How the Coronavirus Helps Us Understand the Buddhist View of Our Interdependence

For centuries, Buddhism has offered the teaching that’s been called “dependent origination” or “interdependent origination.” This means that nothing exists independently in our world. Everything is interconnected. We exist in a complex web of life that is continually changing.

Now, rather than consulting with Buddhist texts written by psychologically-minded masters, we have a lowly virus teaching us about our interdependence. Now, with the coronavirus, we can’t pretend we exist as an independent entity oblivious to the world around us. We can’t fly overseas, attend a movie, or even go shopping without wondering if we’ll be exposing ourselves to infected others. We don’t live as a separate ego that is disconnected and impervious to what is happening around us.

Psychologists and researchers like John Gottman, PhD, have been telling us for years that our relationships can only thrive as we become aware of how we affect each other. If we’re not able to hear each other’s feelings and needs, our relationships suffer. We thrive to the extend that we embrace our interdependence.

COVID-19 invites us to realize that we affect each other in ways that could mean life or death (or serious illness). We’re seeing more vividly that we humans are much more vulnerable than we like to think. Decisions made in Wuhan, China about allowing the sale of wild animals, where the viral transmission to humans is thought to have first occurred, affects whether or not the American basketball season is suspended — or whether our child’s school gets closed and we have to scramble to figure out how to take care of them while we’re working.

We have an opportunity to realize on a deeper level that we’re part of a much larger web of life than our minds can comprehend. If a person doesn’t have the health insurance necessary to consult with a physician about their medical condition — or doesn’t have paid sick-leave and can’t afford to take time off work — they might infect everyone they contact. One person’s poverty affects the whole. It’s difficult to blame people for going to work sick when they’re living paycheck to paycheck.

The virus reminds us of the implications of dependent origination, which is a core principles of Buddhist psychology. The more we recognize the need to offer health care and a secure safety net for people, the more we’re all protected. The more that countries prioritize cooperation and compassionate policies that further everyone’s well-being, the better off we’ll all be. 

It may sound trite, but we’re seeing ever-more clearly that we’re one small, interconnected world. The Buddhist psychological understanding of the interconnected nature of life suggests that taking care of ourselves is intimately linked to taking care of each other and our fragile planet. 

As it becomes less viable to soothe or entertain ourselves by going out, it’s a good time to go inside and find other ways to care for ourselves. Videos that teach us meditation, yoga, and other paths to self-care abound on the internet. We might find that reading a book we’ve put aside, journaling, calling an old friend we’ve lost touch with, or connecting more frequently with current friends is more satisfying than watching television or being consumed by less nourishing activities. 

It’s a good time to reevaluate our lives. What’s really important? Who do we love? Remembering that we’re all in this together, we can emerge with a renewed sense of community — becoming more awake to our inter-connectedness and interdependence. 

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