“You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and your turn it into compassion.” -Gyalwa Karmapa
Part of the daily Buddhist meditation that is known the world over is “May you be free from suffering…” The tradition teaches that suffering is as much part of life is as love and joy, certainly you don’t have to dive too deep into world current events or even probably the events of your own life to tap the vast well of pain and suffering that we as a people both create and bear on this planet. There are many places, where the depth of suffering, the Nazi camps, the grounds of the Trade Towers, and most recently, the streets of Paris, where we need to enshrine our collective pain. We collectively accept that we will never resolve our grief over the suffering that occurred in that time and space, so we build monuments and create museums to honor and hold what is lost. This process does something else for us too, it transmutes our suffering into something that connects us.
Connection is everything when we struggle with our own personal suffering. It is the perhaps the only meaningful way to befriend and respect our grief. Isolated with the dark moods we have on waking, the way that melancholy can follow us through an afternoon, the moments when we despair over life passing us by, the searing pain of death, the shocking moments when everything is turned on its head – the unexpected diagnosis, the bizarre storm, the car accident… life presents an endless array of loss, challenging us over and over again to let go of what was and yet not slip into the deep hole of despair that effectively ends our capacity for resilience and love. The pivot point of how we accept and deal with our suffering is whether we can open to compassion from ourselves and others.
Compassion is one of the most effective ways that the visceral experience of gratitude shows up, mitigating the worst of times. Remember that gratitude is often translated as the heart’s memory- feeling deep from that space, we offer those we love a bridge back to community by sharing their pain. And even though it requires a maturity of the heart, it is also an innate response that we often witness in the youngest of children too. Misunderstood, compassion turns into the unsavory experience of pity. Too bad, sorry for you, but we keep their pain at an arm’s length. Not willing to really experience the weight of loss in another, we distance ourselves thinking that we are protecting ourselves from harm’s way. It is a fool’s errand. There is no protection from the grief of loss in this life, and not cultivating the heart skills to participate deeply in the process of grief is unwise, not only because it leaves us unprepared for our own grief but worse still because we lose connection in the most meaningful of ways to the people who make our life real.
We are called back over and over by the weight of suffering, not because we can make things right but because our grief is how we can acknowledge what has happened to us. Our suffering is real. The accumulated losses during a lifetime, times we felt isolated from or undeserving of love and comfort, these injuries reside in our heart. Compassion is ultimately one of the most profound and life-changing practices of a grateful heart. It softens us sufficiently so that we come to accept our suffering as a normal part of life, embracing the truth of it, we know how it feels to live so very close to the ground. We are rewarded by the gift of time, of one more day and there is a sacred beauty to the hours we have- in pain or not. Nothing is taken for granted and every sunrise, every sunset, every small act of kindness, is a gift.
I will always remember one mother whose child had died and was honored at the Positive Change Memorial Courtyard, who shared her experience of her grief and loss when she told me, “At first, her death was like a boulder in my pocket, I could hardly walk with the weight of it. I could barely stand. And over time, it has become a stone, a weight that anchors me always and on good days it is kind of like a friend. It is always with me, the loss of her. But feeling the weight of losing her keeps her near and present.” This is how compassion heals us. We grow into the gratitude of what was so much that the losses themselves become a comfort to us.