In the last few weeks, we have been intensifying the conversation around the coronavirus global pandemic. In talking to people and tuning into social media, I have noticed that there are multiple narratives being generated about the global situation, many of which cause us to feel uncertain, confused, fearful, and powerless.
In my work as a coach, I have had the great good fortune to interact with forward-thinking, globally-minded individuals, who are disrupters in their field— including one client who is quite senior in the World Health Organization (WHO), and another who is a leader in forward-thinking entrepreneurship and business. Through multiple conversations over the past few weeks, I have been able to recognize another narrative we can develop about this pandemic.
What I would like to share with you here offers a completely different perspective from which to view what is happening: a different dimension of understanding the current crisis.
When you have any situation with multiple different narratives, each of which makes sense in its own perspective, it creates a certain reaction in your mind.
One of the narratives which some people believe right now, is the official, authoritarian narrative put out by government. Particularly in America, it is very difficult to believe everything the government is saying, because it is frequently contradicted within the administration, contradicted by scientists, and by reliance on facts. This creates a mental fracturing. Some people are willing to just trust that our current president and administration are taking care of us; others have come to inherently distrust anything they say. The official narrative being given by the government also includes the narratives from the WHO and other global organizations.
Many people feel distrustful of those narratives for two reasons: Either people suspect the government is trying to pacify everybody, even though the situation might be quite serious, or they suspect there is a global conspiracy to inflict harm, maybe through reducing the population, or controlling people’s minds.
From this doubt and mistrust arises a counter-narrative to the official stance. The counter-narrative is a dark, insidious suspicion that everybody in charge is actually out to kill you, or to do you harm. Attempting to understand the world through the lens of this counter-narrative generates a multiplicity of explanations, which start to tie in theories around chem trails, vaccines, the possibility that many different viruses today are human-made (such as Lyme’s disease and AIDS), and so on. Because none of this is clearly substantiated by academic research that can be proven or credible journalism, it’s conjecture. It may be true, may not be true, but either way it creates a certain effect in your mind.
A third another narrative, alongside the official announcements from authorities, and the alternative conspiracy theories, is the idea that you can’t trust anything that the media says.
Consequently, anybody trying to sort out all of this— what the government is saying, what conspiracies are saying—is faced with an enormous task. Journalists, who are trained to sort out fact from fiction, are discounted because there is now a “fake news” narratives. Some believe Trump and his administration are reliable and trustworthy, some believe the alternative conspiracy theories, others trust the media. others trust their “inner guidance,” others listen to channel information, the list goes on and on. If you put all this together, there is really no solid place left for trustworthy, objective truth.
What happens to the human mind when faced with multiple different narratives, none of which you can trust, and none of which you can reliably discount?
To answer that question, I’m going to wind us back in time to the early 70’s. This, as you know, was the time of the summer of love which tarted in Haight Ashbury, it was also a time when you couldn’t trust what the government was telling you, because of the Vietnam war. Clearly the narrative being offered by the government was untrustworthy, Nixon eventually resigned amid widespread distrust. This was a very similar time, when multiple different narratives being offered.
At that time in the early 70’s, there was a group of very intelligent people who started to explore what happens to the human mind when it is presented with multiple unreliable narratives. This was mostly at that time applied to the individual, not so much collectively.
One of these individuals was Gregory Bateson, who wrote a book called Steps To an Ecology of Mind. Another was RD Lang, who best known work was Knots, but who also wrote Politics of Experience, relevant to what we are talking about here. There was also David Cooper, who wrote Death of the Family.
All of these people were actually exploring what it does to an individual, when they are presented with multiple, parallel realities, each of which appears to cause you to need to do something. It is immobilizing.
Bateson coined the term “schizoid,” which later became the whole foundation for understanding schizophrenia. R.D. Lang founded the Philadelphia Association and Kinglsey Hall in London, where apparently schizophrenic patients and their caregivers all lived together, in community: so you couldn’t tell the difference between who was the caregiver and who was the patient. This allowed people who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic to recognize that there might be something sane in their reaction to how they had been conditioned.
