This morning I clicked on a Zoom link and joined an online mindfulness session led by my friend and colleague Lindsey. She’s a professor of African-American history who also teaches meditation. Her calm (but not creepy-calm) voice and easy-going attitude suit me. Try this, Lindsey suggests to us, never Do this. 

I’ve been meditating with Lindsey at the school where we work, in Hoboken, New Jersey, for a couple of years. Since the coronavirus locked us all down, I’ve been sitting with her more often than usual, twice a week. It’s an oasis, a time when I’m not obsessively checking Facebook and Twitter, my email and retirement accounts and The New York Times for news. Although I’ve criticized claims that meditation promotes mental health, I always feel better after sitting with Lindsey.

I joined a half dozen other people online today, including my old pal Jim, an historian of science, who retired and moved away from Hoboken last year. I miss Jim, so it’s good seeing his hairy old mug again, if only briefly on my laptop screen. After chitchat at the beginning of the session, everyone except Lindsey turns off video and audio. 

Before class, I drank a mug of tea, which, since I consume little caffeine lately, jolted me. During class my monkey mind was even more antic than usual. I kept thinking of ways I could turn this mindfulness session into a blog post, which means I was defeating its purpose, I wasn’t being here now.

I deal with this problem in the following way. If an idea for a column pops into my head—for example, Is it ethical to meditate during a plague?--part of me thinks, I must be present, I must let this thought go. Another part thinks, Yeah, let it go, but not totally, remember it later and write it down.

That’s what I did. During the session, with Lindsey’s help, I had fleeting moments of present-ness, when I wasn’t brooding, regretting, freaking out, scheming. (One way I cultivate present-ness is by looking at the blobby patterns projected on my inner eyelids.) But as soon as the class ended, after I thanked Lindsey and said goodbye to everyone, I grabbed a pen and pad and jotted down a few things, which follow:

Gratitude and the Birds of Hoboken. Lindsey began by urging us to think of things for which we’re thankful. Focusing on what’s good in life can help us cope with what’s not so good. Lindsey said she had recently become grateful for the birds of Hoboken, the New Jersey town where we live and work.

She hadn’t really noticed the birds before. But because the coronavirus shutdown has eliminated much of Hoboken’s noisy hustle and bustle, she keeps hearing birds chirping and warbling, especially ones building a nest outside her window. The birds seem especially chirpy now, Lindsey speculated, probably because it’s spring.

Listening to Lindsey, I remembered an encounter I had a few days ago sitting on a bench beside the Hudson. I was scribbling in a notebook, trying to invent epiphanies about civilization’s fragility, when a pack of scruffy brown sparrows fluttered down and milled around me, pecking at invisible morsels on the brick walkway. They moved jerkily from spot to spot, as if illuminated by a strobe light.

A pigeon strolled through their midst, huge, ungainly and comically slow. At each step, he thrust his tiny head forward awkwardly, like a nerd bopping to rap. So yeah, birds, I’m grateful for them too.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Spiders? A tangential thought. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, almost all non-human creatures have gone extinct and been replaced by artificial replicas. One character is overjoyed when he comes across a real, living spider.

I’m an arachnophobe, so I have a hard time being grateful for spiders. But Dick’s dystopic future, which seems increasingly plausible, makes me even more grateful that, during this lockdown, I can go outside and see creatures like sparrows and squirrels and ants. For free! We should cherish all living things, even spiders, while they still exist.

Yummmm. Lindsey’s gratitude riff also got me thinking about the meaning of mindfulness. As I understand it, mindfulness means not dwelling on any particular sensation, thought or memory, bad or good, that pops into your head. Watch them come, let them go. This applies to pleasant as well as unpleasant feelings. Don’t cling to them, watch them come, let them go.

Take away all our transient thoughts, and what are we left with? We’re left with consciousness itself, the medium within which our thoughts arise, which is distinct from the contents of consciousness. Meditation, it seems to me, is a way to pay attention to, and cherish, consciousness. 

Try thinking of it this way. Consciousness is a river bearing all sorts of good and bad sensations past you. You’re swimming in the river, keeping an eye out for good sensations to grab and savor. But all the sensations slip from your grasp, the pleasure they give you is fleeting.

At some point, perhaps accidentally, you swallow a mouthful of the river itself, the medium bearing these sensations, and you realize that the water is tastier, sweeter, than anything it carries. And the water is always there, inexhaustible. This is enlightenment, perhaps, when you never stop savoring consciousness.

As this line of reasoning was unraveling in my head (which meant of course that I was far from being mindful), I thought of a mantra for cultivating delight in ordinary, humdrum consciousness. The mantra is Yum. This sound expresses the pleasure you should feel each and every moment that you are aware. Easier said than felt. And should you really be chanting Yum now?

Is Meditation Unethical? That brings me back to the question I posed earlier: Is it ethical to meditate during a plague? As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, people all around the world are falling sick, dying, grieving, panicking. Millions have lost their jobs, millions more fear losing them. No one knows how this pandemic will unfold, but it's already bad.

Part of me worries that it’s self-indulgent to meditate when so many people are suffering. I am a white, male professor who still has his job and health, and I am trying to reduce my negligible distress by counting my blessings, especially the blessing of awareness. Shouldn’t I do something to help others, like volunteering at a homeless shelter or hospital?

This question applies, of course, to all times, not just our weird, scary present. There was terrible suffering in the world before anyone had heard of COVID-19, and there will be terrible suffering after this plague has passed. Is meditating, practicing mindfulness, ever ethical for a person as fortunate as I am?

Here’s how I justify meditation in dark times, which is all times. By reducing my fear and melancholy, I reduce—albeit infinitesimally—humanity’s misery. If I am happier, perhaps I’ll be nicer, kinder toward others. Ideally, I’ll be a better teacher, parent, friend, lover, reducing humanity’s vast suffering a tiny bit more.

I actually have doubts that meditation makes you nicer, but that’s my rationale for meditating, and I’m sticking to it. I look forward to my next session with Lindsey and Jim. In the meantime, when I wake up each morning, before grabbing my laptop to check the news, I’m going to lie still for a moment and murmur, Yummmm.

Further Reading:

Optimism in a Dark Time

Meta-Post: Posts on Buddhism and Meditation

See also my books Mind-Body Problems (available online for free and as an e-book and paperback) and Rational Mysticism.