The Suffering of Others-What We Can Do By Kerry Moran
The tidal waves rolled out from the epicenter at 500 miles an hour, reaching foreign shores in just hours. It took just days for the searing images to reach the television screen. Then the wave hit my heart, full bore. And rocked it.
I sat at the computer weeping at the sight of an Indian fisherman holding his dead eight-year-old son. A mother in Sri Lanka wailing as her child is interred in a mass grave. Dazed survivors, devastated cities, broken bodies … the torrent of images was, at least for a while, too overwhelming to comprehend. But I could all too easily imagine the pain of individuals.
And I felt so humbled in the face of their anguish. It made me reflect on the terrible intimacy bequeathed by the media, the all-seeing eye that beams distant tragedies straight into our homes. Darfur, Beslan, Mosul, Nagapattinam, Meulaboh—all connected in a vast web of suffering that extends across the globe.
How do we respond to this constant wave of images? Most people I talk with here readily admit they don’t know what to do. “I see all those images on TV, and I just go numb.” “I feel overwhelmed …. sad … depressed.” “What can one person do?”
It’s a profound and ancient question: How to deal with human suffering?
Recognize it or not, we are affected by the pain of others. Because of this vulnerability, we need to respond emotionally—with empathy—and spiritually as well, with compassion. The news may be presented as a collection of facts, but we are human beings and we can’t take in this information without being affected by it. To pretend we aren’t is to deny our humanity.
As humans, we are made to, meant to, respond to the pain of others. Especially now, it feels essential to do so, as much as each of us can. Every iota of awareness and compassion we bring to a situation informs it, shaping it in some subtle fashion.
Consider taking up the spiritual practice of responding to suffering, whether it’s a wreck glimpsed driving by on the freeway, or a cataclysmic event like the tsunami flooding the airwaves. When you feel overwhelmed by a situation, make the time to acknowledge your feelings and deepen into them. Sometimes I just sit with the newspaper and cry—more times in this last year than I can count. When I open my heart I feel the pain involved, the heartbreak and grief; as well as the pain of the ignorance that so often causes these.
Breathing in this pain, you can take it into your heart … breathing out, send to the victims all the safety and comfort you experience in this moment, everything you have to give. In, out, sending, receiving.
This simple practice is called tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism, and I have no doubt it works in the world, though I cannot yet say how. I know it works for me at the personal level. It helps me feel connected rather than overwhelmed, more at peace with the rough, even horrific, aspects of life. Cultivating this practice, we learn to connect, respond, and let go—simple actions we do as we move through life.
A practice like this is no substitute for a practical response (stopping to help on the freeway, making a donation to Mercy Corps). But often we are unable to respond directly to a situation, and end up feeling disturbed and disconnected. Tonglen works on the inner level in a way I believe is equally important. It allows us to respond to the emotional anguish that arises when we see another’s suffering.
This kind of practice is subtle, portable, invisible, and always available. Sometimes it’s just a breath of acknowledgement, an opening of the heart that lets me slow down enough to offer myself silently to the present moment.
The endless stream of heartbreaking news images flooding our awareness can fuel the non-stop practice of opening our hearts to the world. This can bring us to the understanding that there is no difference between our pain and the pain of others. There are no boundaries where the heart is concerned. The things that break our hearts are the same around the globe.
And we come to the understanding that the heart is meant to be broken. Open.
Breathing in the suffering, and taking it to heart. Breathing out, and giving all the happiness I have in this moment—so tenuous, so fragile, so easily washed away. We are all so vulnerable. This is what it is to be human. This is what all these people on the news are so beautifully, horribly, tragically showing us, night after night, day after day.
Kerry Moran is a Buddhist-oriented psychotherapist in private practice in Portland. She is a practitioner in the Dzogchen tradition and author of five books. She can be reached at 503-525-1172 or [email protected]. Her website is www.innerintegrity.com