This is a caution about the dangers of hyper-spiritualizing and spiritually-bypassing the coronavirus or any other calamity. Viewing COVID-19 primarily as the physical manifestation of a spiritual problem or encouraging magical spiritual solutions without preventative action (have faith, maintain a high vibration) lends itself to evasion of hard-fast material realities like it doesn’t matter how high-vibe you are if you go around licking doorknobs–so please practice self-restraint with the rest of us mortals (social-distancing, handwashing, listening to the experts). Hyper-spiritualization of the coronavirus pandemic and other tragedies frequently results in victim-blaming; i.e., people who suffer are somehow responsible, or we’re collectively responsible because we’ve sinned or ignored spirituality and this pandemic is the consequence we’ve brought on ourselves. And over-spiritualizing invites the association of financial opportunism with spirituality: the suspicion that spiritual predators are disingenuously crafting messages to lure unsuspecting vulnerable populations into their marketing schemes to serve their own agendas (as many are).
I wonder whether over-spiritualization reflects a need to control our anxiety by saying something–the impulsive need to fix it and make it go away through meaning-making. In every crisis in human history, from WWII to 9-11, religious and spiritual prophets have been trigger-happy–as if they’ve been waiting for a crisis–to pronounce the divine message, ready to pounce at the opportunity to insert their spiritual doctrine into the void-space of human suffering longing for meaning. Psychologically, it’s certainly entertaining and exciting to get apocalyptic about a crisis. It gives us a collective sense of meaning, a hope that our suffering actually represents a greater progress, like birth pangs represent a new life.
My intention is not to invalidate your mystical insights or discourage you from the important task of finding meaning in suffering. Spirituality is integral to the way we approach a crisis, our ways of coping, and the immune system’s effectiveness. And it is possible to draw archetypal and symbolic spiritual lessons from events and the natural world without being dogmatic or simplistic. Perhaps there is some kind of cosmic lesson the universe or “coronavirus consciousness” is trying to tell us (as many are claiming)–I do not have authority on such matters. Yet I caution any spiritual person inclined to proclaim a divine message on the meaning or cause of the Coronavirus to pause and reflect: even if there may be some legitimate mystical lesson within a given crisis, what is my motivation for sharing this message, is it helpful in this moment, and does it encourage commonsense practical measures? Moreover, we have a responsibility to think critically about our mystical and psychedelic insights, which are always mixed with our personal subjectivity and ideas.
I appreciate the role of leadership in offering consolation and meaning, but sometimes the most spiritual thing to do is to say nothing. Maybe the voice of God in this moment is silence and empathy. To hold back the answers long enough to allow people to actually experience the emotional weight of the moment, to hold them in the empathic embrace of acknowledging suffering in silence. Maybe the best answer is not to give a spiritual solution to a material problem. I know it can be hard for spiritual people not to make everything about spirituality, but sometimes practical measures are an easier and more useful fit. Instead of praying about your shoelaces, tie them!
I am not suggesting material matters aren’t spiritual. Though matter and spirit are ultimately non-separate, a distinction between them is still useful when applied to different dimensions of our experience. It makes sense to locate the causation of a virus pandemic or earthquake on the material plane; it may be merely the result of natural, evolutionary causes instead of spiritual human failings and divine retribution. This distinction can be made without denying the event’s connectedness to the spiritual aspects of existence. Moreover, if the coronavirus was primarily a spiritual problem, I would be talking more about spiritual practice and less about material measures like medical care and social distancing. But unfortunately, many are taking exactly that–spiritually-bypassing the material realm.
As spiritual leaders in the corona-crisis, our role is not to pivot attention away from the science to ourselves and our spiritual grandiosity–encouraging mass numbers of people to spiritually bypass a physical emergency! Maybe we aren’t the leaders this crisis demands; this is our time for humility and deferring to the wisdom of leaders in healthcare and science–and for accepting that we are just as vulnerable and anxious as everybody else, spiritual or not. Maybe the divine message we need is the practical wisdom we’re already hearing blasted from every smartphone and news station: this is a lethal virus and we need to take uncomfortable action to prevent unnecessary suffering.
In this moment, my humble suggestion is we acknowledge the crisis and listen to conventional wisdom. We aren’t going to make the coronavirus go away by getting ultra-spiritual if we don’t take the necessary physical precautions, and we are only going to make it worse if we erase necessary anxiety. I understand that anxiety can be paralyzing, but in an emergency, it is also necessary for radical, crisis-averting action. As empaths, spiritual leaders must resist the temptation to make bad feelings go away prematurely, in service of the priority of saving lives.
The spiritual way of responding to any crisis should not be to dissociate from suffering and pain through grandiose narratives and visions of the future, even if they are true. Healthy spirituality helps us to accept and face the harsh realities and painful emotions of present moment existence, instead of substituting escapist pseudo-salvation. There are many spiritual lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic– secondary to the immediate physical lessons of survival, not in place of them. As we do our best to stay healthy, we have an opportunity to attend to the details of our selves, to slow down and reflect. And more profoundly, the coronavirus confronts us with the penultimate test of spiritual practice: will we accept the personal responsibility we always have to care for our neighbor? Are we willing to inconvenience ourselves by socially distancing and tending to the elderly and those less fortunate than us? What could be more spiritual than this?
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I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Masters in Counseling in Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, spiritual, and mindful practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic spiritual wholeness.