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A Viral Pause for Viral Peace

By Amita Shukla

(This is adapted from a piece written for the JHU Last Lecture Series on “Wellness of the Mind” in 2020, where Amita was invited to speak before the pandemic turned those lectures into essays.)

As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, I observed how the worlds in which I move, such as mind training, coaching, and mindfulness, offered varied tools for managing the mind through challenging times. In the graduate course on Leading Change in Biotechnology I’ve taught at Johns Hopkins, discussions turned to how its leadership principles could be applied to navigating the pandemic.

In conversations with friends, colleagues, and family, I witnessed how each responded based on their reality. Some were home alone, with ample, new free time. Others worked while schooling kids, utterly overwhelmed. Some viewed lockdowns as a spiritual pause, a chance to reflect and renew. Others were anxious about finances, staring at gutted incomes or lost jobs. Most cycled through fear, gratitude, restlessness, and hope in trying to make sense of it all.

For me, an insight on navigating the pandemic appeared some weeks before the world locked down, when I caught an unnamed virus. I felt miserable, unlike any cold or cough I’ve ever had. One night, as my body tossed and turned, I began to sense a deeper stillness within. It was a profound peace in my heart that could witness my physical pain with compassion, without feeling overwhelmed by its suffering. As I healed, its presence lingered in my being.

Over the weeks that followed, as the pandemic marched across nations, I felt as if what I had experienced within now enveloped the globe. One morning, while reflecting on the state of the world, I sensed that same still peace in my heart. Moments later, a question entered my mind:

Dear Virus, what are you here to teach us?

This is the response that flowed:

I am here to remind you that you are not alone and all one. I do not see your borders and walls. I need no passports or visas. All nations, races, and religions are the same to me. I speak none of your tongues, take no sides, and just look for a host. I have no other motives. Whether you see me as an agent of death, a foe to defeat, or a reminder of the beauty of life, is up to you. I am all of those and none of those. How you write me into your history books, you decide.

I just came to make you pause and reflect on this rock on which you were born, this spectacular home we share. It provides for all your needs yet seems never enough for human greed. You want ever more and want it ever faster. When did you last stop to ask, what are we running after? Is this the world—the life—we want?

Why do some of you hoard vast sums while others suffer to make ends meet? Why are you discontent when joy is simple and free? What are you searching for on screens with nature’s beauty all around you? Why are you dying to go viral? Don’t you see what going viral does?

I am sorry to have caused pain by taking your loved ones from you. Yet, like you, I am a creature of nature. Your restless lifestyles, imbalanced societies, and collective fears rob many more lives from you each year. How have you become numb to this? Why do you accept it? Your indifference is your greatest foe, not I.

You are too busy to ponder this, you say. I understand. There are families to feed, the sick to tend to, deliveries to make, classes to teach, and tasks to attend to. Yet, when it comes down to life and death, even you, with all your high-tech tools, have no choice but to take a break to catch your breath.

In this pause, you have a chance to be present to the present, where the past no longer is, and the future has not yet come. Unlike me, you are born with the capacity to know this. I am merely at your mercy to replicate. My destiny depends on you. Yet, I also have a power, which I want to share with you. It is the power to remind you of yours. I hope you can see that I am not so different from you. We are both created and destroyed. Sometimes, I succumb to your immunity. At other times, we die together. Death is inevitable for us both. Yet, it is about living that I hope to teach you.

In the present, you can make peace with the past and create a better future, one in which you want to live, not one thrust on you by the world. You can be guided by a peaceful way of being that transcends your restless thinking and doing. No matter who on earth you are or where you live, nature has given you each this gift.

This inner space is pure peace, joy, and love, and always within you. In its silence rest answers to your deepest longings. It knows what makes your heart sing, what breaks it, and what mends it. In its silence you can hear your soul’s song rippling into the cosmos. It is reflected in every kind and selfless act, such as the service of frontline heroes who get up each morning to heal, feed, and protect you.

I am here to remind you of this. You need each other to survive, and so do I. How our shared story will unfold, we do not know, yet. Eventually, my time will come, and I will pass. That, nature has ordained. But even after I am gone, these questions will remain: How will you live the rest of your days? What do you need to be truly happy? What can you let go? What do you want in the depths of your heart? What matters when all that matters seems lost? In your brief blip of life, how will you serve humanity? How will you nurture nature? I came to shed light on truths in your heart. The answers are within you. I just came to ask the questions.