Bateson, Lang, and Cooper, were all exploring what happens to the mind when it is presented with multiple, undesirable narratives, such that you become wedged in this double bind. Whichever narrative you believe, you can’t completely trust it.
This phenomenon of double bind has a long history. It goes back to my namesake, Arjuna, who was presented with a double bind in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna was a Kshyatriya warrior, a social caste which emphasized honor and duty, and found himself pitted against his own family in the Kurukshetra battle. Bhima, his grand uncle who raised him from a child, was in the opposing army. Arjuna has a tremendous pressure as a Kshyatriya warrior, to go to war and be noble, but in doing so, he would be killing the people he loved the most.
His predicament is a double bind. One reality he found himself in was, “I’m a noble warrior,” the other reality as “I am related to these people.” He could not win.
Arjuna’s double bind resulted in Krishna delivering to him the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the ultimate teachings of liberation from mind, in which all duality is resolved into one transcendent view.
There are also multiple expressions of the double bind in Greek tragedy. But lets wind forward a few thousand years to Hamlet, who was also faced with an incredible double bind.
Hamlet meets the ghost of his recently deceased father, who says to him, “I was murdered by my brother, your uncle, and you must avenge my death.”
Hamlet says to himself “Okay, so that’s the reality. I’ve got to avenge my father’s death. Great, now I know clearly what to do.”
The next morning however when he contemplates the situation, he has doubts. “Maybe this was just a fantasy in my head, maybe this was just my grieving mind going crazy.”
Now Hamlet is faced with a double bind. “Which is true? Is it really true that my father was murdered and I need to avenge his death, or is it really true that I’m crazy and I’ve got to stop listening to these dreary thoughts?”
Hamlet’s double bind gives rise to one of the most famous quotes in English literature—“To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.”
Hamlet faces an impossible choice- do I take action based on what I’ve seen, or do I feel what I’m feeling and realize it’s unreliable? This unbearable situation puts him into a schizoid, split state. Basically, Hamlet goes schizophrenic four hundred years before anyone knew what schizophrenia was, until he’s called to action on his sea trip with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He transcends this impossible split in his mind through the urgent need for action without thought, and then he knows what to do. He returns to Denmark free of indecision, and takes decisive action with clarity.
Bateson, Lang, and Cooper explored how this happens within an individual. What happens to a mind when it is faced with impossible choices?
In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson recognizes two outcomes of a double bind. One is that, unable to act, you become caught in the unbearable suffering of being split between alternative realities. In a mild state, this causes anxiety and depression — which he called schizoid. It means to be caught between multiple possible outcomes, each of which is painfully undesirable.
He also describes the possibility of evolving. You transcend this split and evolve into a higher expression of yourself. You can see that happen with Hamlet, and it certainly happened with Arjuna. Bateson was suggesting that this was the potential gift of schizoid states.
This conversation was really vibrant and alive in the early 70’s, but with the resolution of the crisis of the Vietnam war, focus and attention moved to other preoccupations. We moved into the late 70’s, the 80’s, and the 90’s, where it was back to business as usual.
The 90’s was one of the biggest boom times; making money, getting famous, getting your book on the New York Times best seller list. The advent of the internet made it possible to influence many more people, and we got back into a collective mindset of success… success… success…. This interest in transcending these kinds of split, which have always been fairly intrinsic to the human predicament, was pushed underground.
Even though the original areas study from the early 70’s faded away, this whole conversation about the inner workings of the mind gave rise to an interest in what we called human potential. People started to learn to meditate, because when you meditate, you learn to watch these internal mental conflicting forces, to see the very nature of mind as fragmented, and then to transcend the duality of mind.
Transcending mind through meditation results in two major shifts in experience. One is a much more vivid experience of the present moment—appreciating a cup of tea, the smell of flowers, the simplicity of breathing. You have a more vivid experience of the present moment which transcends double bind.
