We warmly welcome Forrest Rivers, author of Covid-19 and Humanity’s Spiritual Awakening, as our featured author for March. Forrest – a teacher, writer and speaker – gives a heartfelt and personal account of the impact Covid-19 has had on humanity. Amidst the chaos and suffering it has left in its wake, Forrest sees hopeful signs of humanity’s rising and awakening. Drawing on spiritual and eastern philosophies, Forrest invites readers to look past the darkness cast by this pandemic and see the glimmers of light that may guide us to a more peaceful future.
Interact with Forrest on our Forum here
“Seldom has a book touched me so deeply in its mix of compassion, authenticity, and forward looking while fully honoring the world’s wisdom traditions. It lays out how the darkness of suffering has a way of pushing humanity into the light of new beginnings, if we so choose. I love the sincerity and the down to earth reality of this invitation.”
Frank Coppieters, author of Unity in Everything that Is: Enlightened Warriorship Under 13 Masters
I. A Year of Immense Suffering:
When the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2020, marking the start of a new decade, no one could have possibly imagined the utter chaos and unpredictability that would bring in the new year. As everyone well knows, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) began its silent march across the world, infecting and claiming the lives of millions. From the very beginning, it was resoundingly clear that this pandemic would dramatically alter the course of humanity for the foreseeable future. Phrases and practices like “social distancing”, “essential and non-essential workers”, “flattening the curve”, “stay at home orders”, the mass wearing of face coverings in public places and curbside food and retail pickup came to form a new COVID-19 consciousness.
The far reach of the virus into every facet of our lives also forced us to confront our deepest existential anxieties and fears. For example, the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions had to quickly come to terms with the fact that they could succumb to the virus at any moment. And millions of workers laid off from their jobs had very little choice but to try and navigate the waters of extreme financial hardship. For medical professionals on the frontlines, death and dying in the age of COVID has become a highly tragic yet valuable daily reminder of the impermanent nature of life. And not too surprisingly, seekers on the path of higher consciousness have discovered that the pandemic is an important opportunity to work with suffering. In essence, COVID-19 has great potential to spiritually awaken all of humanity.
When the outbreak began and the college I teach at was ordered to shutdown mid-semester, I recall skeptically thinking at the moment, “how bad could this whole pandemic really be?” Apparently, much worse than I could have ever imagined at the time. In just the first two months of the outbreak, here, in the United States, hospitalization and fatality rates reached alarming levels, businesses were forced to shut down, and a record number of people filed for unemployment compensation. This cycle of pandemic related chaos was also tragically present in nations as diverse as Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and Brazil.
Meanwhile, shoppers fearing a breakdown in the nation’s food supply resorted to panic shopping at grocery and retail stores. The scene of empty shelves and runs on key necessities only added to the fear of the moment. As the virus raged out of control like a wild forest fire, the economy went into complete free fall as governments tightened shut down orders in an attempt to suppress the outbreak. And just when it appeared that things couldn’t get any more chaotic, the murder of George Floyd (an unarmed black man) occurred at the hands of the Minneapolis, Minnesota Police. This horrific event coincided with the peak of the first “surge” of COVID-19 and set off a wave of protests in most major US cities and even across the UK. As the second half of 2020 unfolded, spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases continued to soar, personal bankruptcies multiplied, mass hunger ravaged both cities and rural areas alike, and mental health disorders from months of quarantining peaked. Predictably, as fall transitioned into winter an increasing number of people who were tired of social distancing began to openly flout the protocols of health experts. Once more, people (particularly among the youth) began to gather in larger groups at house parties and dance clubs, schools forced the return of reluctant teachers to the classroom, and not wearing masks in public became a sign of resistance to what increasingly came to be seen as arbitrary orders from political authorities who too often ignored their own rules. Adding to all of this pandemic related anxiety was a highly dramatized US presidential election that saw the former leader of the “free world” refuse to concede to his opponent.
Together, the pandemic landscape of 2020 made for an apocalyptic like setting straight out of the Hollywood films. For most people, COVID 19 has been a harbinger of mass chaos and unspeakable tragedy. However, if we are able to still our minds and fully be with the immensity of this moment, we can start to see a different narrative emerging. These profound words from the infinitely wise and late spiritual teacher, Baba Ram Dass, have brought me peace and helped me to reorient my perspective of these unprecedented events:
“Suffering is the sandpaper that awakens people.”
II. Awakening Through Suffering:
Rather than react to the unsettling chain of COVID related events with fear and trepidation, we each have the choice to embrace it as the “sandpaper” that helps us awaken into higher consciousness. Some realized beings might even go as far to say, that this pandemic was destined to awaken us from our collective delirium of mindless conformity, separation, and complacency. Indeed, while the world has been hit hard with catastrophe, something altogether beautiful and inspiring has begun to bubble up from beneath the surface. That “something” is unity and compassion. At first glance, it might appear that mounting death tolls (particularly, among the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions) runaway unemployment and a worsening mental health crisis have defined the narrative of this virus’s fallout. However, what has not been adequately accounted for by much of the mainstream media is that this ordeal has pulled us all closer together. For the first time since possibly World War II, the whole of humanity has been forced to confront the painful truth that ignorance, intolerance, and hate produces negative consequences for us all.
