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Many of us are chronically distressed by the suffering we see around us. It confronts us in the 24/7 news cycle, in social media, in what we pass on the street every day. We live with a longing to be rid of the pain and guilt that we experience in witnessing all of this suffering.
That longing drives us to cast about for things to do that would “fix the problem.” We try and we urge others to try political action. We give and we urge others to give. Even so, we still feel our discomfort and our seeming failure to accomplish a fix.
The Gospel of Mark tells us a story in which Jesus addresses this pain and guilt, yet we tend to miss his message—in part because centuries of tradition have focused so much on him rather than on what he was teaching us.
Now some of them were annoyed…. “What good purpose is served by this waste of myrrh? For she could have sold the myrrh for more than three hundred silver coins and given to the poor….”
Then Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done me a courtesy. Remember, there will always be the poor around, and whenever you want you can do good for them, but I won’t always be around. She did what she could—she anticipates in anointing my body for burial….”
— excerpts from Mark 14:3-9
The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version,
ed. by Robert J. Miller, Polebridge Press, 1994
At one level, this is a story about men who resent an independent woman wealthy enough to pour out an entire jar of nard. At the level of evangelical storytelling, it is the author of Mark pointing his audience toward the crucifixion of Jesus.
What interests me, though, is the paradoxical play of sacred story. Jesus is direct in his criticism of his friends: “There will always be the poor around, and whenever you want you can do good for them.” He is more subtle in his challenge.
Come back to the present moment. We are all with each other now. This woman is not afraid to acknowledge my mortality—or her own, or yours. Instead of distracting herself from that reality with worldly concerns, she is blessing me right now.
Quaker faith and practice internalizes the crucifixion. Each of us is invited to embrace the death of “the Christ within” which is our true self. Until we are able to do that, we continue to be distracted by fear of our own mortality.
How much can we truly serve others while we are so distracted?
Ointment pot, Egypt, 2000-100 BCE, L0065469 Credit Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images. Library reference no.: Science Museum A634855. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0.
Egyptian vessels from this era vary in size and shape. Very small jars held expensive liquids such as opium suspended in oil. Large jars stored wine and household ingredients. The tapered bases of oil jars such as this could be pushed into the ground to keep the jar upright. This example is made from alabaster. Other materials used included wood, clay, metal and glass.
Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations (1/1/17).
I had a dream a few days ago, one of those rare wholly unambiguous dreams. It was a flying dream, but that’s not the relevant feature, just a plot device.
I was returning home to an upper floor of a six-story apartment building. Flying over the roof, I saw that the whole surface was filled with sleeping refugees. As I came down toward the building entrance I saw that all the yard and parking lot space was also crowded with refugee families.
As I entered, several men asked me what I was going to do to help their families and neighbors. I made no excuses, but I acknowledged that, even if I sold everything and liquidated my bank accounts, I could only feed some of the many people for a few days. Then we would all remain together in the same destitution.
The dream ended inconclusively.
Knowing is overwhelming. Every day, more stories of slaughter and flight from slaughter. Every day, more encounters with street people, immigrants, and other hurting, marginalized neighbors. And every day, more evidence of siege mentality1 on the part of a public and political world on guard against the call of empathy.
My dream is not about this larger reaction against empathy but about my own. All beings avoid pain, and the most subversive version of this the attempt to avoid the pain of feeling the pain of others. We rush for “solutions” that will mask that empathetic pain—whether or not our actions really “help.” My dream challenges me to sit with my own pain of witnessing pain.
This morning in my stream-of-consciousness journal I received the following opening:
You don’t have to know what to do next. In fact, you can’t. Trying to discern it is work that gets in the way of seeing it. Pay attention to the need, not the solution. Pay attention to how you feel about knowing of the need. Really settle into it.
What you are doing is exploring those inward defenses which stand in the way of your truly engaging with the person in need. So long as you avoid direct experience of your own conflicting feelings, those feelings are barriers to being truly open to the other person.
Compassion means feeling passion with another. Feelings come first.
And so it is.
Notes & Image Sources
One…interesting social-political-psychological phenomenon [is the shared misperception] of being under siege, i.e., feeling as if the rest of the world has highly negative intentions towards one’s own society or that one’s own society is surrounded by a hostile world…. “Negative intentions” refer to the desire and motivation of the world to inflict harm or to hurt the society, so that they imply a threat to the society’s well being.
