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Do Something Unpredictable 

When someone else’s pain triggers fear in us, we turn inward and start erecting walls. We panic because we feel we can’t handle the pain. Sometimes we should trust this panic as a sign that we aren’t yet ready to open so far. But sometimes instead of closing down or resisting we might have the courage to do something unpredictable: turn our attention back toward the other person. This is the same as keeping our heart open to the pain. If we can’t shift our attention, perhaps we can let the story line go and feel the energy of the pain in our body for one second without freaking out or retreating. However, if none of these is yet possible, we engender some compassion for our current limitations and go forward.

~ Pema Chödrön

courageWhat a powerful quote! Today, we see so much suffering in the world– we see victims of abuse, oppression, discrimination and violence. We see victims on the news or in our own communities; worse, we may see them in our homes or the homes of those we love. We feel the pain instantly, but often we retreat and push away because the suffering is too great. This is a natural, human response. But what is it that motivates some of us toward action? Why do some of us open ourselves to the very real threat of vicarious trauma, while others either cannot or will not act?

Fear is one of the most powerful motivators in the human experience. Fear spurs us to react or prevents us from moving a muscle. Action rooted in fear most often results in negative consequences– action that harms others in an effort to regain some measure of stability for ourself. Yet fear is also a natural reaction to suffering designed to ensure our survival. It has its merits and purpose.

I think it’s what we do when experience fear that can create either positive or negative results. As Pema Chödrön describes in this quote, we sit with it.. we see the pain and suffering and we feel it for a moment- we explore it, we try to understand it, and by doing so, we naturally turn our attention from ourselves, from our fear and panic, back toward the other(s) experiencing the suffering. Through this, we can act instead of react- and perhaps think a bit globally in our response.

Courage is refusing to accept the patina of security that ignoring the suffering of others allows us in the moment. We can create a positive change in the world, but only if we’re willing to feel, explore and understand the suffering of others.

Mindfulness: Reactions

peaceandviolenceOne of the many reasons that Buddhist philosophy resonates so deeply with me is the way it encourages us to be mindful and sit with emotions. We don’t avoid them, but we don’t attach to them, either; we just sit with them for a moment and become aware of ourselves, the way we feel, the positive or negative physiological changes, and of course the myriad thoughts that emotions generate.  Through regular practice, we can learn to refrain from negative knee-jerk reactions and decisions, and therefore suffering, by simply becoming aware. Meditation releases the hold that our thoughts and emotions have upon us and we become more mindful humans. But this isn’t easy. It takes consistency, dedication, patience…  practice.

Emotions arise from all sorts of places, for all sorts of reasons. They serve important functions in our human experiences, such as allowing us to develop interpersonal relationships, social norms, even morals and ethics. Compassion, itself, arises from emotions. However, we can experience overwhelmingly strong emotions that can undermine our ability to respond to stimuli in appropriate ways. We overreact, “fly off the handle”, and when we act in this manner, we harm not only the recipient of our anger, but also our own self.

Our emotions and reactions arise not only from the Self, but also from the Collective – occuring within larger contexts, arising from social norms and belief-systems on both a micro and macro scale. Religious, political, regional or national ~ we experience emotions and react to those emotions and thoughts based on the larger context of our environment and experience, both individually and collectively. And this is where I continually find myself both interested and stymied.

As I practice Buddhist philosophy and meditation, I do so with a broader purpose ~ not only to be a better person, but also to create positive change for the world around me. I believe that each of us holds a piece of the puzzle; and when we each put our pieces together, we can create a global society in which we see our interconnectedness and therefore, we can work together to reduce sufferings on every level. But I often wonder how…. and I have many, many “how”s:

How does a practitioner of Buddhist philosophy and mindfulness maintain their compassionate focus and loving-kindness in the midst of all the seemingly chaotic turmoil in our ever-changing and connected world?

How can Buddhists be agents of social change? Or are we limited to change from within and hope that our inner change will affect and influence others?

How do we marry Buddhism and mindfulness with activism – or is that even possible?

As with most things, there’s more than one answer. And the answers can be contradictory.

One can argue that Siddhartha, himself, was a social activist. His decision to leave the royal palace and search for a path to end suffering was not merely to explain, alleviate and answer to his own suffering, but for the sufferings of all sentient beings. His teachings were socially radical for their time. Over the last 50+ years, as Buddhism has been incorporated into Western traditions and schools of thought, “engaged Buddhism” has developed and become a place and voice for many social activists that have embraced the path of Buddhist tradition.

So in my own search for The Answer, I find myself reevaluating my understanding of compassion, finding deeper and broader meanings as I move along this path. Being compassionate doesn’t begin and end with those of like minds, similar beliefs and values, or membership in the same circles. The real work of compassionate practice is being aware of the humanness of us all, to be able to open that soft place within us that recognizes the suffering of others in spite of their actions, words or beliefs. For instance, being compassionate to a hurting child is easy ~ but being compassionate to the adult that hurt the child is far different. It requires real work and the ability to see beyond the action itself to the underlying suffering.

Of course, this does not mean allowing the negative action or condoning it. Actions have consequences. But being compassionate ~ becoming aware of the suffering that causes the negative actions ~ allows us to respond from a place of true awareness, react without causing more suffering, and maybe even provide an opportunity, or an open door, for growth, development, and healing. As we face the violence, anger, fear and division that continue to mark the human experience, finding the deeper and broader context of compassion can help with the rush of difficult emotions that seem to tumble onto each other, one after the other.

Perhaps the answer lies in the attempt.

Namaste ~