“One day a monk spoke bitterly to the Buddha. All he wanted to talk about was the unbearable sorrows of the world. The Buddha remained silent while the monk talked, then a faint smile appeared on his face. He pointed to the ground below his feet and said,“On this earth I have attained awakening.” -Buddhist Mondo
It is easy to become bitter by the weight of so much unresolved sorrow in life. I feel my heart get hard and my attitude towards life turn sour sometimes when I spend too long scanning the newspaper or fixating on the CNN newscasts while at the gym. Bad news travels faster than ever and the continuous in-your-face coverage of the unceasing violence from seemingly endless human conflict and its destructive aftermath can overwhelm me to the point of withdrawal, or worse still, indifference. But my indifference doesn’t stick; over and over I am pulled back into the stories of suffering from around the world with an earnest desire to know what is happening and to find my way into being part of the solution. I know that I am not alone, struggling to find center in this pendulum swing in my relationship to suffering.
Dealing with my own personal disappointment and losses often intensifies this pendulum swing response. Getting lost in our own pain feels almost like a biological response, built in to me like my innate reflexes. Circling around the broken spaces and applying my problem solving intelligence, turning it over and over in my mind’s eye to find a way in to fix it is a healthy response that too easily turns obsessive. In the moments when I finally see there is no fix, the internal pendulum swings to all forms of denial, repression and escape. At first, it is too raw to hold onto the brokenness of living that asks nothing more of me than the willingness to see it for what it is, to accept that what we hold dear in life breaks and there is nothing to be done. I resist this moment that often feels like helplessness and despair, and tragically miss the opportunity that is really being offered: the chance to wake up.
It’s understandable that we mistake these openings to enlightenment because they are shrouded in our most challenging feelings. Waking up rarely has the mystical sexy feel I imagine when I think of finding true presence. Instead, the process begins in the messy space of human turmoil and demands that we be willing to see beyond our habitual response to our sorrow, disillusionment and loss. It takes practice to witness life as it is without our filters of what we want or don’t. It takes deliberate intention to see our emotional storms of grief, anger and sadness as only a small part of the whole. But mostly it takes a lot of courage to be a witness to reality, to the interconnectedness of all things, people and events, to the fact that even in the most painful moments there is still love.
The forgiving piece is that it only takes one such moment to wake up and realize that there is another way to live. And it is a blessing that nurtures itself finding this intention that becomes one’s strongest desire: to learn how to substitute the ability to wake up for our old habitual responses to suffering. This is the motivation that has increasingly pulled me towards a Buddhist way of seeing the world and a daily practice of meditation. Unlike other religious traditions, Buddhism teaches the equanimity involved with both suffering and joy as a path to enlightenment. What is valued in daily practice is the ability to witness our changing emotional responses to the world as a way to lift our habitual mental filters and cultivate the capacity to see what is happening in the largest sense, to truly bear witness to reality as it is.
This practice is also esteemed as a gateway for one of the deepest experiences of love that is available on this huge, beautiful and scarred earth, to live through compassion. What we begin to see in these moments of clarity is that within the deepest moments of suffering, there is also beauty and the possibility of seeing and feeling more than we knew we could hold. One of my all time favorite Mary Oliver poems called Wild Geese has long stayed in me as a reminder to both the sacredness and the availability of compassion in our lives. She writes:
“…Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.”
The more I practice this process of waking up, the more I understand that my suffering has little to do with anything external, not the stories in the news, not those around me or even the situation I am in. Perceiving through a compassionate, open heart is the path to waking up, to healing this big beautiful broken reality we all share.