How crisis is teaching us all — and learning the taste of wild radishes

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A wild radish

One of the great surprises of this pandemic is the clarity it brings. The suffering and disruption, while they cause great grief, have also made clear a reality that has been covered over for a long time. This is an important moment. For creators of movements, and movers in business, it is an opportunity to realise new potentials for our future, and not be left behind. It is a time to see the fundamentals of who we are in a new way.

Our wake up has been scary. It is like a wall has come down. Suddenly, we realise the house is on fire, the neighbourhood is on fire. It has been burning for a long time, it seems. We can no longer ignore that roaring sound, and the calling of our neighbours.

With this pandemic on us we need to strip away what has kept us in a small view of our world. To see what is happening, we need to strip away some harmful beliefs and assumptions. We realise that, until now, we have been caught up in a way of thinking that has walled us off. Our default thinking has blinded us, and created the conditions in which these problems arose.

The predominant frame of mind relies on a technical view of the world. It is speedy, solutions-focussed, and is geared to provide us with predictable control. In this mode, items can be named, put into boxes, and separated from the communities from which they came.

The fact is, technical solutions have been very successful. They have served our ancestors well. Using technical ways of thinking has built us skyscrapers and cured polio. It allows us to connect on the internet. It is so good at giving us solutions that it has become our default mode. We turn to technical solutions first for problems we encounter.

While writing this, today, I went for a walk. My dog led me to go down a rarely used path. Monty and I followed the narrow hint of a trail, and I found a plant I’d seen before in a different country, but I wasn’t sure what it was here.

So, I took out my phone and Googled the plant. We reach for our technical know-how first, right? I stood there in the woods, ignoring my dog, while I looked at my screen. I read Wikipedia articles and learned about growth seasons. I learned the Latin names, its origins, and the many ways farmers use to eradicate it.

My dog laid down in the dried leaves and ate a stick.

Finally I looked up. The problem is that if we only use a technical approach, we fall into a view from a distance. We keep ourselves separate from people and problem. We even make objects of our own emotions, unrelated to us. You might be in an organisation that looks at people this way.

Again, we don’t need to throw this out. One can appreciate the benefit to order, rules, policy and social norms in governments and business. Our ancestors benefited when they learned to fear strangers and not kill too many of our friends.

Notice, though, when you think in a technical frame of mind, how you put things into one of two columns. It’s “yes” or “no.” Do we want more of them or should we push them away? What are we missing when we only judge people as those we desire or dislike?

Back to the trail in the bushlands. As I read the research on my phone, the first few articles about wild radish were about how to poison them. From the first few articles I only read how they are classed as a nuisance to farmers. I sniffed the plant and scrolled down further. At about the second scroll, I saw they are also entirely edible, and very nutritious. They are weed to some, food to others.

For those of us who hope to create something in the world, whether it’s a business, service to a community, or to change people’s lives, this moment in history is a penetrating moment of choice. If we choose to hope for a return to the past, if we see the virus as interruption, then we will repeat the road to our current trauma. We will waste opportunities to innovate. We will lose the opportunity to see into our thinking and culture.

We also have another option, which is to hold the pandemic as a lens onto who we are. This pandemic, like the bushfires, and police brutality, did not come upon us from outside. They are us. “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world,” says Franz Kafka. “That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

We don’t know what this will mean yet. Arundhati Roy offers this view, though:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

The way we have been viewing our world, until now, has helped us ignore the new truths we are learning.

  • We can no longer say that my freedom to not wear a mask is only my business
  • We can no longer say that affordable healthcare is not a community concern
  • We can no longer say that we stand apart from the ecology, and the fine, subtle, almost invisible networks where we live
  • We can no longer say that all lives matter but ignore racist violence and abuse.

This is a difficult time, but it is also a vibrant moment to be alive. If we can be “future-ready” in our inquiry, if we are courageous, if we can suspend our impulse to return to normal, we will let the walls drop, and see what is there.

It can be hard. We need a personal practice to help connect us with our purpose. We also need people around us to help think this way. We need allies to support and challenge us. The fact is, the call to the return to comfort of old habits die hard.

We need to be fierce and alert. We need to practice habits to help us hold our attention, with intelligence and calm.

Back to the wild radish. I picked some and tasted it. It was fresh, slightly sweet at the beginning and with a big peppery finish. I brought some home to add to a salad, and it was delicious.

Don’t take my word for it, though. You won’t know really what I mean until you go and taste it yourself.

Written by

I’m a teacher in the Diamond Sangha Zen tradition. I speak and write about learning and attention, and I coach and facilitate in private practice.

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