COVID-19 has had the effect of exposing long-standing societal injustices that have left many questioning the values guiding humanity. For example, in countries like America and the UK, the crisis has made it crystal-clear that the needs of living and breathing people should come before the pursuit of profit for a wealthy and connected few. Basic social services that most industrialized nations enjoy like comprehensive paid sick leave and universal health care have long been conspicuously absent in the United States. This is partly due to the fact that America has long prioritized the “bottom line” economic concerns of powerful corporations over the well-being of its own citizens. Gratefully, all of this is starting to change. In the initial months of the outbreak, the number of ordinary Americans demanding the implementation of both programs grew in popularity. It now seems more likely than ever that paid sick leave and universal health care will soon become permanent fixtures of the U.S. system. This is all indicative of a positive move in the direction of a kinder and gentler society.
There is further evidence that our world is growing more compassionate and united in response to this virus. In the earliest days of the pandemic, it has been widely reported that many retired doctors and nurses in the United States, Canada, and Europe came out of retirement to courageously serve the sick and dying. And early on in the pandemic, several groups of private citizens in both US and Canadian cities (such as Vancouver, B.C. and Portland, Oregon) came together to provide desperately needed health care and shelter to homeless populations badly impacted by the virus. Companies, like Portland’s Jupiter Hotel, even got in on the act of caring for this highly marginalized and impacted group by donating several of its rooms to self-quarantine in. Numerous reports also began to surface that initial donations to local food banks soared when the government-mandated shutdowns of the economy began. Generous acts like the kind that Myrtle Driver, a great friend and spiritual guide of mine, carries out have grown. Driver, a beloved elder, translator, and healer of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Western North Carolina, has made it a regular practice during the pandemic to collect donations and deliver basic foodstuffs and supplies for other elders unable to leave their homes.
Many Hindus have long believed that the entire Cosmos moves in a perpetual cycle between dark ages (those defined by ego and conflict) and ages of enlightenment in which awareness of our divine nature prevail. It is entirely possible that we are in the opening stages of a planetary shift in consciousness from such a dark age to one of a higher collective consciousness. If this Hindu worldview is accepted as truth, the emergence of COVID-19 is not some cruel twist of fate or a “cosmic hiccup”, (to borrow a phrase from Ram Dass), but is rather something that emerged at this moment to jolt us out of our own heartless egotism. Among this pandemic’s greatest gifts is the teachings it has offered in overcoming our fear of death.
III. Transcending our Fear of Death:
“Light comes gently, slowly, but surely it comes.”
A hallmark of any global disease is our emphasis on the number of dead and dying. Understandably, the constant repetition of mounting casualties by media outlets has provoked deep anxiety and fear among the people. However, if we shift our dial of awareness just a bit, the existential threat of this virus provides us all with a wonderful opportunity to confront our own fear of death. But why is confronting this intrinsic fear so important? Many seekers within eastern traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism believe that making peace with the inevitability of our own death is one of the spiritual practices we can pursue. When we transcend our deepest existential fears, we unlock the gateless gate to live more deeply in the present moment. When we do so, we follow our Dharma, our cosmic destiny, and all of humanity benefits. COVID-19 has given us a unique opportunity to engage in such spirited self- reflection. It has also served as a dramatic reminder that one day, sooner or later, we are all going to die.
This virus has reminded us that as we draw closer to our own death we have two paths that we can follow. We can choose the first and heavily conditioned road of deeply clinging to our greatest existential fears in the face of death. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we can push away the imminence of our body’s expiration and blindly grasp to the fleeting nature of our physical reality. But this choice will only wind up creating more needless suffering. Just as the Buddha taught, we can’t hold on to anything fixed in the limited time-space dimension of our material world.
Very fortunate for our evolution as souls, this pandemic has also helped many realize that there is a second path we can follow when confronting death. We always have the choice to surrender to the wondrous passage of form. Our return to the Formless, the Void, and the One does not have to be met with anxiety and fear. Instead of continually running from death’s haunting shadow, we have the power to meet it at its own doorstep with our hearts fully open to what IS and will soon become. Rather than lament the fact that we really have no control over the time and manner of our own passing, we can choose to become death’s supreme inquisitor and ask it all the questions that we already intuitively know the answers to. While evoking deep and painful emotions, death does not have to be a frightening process. We can use this ultimate of transitions for our own inner healing and personal growth.
Over the years, it has become something of a living truth to me that the absolute essence of who we are is more than just our bodies. I have come to strongly believe that when we die, some spiritual hallmark of who we are transcends the act of death and the decay of the body. Of course, exactly where we go remains one of the greatest existential mysteries. However, I have a strong intuitive hunch that each of us has taken countless births as male and female, as rich and poor, as oppressor and oppressed, and even as a moral do-gooder and rapacious sinner.
