Applying Buddha's Four Noble Truths to Long Covid
My Back Story
When I came down with Covid-19 in February 2020, I thought it would be similar to a flu and that I, being relatively healthy, would bounce back in a week or two. After all, that's what everyone was saying - the media, my medical providers.
But like hundreds of millions of others since then (and many more to come), my experience was very different. I got sick, and never got well.
I Am One Of Millions
It is estimated that at least 1 in 10, and possible 5 in 10, people who get covid (and do not immediately die from it) will not get better. Instead, they end up with what's called Long Covid, or Post Acute Sequela of Covid.
This is not a prolonged recovery. It's a non-recovery, a chronic and debilitating new disease for which there are no treatments or cure.
Where I'm At Now
Now, more than three years after being infected, I'm still not back to what I was before I got the virus. I've endured more than 210 distinct and often weird symptoms. I've been subjected to physical pain at a level I didn't realize I could endure without dying.
Like millions of others suffering with Long Covid, everything has changed for me - my body, my lifestyle, my relationships, my ability to support myself, my place in society, my social sphere, my ability to trust power.
Many of us lament what's been lost. That is natural. But if we become stuck there, it can cause unavoidable pain to become unnecessary and self-imposed suffering.
Buddhism offers us another way.
Buddhism Basics: The Four Noble Truths
I'm a Buddhist, a religion I chose as an adult, after a near-death experience in which I was clinically dead for several minutes. I learned a lot of lessons while I was out of my body, and Buddhism is the only faith tradition I feel aligns with what I witnessed "beyond the veil."
The foundational principles of Buddhism are called The Four Noble Truths. They are:
1. DUKKA: Pain, Loss and Death Are Inevitable
The word dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it is more nuanced than that. Pain would be somewhat more accurate, but still incomplete, especially to western sensibilities.
Unsatisfactory, disappointing, sorrowful, depressing - Dukkha encompasses all of this.
The Buddha said the first step to finding peace (enlightenment) in life is to accept that life itself brings about pain, loss, aging, illness and death, for all living things, eventually, and there is no way around this.
Nothing is permanent.
2. SAMUDAYA: Suffering, Which is Distinct from Pain, is Optional and Self-Imposed
Buddhism tells us that while pain and loss are inevitable, suffering is optional.
Suffering is an extra bit of misery that human beings, unique among all living things, bring upon ourselves, though the STORY we tell ourselves about the pain and loss we are enduring, and by demanding that things either stay the same or change when neither is possible.
Most of the time, Samudaya manifests as people being upset, surprised, disappointed or outraged that we are sick, or that we've lost someone or something we didn't want to lose, or that we've grown old, or that we're going to die. Samudaya often appears as anger at the injustice of changes we think should not have happened, or changes we think need to happen but don't.
The word "should" is almost always a dead giveaway that we're engaging in Samudaya - turning simple pain into complex suffering, by longing for things to be otherwise.
How does this pertain to Long Covid, and Covid generally?
World leaders have chosen to deny the severity of Long Covid and Covid risk generally. As a result, we are witnessing the greatest collective atrocity ever committed, and not just against our own species, but most other mammals and some non-mammals that also contract the virus.
I can't change this. You can't change this. Even if we organize. Even if we protest. The powers that be are enormous and global, sociopathic and narcissistic, ruthless. We can tell ourselves we have the power to change this, but in truth we do not. This is obvious, but an unwelcome truth to anyone with a conscience. Nonetheless, we must accept it if we wish to have any kind of peace during this terrible time.
Acceptance as the Key to Peace in Horrible Times
I accept that I'm sick, that it is likely a permanent change, that I've lost the person I was, that I'm this other person now, with these new limitations.
I accept that my society and its political, academic, corporate and media leaders will not protect me or any other poor or middle class person from the virus.
I accept that my life will likely be cut short because of this disease.
I accept the dukka of this moment.
There is no other choice. Resisting will change nothing but myself, by adding frustration, anger and sorrow to pain.
I accept this pain, this disease, this premature aging, and this premature death, but I will not make them worse by demanding change where change is impossible.
Accepting a terrible truth doesn't mean I like it. It just means I'm not interested in making myself feel worse by demanding a change that will never happen.
I knowingly and voluntarily refrain from participating in Samudaya.
3. NIRODHA: Stop wanting things to be different, and there you will find peace.
This third Nobel Truth will strike many westerners as defeatist, especially those who come from a background of privilege.
The United States in particular has a strong mythos of Horatio Algerism. Many Americans still believe that if we just work/pray/try hard enough, things will change to be favorable towards us personally. We believe this, despite ample proof otherwise. We believe this even though our greatest activists have all been assassinated. We believe this even though institutional racism and sexism and every other ism are bedrocks of our violent society. We believe in fighting, when fighting only exhausts or destroys us, and view co-existing as defeat even if it allows us to survive.
To stop wanting things to be different, as a Buddhist, is not to condone atrocity. It is to stop wasting energy on useless pursuits during difficult times. It means we stop running towards a destination that doesnt exist and never will anywhere but the imagination. It's making the choice to be present with what is, no matter how painful, and to cultivate inner peace in spite of that pain, without elevating the pain to suffering by being angry, despairing, resentful or otherwise upset about it.
Enlightenment, in a Christian worldview, is the same as joy, happiness, pleasure. This is not so for the Buddhist.
Buddhism's enlightenment is a sense of internal equanimity, regardless of what's going on with our bodies, our society, our lives, our finances. Buddhist enlightenment is a complete loss of a separate and special "self" that "deserves" things to be other than what they are, a way of finding peace in the interconnectedness of all life, a way of finding meaning in the very tender heart of pain itself, a way of learning to live without ground under one's feet, without certainty, without this incessant driving discontent that propels so many of us to be constantly unhappy because things are not the way they "should" be, because things hurt, because it's hard, because because because.
What does this surrender look like for me?
When I am able to stop my mind from remembering what I was before this illness, when I control my thoughts so that I am no longer comparing who I was then to who I am now, when I wake up with fresh eyes, when I ask myself, "if I were born this instant, into this body exactly as it is, would I be able to find beauty?" rather than obsessing upon the horror of not being as I was...that is peace. That is enlightenment. There is no deity in Buddhism, no supreme being to tell us we are important. There is only a collective connectedness to all things, a oneness that makes our personal problems insignificant.
There is joy, in that, in just being me as I am now without some urgency to be something I can't be. Me, sick, alone, isolated, with all the plans I had before burned to ashes - she can still find peace, meaning, and beauty, by not being consumed by what's been lost forever. I choose instead to discover and embrace what's here now, to exist in the flow of change, to find solidarity with all other living things that must, eventually, also grow ill, old, and die.
I do not wish to be anything other than what I am now, because that is what I am now. That's the peace of enlightenment, to be able to look at whatever arises and say, "This, too, belongs."
4. MARGA: Liberation.
Marga, or liberation from suffering, is the fourth of the four noble truths, and it consists of something called The Eightfold Path, which is a set of practices that help us to be able to liberate ourselves from wanting things to stay the same as they were, or for things to stop being painful, or to stop losing everything, in a world where the loss of everything is just the way things work.
I will discuss the Eightfold Path soon.
Until then, may you know the cause of suffering, and release it.