The sickness and death that affected millions of people around the world as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been covered widely by the media. But along with the overt panic and despair came the disruption of everyday activities, including a number of spiritual routines that brought comfort to many people. The political implications of requesting churches, synagogues, and mosques to close temporarily drew a lot of attention, but the interruption to at least one spiritual tradition received much less coverage in the media. It happened to be the one that affected me most personally, and that I feel best qualified to write about.
As a writer working from home, I minimized my variation of survivor’s guilt (no daily commute or rubbing shoulders with the possibly infected) by reminding myself that I already suffered more than many working adults. A fair percentage of writers are introverts (the likes of Fran Lebowitz, Brett Easton Ellis, and Norman Mailer to the contrary notwithstanding). As the journalist Nora Ephron once put it, writers get paid for sitting all day in a room alone. You might think it’s easy being an introvert, but that’s only because it seems like we don’t do much at parties or family gatherings. But really, it’s no snap standing around with a glass of seltzer and pondering the gloomy state of things while other folks are having a grand time, letting go of their inhibitions after a few drinks.
Oh, yeah, I should have mentioned that, like certain introverts, for most of my adult life I ameliorated the terrors of social gatherings by priming my communal interaction pump with a few drinks. Often more than a few. Over time, this deleterious habit, also known as alcoholism, wedged its way into my work life, occupying ever more time and psychic space. Still, I’d been what is euphemistically known as a “functional” alcoholic because my malfunctions flew under most people’s radar, including, fortunately, the highway patrol. By the time I woke up and grokked that the evening glass of wine with dinner had mushroomed into half a bottle or more—usually of those intense reds that have significantly higher alcohol content than most other wines—I saw that I was living on borrowed time, and started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. At first they seemed dreary affairs, held in drab church basements or utility rooms that reminded me unfavorably of my old parish hall on Long Island; the speakers often related the kind of waking-up-in-the-gutter experiences that sounded a far cry from my rarefied enjoyment of so-called fine wines.
In time, though, I realized that AA is as much a spiritual practice as any established religion. Although I had been practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for some years, I began to see that meditation often got in the way of my drinking. One of them had to go, and for a while the wine was winning out, despite the fact that meditation was the one thing that made me feel better in my heart instead of just my brain. At around that moment in my mental jiujitsu, I discovered that an AA meeting was being held in the same Tibetan monastery (Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, or KTD), where my wife and I had been going for teachings and meditation retreats for years. (In case you may have heard that Buddhists eschew all intoxicants as a matter of practice—you’re right. But there is also no end to the cognitive dissonance that a committed alcoholic is capable of enduring.)
At KTD, the meeting took place in a small, elegant shrine room bedecked with statues and thangkas of various buddhas and bodhisattvas, where we sat on cushions or chairs on a floor composed of large, richly colored stone slabs, with a view of nearby mountains. Better still, it included 15 minutes of silent meditation, a clear message to my soul that I was in the right place. I had been attending that meeting faithfully for nearly five years when the early waves of the pandemic suddenly began breaking in Washington State and New York City, and one of its first casualties was our KTD meeting. A considerable portion of the monastery’s followers traveled up from New York City, the east coast ground zero for the pandemic, and to protect the health of the resident lamas and staff, the monastery shut down very early on. Our meeting suddenly had nowhere to meet.
It’s hard to convey the level of dread and panic that gripped the AA community when all meetings were summarily closed for safety reasons. Most meetings are held in churches, town halls, and other community-affiliated spaces, whose first responsibility is to whichever organization owns the building, so they all began shutting down reflexively. You should know that a lot of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts live from meeting to meeting, often going to several meetings per week—or per day—as their most reliable means of refraining from drinking or using, and the terrifying chain of events that act sets in self-destructive motion. The dawning awareness that no meeting would be available, especially at the times of day when the urge to drink might be most rampant, launched a string of urgent phone calls, texts, and emails about how to fill the abyss.
It happened that, for some time before Covid struck, I had been holding Zoom meetings with my writing clients. I liked it better than Skype, although, like Skype, it has an annoying habit of cutting out completely in the middle of a meeting. Still, I’d managed to get comfortable with Zoom’s many quirks and I already had a paid subscription, so I volunteered to set up a Zoom meeting to replace the one at KTD, even before the AA network started creating their own Zoom meetings.
