People ask me regularly about how spiritual practice can guide us in responding to the state of our society. They tell me that while the teachings of compassion are alive and helpful in other parts of their lives, they seem out of reach when they read the headlines each day. In a recent e-mail from one of our DC community Spiritual Friends groups, members asked:
- How do we stay compassionate when it feels like so much harm is being caused to vulnerable people?
- Isn’t acceptance a kind of complacency? Isn’t “letting go” like condoning?
- How do we call on meditation practice when we’ve become fearful, angry and disheartened at the hatefulness and viciousness that is so evident in our society?
I’ve had many waves of anger, fear and aversion in reaction to the harm being perpetrated in our society. In my own practice, it helps to keep starting right where I am, not judging my own reactions, thinking “I shouldn’t feel this.” Rather than trying to let go of these feelings, I often reflect that “this belongs,” it’s the inner weather of the moment. Then I can feel the fear or aversion with acceptance and kindness.
This also allows me to listen to the message of the emotions. Reactions of horror and outrage can be healthy and intelligent. They alert us to the very real suffering around us and they help move us toward action. When we accept and mindfully open to these emotions, they unfold to reveal the deep caring that is underneath. But this doesn’t happen if our minds fixate on stories of bad other. If we are lost in our stories, we are lost in our own egoic reactivity. To listen to the emotions and respond from our most awake heart, we need to make the U-Turn, coming out of stories and back to our vulnerability and our tender heart.
I often tell the story of a person walking in the woods and coming upon a little dog. The dog seems harmless enough, but when they reach out to pet the dog, it growls and lunges at them. The immediate response is fear and anger, but then they notice that the dog has its leg caught in a trap and compassion begins to rise up in the place of the anger. Once we see how our own leg is in a trap and hold our experience with self-compassion, it becomes easier to see how others might be caught, too – causing suffering, because they are suffering.
One misunderstanding is that acceptance and compassion amount to condoning, complacency, or resignation. On the contrary, true acceptance is a courageous willingness to face reality as it is right now, and compassion brings tenderness to the life of the moment. Only with this radically allowing and tender presence can we respond from our full intelligence and heart.
Of course, in the darkest of days, it is often not possible to open to what’s going on inside us with a compassionate presence. Again, we simply start where we are, bringing mindful recognition and acceptance to our closed hearts—this, too, belongs. Our intention to pay attention, our intention to be kind, will eventually allow our heart to relax open.
Consciousness is evolving. Even amidst the great limbic outbreak of our current times, we can also witness a growing interest in awakening awareness, in spiritual practice and in living aligned with our hearts. There is a dialectic at work: Suffering is necessary to fuel transformation.
In a small group meeting at a recent meditation retreat, some women shared their stories of pain and trauma caused by sexual harassment. One male who was participating said sadly, “When are these guys going to wake up and stop hurting people?” A few days later, after listening to Oprah give her speech at the Golden Globes, he had a rush of realization: “This is the turning point. We’re in a defining moment, and need to pay attention! The victims are speaking out and allies are awakening. There is hope for today and, perhaps, tomorrow.”
There is hope. Ultimately, the sacred feminine—the wisdom and love that cherishes life—is unfolding and flowering in our collective awareness. Compassion and forgiveness are increasingly researched, trained in, practiced. There’s no turning back this awakening. In time, the shadow emotions will transmute into an increasingly pure expression of our wise hearts.
Finally, it’s essential to respond actively whenever possible and to stay in good touch with others who care. Our shared caring is what keeps hope alive in difficult times—it’s the strongest medicine. Here’s a quote from contemporary Bodhisattva, Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.
We are not alone. People all over the globe share the same longing for a more loving, just, and peaceful world. People everywhere are opening to the sense of our true belonging with each other and all of life.
May the suffering of our times awaken our deepest understanding and compassion;
and may we respond in a way that serves healing and freedom.
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