Do you ever wonder how we could be realistic and caring toward tragedy and pain in the world, without depleting ourselves? How can we continue to support and serve, rather than turn away from the suffering of a family member, close friend, the planet or a political crisis - without burning out?
To me, understanding our own answers begins with noticing how we relate to both suffering and joy. Perhaps we believe that to care means to worry or feel the pain of another, so we find ourselves doing just that. Or, we might not feel worthy of joy when we know others are hurting. Guilt or shame for feeling good might nip joy in the bud. Or, as in my own experience, I feel cold or uncaring when I turn away from the negative and am drawn to my strong preference for joy.
Try reading some news headlines and you will see your own tendencies.
This year my mentors have a particularly strong presence in my life. They help me with my relationship to joy and sorrow. From being on personal retreat in Burma to working together at trainings and retreats around the world, their wisdom falls into my heart and mind like steady, gentle rain.
While giving a dhamma talk in Burma, Michele McDonald said "If we can't appreciate the joy, we are out of balance. If we don't care for the suffering, we are out also out of balance."
Anne Douglas at a recent iRest training in Banff, Canada, said "Notice which end of the spectrum of opposite feelings you are more often in. What about exploring the other?"
It is always powerful for me to hear essentially the same teachings from different traditions.
Images come to my mind: a 1960's patchouli-infused flower child, hands in the air declaring "It's all peace and love!" Next to her is Eeyore, the long-eared, slow talking, gloomy side-kick to Winnie-the-Pooh. I see aspects of myself in each, but you can guess which one I spend more time in.
As we open our hearts it is helpful to recognize anger, give it space, and cultivate compassion. In Burma, Steven Smith said, "Fierce compassion is the moral equivalent to anger. The motivation is wisdom and compassion, not ill-will or fear." This is worth re-reading as the teaching holds so much. My interpretation is; compassion arises when we acknowledge suffering, not when we turn away from it or react with rage.
With practice, we learn to acknowledge and allow even the most difficult situations. It didn't mean we have to endorse or approve of them. With this acknowledgement we can choose with wisdom whether to take action or not. Our compassion may be strong (fierce) enough to take action. It isn't born from anger, which feels constricting in the body. It is born from care and feels good. Or we may choose to care without taking action, knowing it is not our battle and 'things are as they are'. Either way, we turn toward the suffering, not away from it. Both have a pleasant feeling tone, even though the subject may be unpleasant. We feed caring rather than feed war. What about joy, who says we are worthy of it? The iconic image of the Buddha touching the earth when asked of his worthiness reminds us that by this very earth, all are worthy. If we have forgotten this, wisdoms traditions, paths of meditation and personal inquiry help us remember joy as our birthright.
As we develop skills to open to hardship without being swept away, we also open to joy. We can't stop suffering from happening, but we can choose our response.
In this newsletter, I offer retreats and private coaching to support your skills in opening to challenge, joy and ease of being in your body and in our world.
May our hearts awaken together,