In my years in the program, however, I had never chaired a meeting. Chairing usually requires a commitment of one to three months, a promise I never thought I’d be able to keep when it meant being in the same place, same time, week after week, let alone on a Saturday evening, which is when our monastery meeting took place. But now all that I had to do was turn on my laptop, open up my Zoom app, and send out alerts to our email list. My hermit archetype felt comfortable enough with that—and being put in charge of the operation gave a welcome boost to my generally anemic level of self-esteem.
Some of the regulars were not so comfortable with the virtual medium, and I did miss the physical appeal of KTD’s Amitabha shrine room, along with the eerily stimulating sound of live Tibetan music accompanying the Mahakala ritual held within earshot in another part of the monastery. (The fact that the Tibetan figure of Mahakala is an embodiment of the bodhisattva of compassion, depicted as a fiercely terrifying protector deity, had a paradoxical significance for me. The AA literature talks about calling on your Higher Power, but sometimes it feels like you need the fierceness of a protector deity within to cancel out the force of demon rum.) Members who had no interest in Buddhism still got a kick out of the screeching horns, clanging cymbals, and rampant percussion that sounded for all the world like a Sun Ra concert. One newcomer asked me, “Who’s playing that avant-garde jazz out there?”
A few months after our meeting went virtual, we unexpectedly and ironically needed to become our own protector deities. Word of the online AA meetings had gotten around the Internet, and homebound teenagers (and likely more than a few emotionally infantile adults) decided it would be a real hoot to crash Zoom meetings—the links were available, unprotected, on national AA sites—and they started showing up uninvited. Abruptly, roomfuls of recovering alcoholics seeking refuge were being invaded by demented-looking kids swilling Jack Daniel’s, or, worse yet, porno videos accompanied by racist taunts in the chat room. “Zoombombing” had become a thing.
The techs running Zoom as a small business had already been overwhelmed by the massive numbers of businesses and individuals using their service in the wake of Covid. From the beginning, I found it impossible to reach a live human to answer my basic questions about programming. But Zoombombing threatened to upend what had suddenly become a billion-dollar business, and the company quickly developed a set of security tools that made it easy to permanently block the bored teens. I might say it was almost fun quashing their adolescent pranks, but for thousands of alcoholics already suffering from an absence of in-person meetings, the visual and verbal assaults were truly horrifying. I was fortunate to have the support of several members who became adept enough that they picked up the slack and learned to dispatch Zoombombers before they could do their damage.
Instead of just tagging along, for once I felt I had some skin in the game. Twelve step programs are big on providing “service,” and now I saw why. It helped my own state of mind to share in the relief that others felt at being able to attend meetings again. Because our meeting link was posted on AA websites, and meditation meetings are not commonplace, we attracted people from across the country as well as the U.K. and Australia. I got to know a first-timer from Down Under who, because of the time difference, was getting up at sunrise on Sundays to join us. She desperately needed to attend her first meeting because the “vodka monster” had begun to threaten her once-promising career. And she stuck with it even while coping with some distressing domestic troubles. Soon after, I was approached by another first timer to be his sponsor—another form of service I’d rigorously eschewed.
More than a year after our meeting went virtual, in-person meetings have started returning, but we’ve decided to keep our online meeting so the members from out of town can continue to join us. For me, the great lesson of the pandemic—aside from the affirmation that we have even less control over the material world than we like to think—is that humans all need to feel and act like a spiritual community. Not anything sectarian, but spiritual in the sense of connecting through a higher power, a unitive consciousness.
Years ago when I was writing a book on the world’s religions, I learned that the Hindu tradition divided life into four ashramas, or distinct stages based on age. After the stages of student and householder, one can retire to the forest or ashram to devote more time to spiritual practice, living among other seekers of wisdom; and eventually, one becomes a renunciate, or sannyasin. As much as I fantasized about entering those two last stages, I never felt quite ready to give up the comforts of home and family. Now I can see that, without my having to leave home for the forest, the pandemic from hell offered me the potential to be of service in a way I could never have predicted.