apocalyptic path of neoliberal post-industrialism, increasing numbers of groups are distancing themselves from agribusiness and megalithic corporations and living and working in ecological and community based ways on the land with each other. The Covid-19 crisis makes it abundantly clear that electing ethical and responsible individuals into political office, people’s representatives who can uphold environmental sustainability and human well-being over corporate profit, is both an act of ethical mindfulness and political activism.

The culturally conditioned, media-driven belief that we cannot do much to change the world is mistaken. The origin and historical evolution of the dominant trajectory of global military and economic expansion is attributable to a small elite. Understandably, most people are currently preoccupied with survival, but it is possible for some of us, including mindfulness meditators, to awaken ourselves to the larger social and ecological realities and exercise our agency, rights and responsibilities as parents, teachers, citizens and humans.

As the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Asoka Bandarage's latest book, Crisis in Sri Lanka and the World: Colonial and Neoliberal Origins: Ecological and Collective Alternatives, was released by De Gruyter Contemporary Social Sciences on May 22, 2023.