The second fruit of the practice of meditation is recognition of the nature of consciousness itself, as infinite, silent and free. It results in an experience of joy for no reason, of love for no reason. You know yourself to be that which is watching all experience, instead of an object of experience.
The disruption of our culture in the late 60s above all created a craving to evolve and grow, which became the foundation of the “human potential movement.”
One way to view what’s occurring now is that we might be seeing an extension of what Bateson, Lang and Cooper recognized in individuals, but now happening collectively. With multiple narratives, none of which can be trusted, we are collectively forced into a double bind scenario, with two possible outcomes. Either we are collectively going to implode and “go crazy,” or we’re going to transcend into another way of living, which is based in different principles.
This potentially new way of living is not so based in narrative; it’s based in asking powerful questions. What is true in this moment? What can I experience in this moment? How can I have real, authentic, loving connections with other people, free of story, free of history? How can I experience my true nature as free?
People generally only have the incentive to recognize and transcend painful double-bind when they have been brought to a state of breakdown.
Eckhart Tolle, for example, didn’t just wake up because he was having a great time making money on the stock market. He woke up because he was at the point of suicidal despair, thinking “I can’t live with myself anymore.” Then he asked himself, “Wait, who can’t live with who?” That question catapulted his attention back into recognizing the nature of consciousness as intrinsically free.
Byron Katie woke up in a halfway house. She wasn’t having a great time doing real estate deals, she had come to the end of the road of her sanity.
What’s happening now globally is very confusing. It’s confusing to know who to listen to, and everything we’re used to is getting disrupted. We can understand logically that we need to quarantine and keep social distance, but a lot of intelligent people are asking, “Wait a minute. Is that all that’s going on here, or is there something else?” There are multiple little signs which prompt intelligent people to question the narrative we are being offered. It is not necessarily helpful to come up with clear answers. When we try to come up with clear answers, we develop conspiracy theories which tend to be half-developed, conjectural, and impossible to prove. Simply to question is enough to loosen the grip and open a portal for transformation.
The bright side of the current global crisis may be that it’s an incentive for evolution: an incentive to catapult ourselves into what we have always, for thousands of years, intuitively known was our potential.
We revere people like Jesus, Buddha, Quan Yin, and in modern times, Eckart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Jack Kornfield, who demonstrate a capacity to be present. These people are not so caught in narrative, but are able to enjoy the present moment, able to be loving because it’s an expression of our true nature, not because it’s an expression of manipulation or gaining influence.
This unfolding scenario, disturbing as it may be to the socioeconomic machine, disturbing as it may be to the comfort of life as usual, may be the very fertile soil we need for a collective leap into another way of living.
If we are going to be experiencing more quarantining, less business as usual, and more time to be with ourselves, we have two ways to respond. One way is to consume massive amounts of news and social media trying to uncover the ultimately true narrative. It will actually just drive us crazier and crazier. How can we ultimately prove which narrative is true?
The other way that we can use this time is to take a stand for sanity. Maybe not all the time, but as much as possible, we can take time to inquire more deeply, and to ask powerful questions.
“Where is that deeper place in me which is beyond out-of-control thinking and reactive feeling?”
“What is the possibility of a real connection with another human being, which is based in authentic, honest communication about what’s true in this moment?”
“What is there about this moment now that I can enjoy and be grateful for, even if this is my last five minutes?
“Even if the whole future is unstable and unknown, what can I be grateful for right now?”
These are some of the ways we can take this time, instead of buying into more and more panic trying to hold on to some sense of certainty, to let go and relax into uncertainty. It’s counterintuitive because it’s not the way that the mind deals with emergency. But if enough of us say to ourselves, “I don’t know what’s happening next, I don’t even know what’s happening now, but there is beauty in this moment,” we will connect in a space of sanity and presence that can actually create a new conversation. That new conversation may not be about asking “What is true?” or “What is not true?” but asking “What is here, and what is reliable?”