COVID-19 has been a refreshing reminder that there is no better way to overcome our fear of death than by actively preparing for it through formal soulful practices like work with the dying and meditation. Stephen Levine, a late and influential spiritual teacher spent countless years working with people who were, as many Hindus say, close to “dropping their bodies”. His experiences led him to write a profound and groundbreaking book titled, A year to live: How to Live this Year as if it Were your Last. Drawing from his years of work with the Living/Dying Project, a non-profit he helped co-found that works on creating a loving space for people to die consciously, Levine showed the immense emotional and spiritual benefits of living each day as if it were your last.
Ram Dass, the late pioneer of human consciousness and the author of the seminal classic Be Here Now, was a close friend of Levine’s who co-founded the Living/Dying Project. In a number of his books and recorded lectures, he credits his many decades of work with the dying as the deepest spiritual work that he ever did on himself. According to this beloved teacher, the more one consciously works with those nearing death the less they come to fear their own. Ram Dass was fond of teaching that if you can learn to “keep your heart open in hell,” through embracing the painful emotions that watching another die engenders, then the opportunity to transcend your own fear of death also happens. Once your heart breaks, you are free to die into the wisdom of your deathless self.
In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, monks partake in regular mindfulness meditation exercises on their own deaths (this practice is called Maranasati). The central aim of these contemplative sessions is to cultivate a deeper awareness and acceptance of death. Eventually, after years of this practice, monks become so comfortable with the absolute and impermanent nature of their physical world that they completely shed their own fear of the great unspeakable. As a result, they are able to live with a greater sense of joy, fulfilment, and compassion. In turn, learning to live a more joyous, fulfilled, and compassionate life is the end goal of all spiritual seeking. COVID-19 has been presented to us as our “fierce gift” so that we might meaningfully contemplate the greatest truths of our existence and transcend our false ego identification.
IV. Light at the End of the Tunnel:
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh-
In our current fight against COVID-19, some hope has begun to emerge that one day very soon we will be able to put this pandemic behind us and return to some semblance of “normalcy”. However, as we begin to do so let us remember the profound spiritual lessons that we have learned during this challenging time. The past year has forced each of us as individuals to take a long and honest look at ourselves. The many hours that we have spent in solitude has afforded us with a rare and temporary respite from the hyper fast-paced material world we inhabit.
Undoubtedly more time alone due to social distancing has been a great source of extreme mental suffering for many. Prolonged periods spent in isolation has exasperated an already worrisome mental health crisis as indicated by an alarming spike in suicide rates and a rise in reports of depression and anxiety. However, the greater time spent in solitude has led others to reflect more deeply on what holds meaning in their lives. For those people, it has been a fruitful time to quiet their minds and re-channel their attention from outward egoic concerns (like money, jobs, and social status) to the inner realms of spirit. Since the start of the pandemic, I have talked to many friends and acquaintances who say they have used this time to start a regular prayer or meditation practice. I also have spoken with others who relate how this period has sparked a renewed sense of love and gratitude for the natural world. Still, other inspiring souls I have crossed paths with say that this pandemic has pushed them to follow their dreams and spend their time doing what they love. Over the past year, a very dear friend of mine has spent his time at home starting an uplifting Youtube channel that now has nearly 25,000 faithful subscribers! Another close friend of mine has honed his love for woodworking and now hopes to abandon his office job and sell his woodwork for a living. Other folks in my orbit have spent this time planting beautiful gardens, experimenting with off-grid living, and diving into various forms of creative expression.
Most importantly, other beings I know have used this time to fully commit themselves to serve those who have endured extreme emotional, physical, and financial hardship and who understandably see little to no positive benefits in their lives from this pandemic. Unquestionably, COVID-19 has brought upon unimaginable suffering for at-risk and oppressed populations like the homeless, the working poor, the physically disabled, the elderly, indigenous peoples, minority groups and those with pre-existing health conditions. With this awareness of countless peoples’ extreme suffering in mind, crucial opportunities for those in more fortunate circumstances to serve others who are struggling have emerged. Relieving the suffering of our fellow brethren is truly the greatest spiritual practise that we can all engage in at this time.
COVID-19 has taught us that we are all interconnected and that our intentions, thoughts, and actions have karmic consequences that impact us all. As one world, we have truly suffered through this trying ordeal together. As the world charts its recovery from this time of profound suffering, the following question emerges: how will we incorporate the higher wisdom that we have gained from this shared experience toward building a more loving and peaceful world? The fate and soulful evolution of our species hinge upon this question. Deep within me, I have a mountain of faith that we are all up to the enormous task of becoming the wisdom that has blossomed from our collective experience of this period of suffering. Despite the heavy and tragic loss of life left in its wake, COVID-19 may soon be regarded as one of the latest light posts on the path of humanity’s spiritual awakening.