Sunday, June 21, 2015
Given the term has been around a few thousand years and used in myriad cultures and spiritual traditions, it begs the question, is there anything we do about it, especially at a time we seem more divided and distracted than ever?
As a species, humans have been perfecting ways to impose suffering on one another with a severity and persistence that would make even the Marquis de Sade want to seek shelter inside a rusty iron maiden. Sometimes I think the only way we can claw our way through another harrowing headline is by reminding ourselves that our historical timeline is awash with barbarity, and that somehow, the sun continues to struggle up, and humankind continues to greet it with open hands. Calloused and bloody, to be sure, but open, as if we anticipate something resembling hope should we just concur to bend our bodies toward the light, armed with nothing more than our understandably tattered faith.
This week, many are finding it hard to see the sunlight, much less lean toward it. We're weary, we're angry, and we're wondering if unjust suffering is becoming the universe's default mode. We're adding up the injustices and, chillingly, the bodies, and the math is sobering.
As a culture, it's easy to feel we are doomed. We hear it every day, sometimes in nuanced news stories designed to slowly paralyze us with hourly injections of fear; other times in the more overt warnings of talk show hosts and televangelists who rely on a more, shall we say, combustible approach.
In her book Practicing Peace in Times of War, Pema Chodron says that "our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we're feeling."
In my mind, that distress, both as individuals and as a collective of broken communities, is fear. Fear of change, fear of loss, fear of uncertainty in an age where being certain of something feels so genuinely, fleetingly rare. We are afraid of what we cannot control, and for most of us, that feels like almost everything. Once we feel so groundless, it's not unusual to start creating story lines to justify that feeling. For some of us, these story lines feed our neurotic tendencies enough to send us to places that will give us a temporary cocoon from their relentless insistences, be it a beer buzz or a Facebook feed. For other people, though, their story lines feature real life enemies who are working to keep them off balance, and deeply confused strategies for righting the power structure. Fear is an inside job, but with decidedly outward results.
Pema Chodron goes on to say, "When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You're able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And, you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”
As with so many passages of wisdom, I read thoughts like Pema's and feel bathed in a certain understanding of where at least some answers lie in regard to our basic human condition. Then, I stop and think about how hard it is to pull that off - to face my fears, to stop watering the negative seeds in my own backyard, and to open myself up to a sea of uncertainty. I think that, perhaps, someday I could do it, with enough practice and discipline. But then I think of the people who perpetuate violence, who thrive on creating chaos, and I feel that thoughts like Pema's are merely wishful idealism in an age where the glass is not only half-empty, it's riddled with bullet holes.
And yet, today, in the wake of something architected to destroy our faith, human beings in the center of the firestorm did something so humbling and hopeful as to offer forgiveness to the unforgivable. They showed us a strength we presumed impossible. And we realize that if they can be that unshakeable in the midst of their own groundlessness, perhaps we can dare to - in some small way - attempt the same in our own humble lives.
Tomorrow the sun will rise. Tomorrow, more people than we know will choose to bend toward that light. They'll perform acts of kindness, charity, and forgiveness because they realize that anger and hatred cannot be diffused by more of the same. These people are called bodhisattvas, those beings who have devoted their lives to alleviate the suffering of others. They recognize that the only way for the samsaric cycle to end is if a willing few choose to do things differently.
And the damned thing is, we can all be bodhisattvas. That is the most axis shifting, uplifting, joyous news I can give you on this difficult day.