Teacher of Suffering (Dukkha)

“We suffer because we forget our belonging to one another” – Mother Teresa

The Buddha teaches us that there is suffering. Most suffering we create when we attach our being to our form. We suffer when we build our sense of self on a perceived meaning, our form, or our identity. We suffer when we do not recognize the undivided whole of existence. When we base our life’s meaning on the value of our houses, how many cars we have in the garage, how many letters follow our name, or how many medals we have hanging in our closet, an external event can completely collapse our sense of self. This loss of identity, our egoic sense of self, is painful and can cause immense suffering.

Suffering is the precursor to the kind of spiritual development that awakens us to the recognition that we are all one. When we are vulnerable, our interpersonal boundaries dissolve, and we dissociate from “I”. This leads to the re-birth of the true self which is a freeing experience that contains great potential. Happiness cannot be obtained by avoiding suffering, for suffering is an essential part of human existence.

Isolation, the most effective way to reduce the rate of viral transmission, is an ideal environment where suffering can manifest itself. People were isolated from each other and were prone to forgetting that they’re part of a greater collective. The loss of economic security and the fear of the unknown added an additional layer of suffering. It was no surprise that reports of suicidal ideations, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions were on the rise. Young adults, minorities, essential workers, and elderly caregivers disproportionately experienced these forms of suffering.

Most people that tested positive for the coronavirus did not exhibit any symptoms. However, a subpopulation was hospitalized and even had severe complications. The virus appeared in different ways in different people. Some common trends in severe cases included loss of taste, loss of smell, sensitivity to light, extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing, coughing, night sweats, extreme fever, and stomach pain. Since the virus was new, many doctors did not have any clinical data to guide them in caring for their patients. The only thing patients could do was let the virus run its course and hope the medical professionals could keep them comfortable through it.

Getting released from the hospital was just the beginning of the recovery process though. Upon release, some people regained enough energy to do simple tasks like walking to the bathroom or taking a shower. Patients that were put on a ventilator and endured sedation often experienced severe lung damage and had difficulty moving. The virus also caused widespread inflammation which restricted blood flow to the brain ultimately resulting in the death of brain cells. Again, most people recovered from the virus, but some had debilitating, long-lasting effects.

I believe when most people hear the word “suffering”, their mind immediately turns to the worst extreme of suffering, which is death. American culture has sanitized the notion of illness and death. We tend to deny its existence and avoid confronting it. We would rather idealize the end of a life cycle via a “celebration of life”. We describe after-life planning as having a “difficult conversation”. We can’t even call it what it is. The process of death is marked when one’s being transitions from form to formless. The physical form is no longer of use to the being and the formless spirit simply moves on to another physical form.

The coronavirus prevented many families from saying goodbye to their loved ones. They couldn’t visit hospitals or nursing homes. They couldn’t gather at funeral services or bear witness to burials. Since this was a novel virus, funeral homes couldn’t even process the deceased right away because it was thought that the virus could live on surfaces for a number of days. The pandemic halted the American grieving ritual.

In the early days of the pandemic, one of the first major outbreaks was in New York City. A densely populated urban city was the perfect transmission ground for the virus. The number of deaths per day was plateauing at a high number of 800. That is a lot of bodies to process. Funeral homes and cemeteries were severely overwhelmed and underprepared for this massive surge in demand.

The average price of an American burial was $8,000. That included the casket, ceremony, and burial. Many people were not able to return to work due to stay-at-home orders, an economic crisis was looming, and there was an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. The traditional burial was simply not an option. The average American had no choice but to do a free city burial. This option was not well known to the general public and often came as a shock, but free city burials have been utilized by the poor population for decades.

For the past 150 years, New York City’s public burials have occured on Hart Island. The island has buried people that have succumbed to various epidemics including yellow fever, cholera, HIV, and the Spanish Flu of 1918. In April, the media covered the story of Hart Island and people were horrified at the images of long trenches containing stacked boxes of bodies, three high and two wide. One local resident commented that the island looks to be operating more streamlined and efficient than in the past. Those are two starkly contrasting reactions.

Hart Island has never run out of burial space and probably never will. After 25 years, the city is able to recycle graves. Once a body decomposes to skeletal remains, new plots can be added on top. Some might find that gruesome, but there is a kind of beauty in the thought of not being buried alone, of being surrounded by the spirits of the city. The pandemic collectively called us to face the meaning of death, and to experience it in its most raw form.

“Each person’s life, each life-form, in fact, represents a world, a unique way in which the universe experiences itself. And when your form dissolves, a world comes to an end – one of countless worlds.” – Eckhart Tolle