Ancient Wisdom in the Age of Global Pandemics: Getting to the Root of it with Ayurveda
Today I sit in my beautiful office on the California coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The blue skies and mild weather that comfortably permits a sweater and scarf seem to contrast the tempestuous wildfires scorching their way through California. My home is but one area affected by record-setting heat and extreme weather events tearing across the globe, all largely driven by our rapidly changing climate. While my home stands, at least for now, the roads just south of us are closed due to fire damage. Numerous people I know have lost their homes because of these increasingly familiar yearly conflagrations throughout the state. Many consider themselves climate refugees.
I put on my mask on to cook and serve organic food to the hungry patrons that visit our Ayurvedic kitchen and clinic each day. Otherwise I live mask-free around a small community of wonderful people who live and work together. At the same time, millions of people sit today completely alone, or work long hours breathing in their own bacteria behind a face mask. Some have not been touched in six months. Some isolate in a home fraught with domestic violence, dreaming of a way out. Millions are living with empty bank accounts and no soon-to-be solutions. I have not been infected with the virus, but many I know have been and have had loved ones among the one-million people who have died.
I live amidst a redwood forest, whose incredible bounty is but a shadow of its past, as 95% of the redwood forest that was alive just decades ago has been destroyed. This is not dissimilar to the 17% of rainforest in the Amazon that has been razed mostly to clear land for cattle farming.
Life-as-usual has taken on a new definition.
I am a practitioner and lifelong student of Ayurveda, a medical science that dates back more than 5,000 years. The word Ayurveda translates to the “science of life.” While having very sophisticated healing and curative practices, its chief objective is to preserve health and prevent disease. It lays out an understanding of the laws of nature, as well as the symbiotic and delicate relationship between human health and our natural environment.
Modern medical advancements are often rooted in these ancient medical practices. For example, botanical herbs and herbo-mineral preparations also form the basis of many pharmaceutical drugs used today. Scientists have started to acknowledge that lifestyle practices outlined in Ayurveda like proper nutrition, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are powerful tools for healing and preventing chronic disease.
This ancient wisdom offers an explanation and antidote to the degradation of our environment and the human species. It is waiting for us to seize it, in a time when we are wrestling with a global health pandemic, climate catastrophe, and seemingly every other manner of human-induced hardship. Ayurveda understands all of these “symptoms” as fundamentally interrelated.
The Charaka Samhita, one of Ayurveda’s four main texts, uses the term Jana Pada Udwansa, which translates to “disaster of a community of people.” It outlines four causative factors of epidemics:
1. When a region gets denatured (Desha)
2. When water becomes toxic (Jala)
3. When air becomes polluted (Vayu)
4. When cycles of time become irregular (Kala)
When we look at the reality of our era, we see that we are not just experiencing one or two of these epidemic-inducing phenomena, but rather all four.
Animal habitats are denatured by urban encroachment. Our water, even in the industrial world, has become toxic (PFAS, traces of pharmaceutical drugs, microplastics, toxicity from fires, and most recently discovered, brain eating amoebas…). The West Coast of the U.S. currently has the worst air-quality in the world, and on a normal day in Delhi, the sun is not even visible. We are seeing changes in weather and climate patterns across each corner of the globe.
So, what does Ayurveda say is the ‘cure’ to these afflictions, to our society-wide, planetary dis-ease? I am not talking about curing the acute symptoms of Covid-19, which require intensive medical care, but rather I am talking about addressing the systemic imbalances that have lead to a weakened society, ripe for illness. Which elements account for this perfect storm of mass disease, social unrest, and environmental destruction?
First, we must look at the root-cause.
According to Ayurveda, the causative factors are twofold: a disconnection from nature and systemic greed.
To put it simply, human beings on the whole have chosen a lifestyle that attempts to dominate nature rather than live in harmony with it. Overconsumption and greed are in essence destructive, and eventually cause the breakdown of ecosystems and the extinction of species.
In our systemic disconnection from nature, we have lost touch with ways of living, eating, cultivating and communicating with the natural world that were passed down generation after generation for millennia in traditional cultures around the globe. This ancient wisdom is invaluable in navigating our way back to a life that dwells within the bounds and bounties of nature.
So, the cure.
According to Ayurveda, the remedy to our global pandemic and epidemics is sattva. Sattva refers to a quality of mind and being that embodies purity, wholesomeness, and virtue.
Ayurvedic practitioners will often recommend to their clients to live a more sattvic lifestyle or eat a more sattvic diet. Just as nature expresses itself differently in various parts of the world, an individual must learn to live in harmony with one’s nature. This often looks like practices that calm the mind, nourish rather than deplete or toxify the body (and the environment), and recognizing the interconnection between “I” as an individual, and “we” as a collective. Then, one must intrinsically formulate lifestyle habits that reflect this state of being.
These are easy words to say, but are more challenging to put into practice, as most of our convenient modern ways both in the East and the West inherently oppose sattva. They are denaturing and unsustainable. For example, our imbalanced consumption of manufactured animal-based food products, is one of the primary contributing factors to both climate change and chronic disease.
The truth is, our systems – our political system, our food system, our transportation system, and our health system – are made up of collectives of individuals with desires and habits. Currently, those desires and habits all have something in common. They are primarily individualist in philosophy and practice.
Our systems and lifestyle habits fundamentally lack “we” consciousness. While this concept threatens our modern ways, it seems that our ways need to be challenged before we too become one of those 150 species that are extinguished each day. Despite our desire not to be, we are not immune to that reality.
So, how do you make your life more sattvic? Here are a few suggestions and prompts for reflection that can perhaps help you, and inherently help all of us, in the direction of healing our collective dis-ease.
Match your nature with Nature:
o Rise and set with the sun
o Eat fresh, seasonal, and locally produced food
o Avoid processed and manufactured foods, beauty products, and household supplies
o Eat all or mostly plants
o Learn about your Ayurvedic constitution and how to appropriately keep it in balance
o Slow down
o Breathe deeper and slower
o Choose clean energy wherever possible – for your home, cars, and body J
o Prioritize relationships over profit
o Intentionally create groups and social connections that build on healthy habits
o Engage in activities and relationships that bring you joy
o Avoid violence to self or others
Engage your spirituality:
o Build a practice into each day that reminds you of your interconnectedness, your purpose, and your passions
o Create community around these
Invest in your local economy and ecosystem:
o Create and get involved in local businesses and organizations
o Find ways to reinvent “business as usual” to a cradle-to-cradle model (eliminate waste, repurpose, reinvest in the local community)
o Learn about your local ecosystem and ways that you can engage and support its preservation and adaption
o Learn about the edible and medicinal plants that grow in your region
Support native communities and learn native wisdom practices:
o Native communities around the globe have been isolated and oppressed, take part in changing that
o Learn from these traditional ways of living
Ask the hard questions (and listen carefully for the answers):
o Where does my lifestyle contradict my values?
o Where do I take more than I give?
o How does my fear keep me in a cycle of protection rather than service?
o What parts of my lifestyle have been too inconvenient to consider changing?
o What impact does my business really have on the world – environmentally, socially, spiritually?
o How can I create a lifestyle that lives in harmony with nature? What do I need to change? What hard conversations do I need to have?
Sattva inherently directs the gaze inward. Rather than pointing blame outside of oneself, a sattvic mind takes responsibility for its creation, its intention, and its power. In a world full of blame, divisiveness, and relegation of liability, this is a radical notion. It is not a socialist political agenda. It is not a religious cult ideology. It is not a “far left” control strategy. It is simply the truth. If we all did it, leaders and patrons alike, perhaps we could steer this boat in a different direction.