Image of migrants on the northern Greek border from “As Europe struggles for a unified approach to the refugee crisis, tens of thousands of people remain stranded in Greece,” on AccessWDUN (3/7/2016).
Migrants wait by the border gate between Greece and Macedonia at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Monday, March 7, 2016. Greek police officials say Macedonian authorities have imposed further restrictions on refugees trying to cross the border, saying only those from cities they consider to be at war can enter as up to 14,000 people are trapped in Idomeni, while another 6,000-7,000 are being housed in refugee camps around the region. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
“Forgiveness,” by Carlos Latuff [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons.
You don’t know what will happen if you go down that road. That’s why you should go there.
Why do what you have already done?
The world never changes, and it is never the same. Each step opens a new door to the same old life. Infinite variations on the same thing.
Remember Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day? Only weatherman Phil Connors knows that each day is a new day.
What we tend to miss is that each day is also different for each person Phil interacts with—because Phil makes different choices each day.
In fact, each day every other person makes different choices as well in response to Phil. Only none of them has memory of the previous days. They are still asleep.
Notes on Groundhog Day
- Roger Ebert review on February 12, 1993
- Roger Ebert, revisiting the movie on January 30, 2005
- Mike Shell, “Care of the Soul,” on Walhydra’s Porch, February 3, 2010
- James Parker, “Revisiting Groundhog Day,” in The Atlantic, March 2013
Roger Ebert summarizes the premise of the story:
[After the annual Punxsutawney Phil appearance, all Phil Connors] wants to do is get out of town. He begins to. He doesn’t quite make it. What with one thing and another, he wakes up the next morning in the same bed, with the radio playing the same song, and it gradually becomes clear to him that he is reliving precisely the same day. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, in his case, doesn’t creep in at its petty pace from day to day, but gets stuck like a broken record.
After the third or fourth day, the enormity of his predicament is forced upon him. He is free to change what he says and does from one Feb. 2 to the next, but it will always be Feb. 2 for everyone else in the world, and he will always start from the same place. They will repeat themselves unless he changes the script, but tomorrow they will have forgotten their new lines and be back to the first draft of Feb. 2.
Except perhaps that the the circumstances are more extreme than they have been since I lost my counseling career.
There is this.
The fixed idea that we have about ourselves as solid and separate from each other is painfully limiting. (35)
Bodhichitta is our heart—our wounded, softened heart…. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us. This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. (39-40)
In cultivating loving-kindness, we train first to be honest, loving and compassionate toward ourselves…. [our] loving-kindness is unconditional… Without loving-kindness for ourselves it is difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel it for others. (41)
— The Pocket Pema Chödrön, (2008)
To any caregiver, my advice is to pay attention to yourself and to any sense of being irritable, tired, or sad…. [It] is important not to bypass your experience by rejecting or ignoring these feelings or talking yourself out of them….
If you look directly at your experience, free of judgment, your pain will fully emerge into the light of the open attention you offer yourself. Feel that sense of yourself, allowing your experience…. Just be with it….
The being of yourself knows fully how to do this. As you be, you non-conceptually host this pain identity, this pain speech, and pain imagination. Aware of being, your experience will self-liberate, releasing or exhausting. The openness of your being is the source of all positive qualities. (22)
— Tenzin Wangyal Rinpche, in “Ask the Teachers,”
BuddhaDharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2016
And so it is.
As long as we’re caught up in always looking for certainty and happiness, rather than honoring the taste and smell and quality of exactly what is happening, as long as we’re always running away from discomfort, we’re going to be caught in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment, and we will feel weaker and weaker.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?” This is the trick.
The Pocket Pema Chödrön (30)
This seems very contrary to the normal way we human beings (and other animals) respond to our lives. It’s normal and healthy to seek certainty, happiness and security. We are hardwired to seek these circumstances, and that programming is what enables us to stay alive and to grow.
However, when other animals suffer, they just go on as best they can—even with pain or handicaps. When we humans suffer, we tend to be stopped short by the suffering, to turn around toward it, to focus our energy and attention on getting rid of the suffering—or at least blocking it out.
There is nothing to feel guilty about in doing this. It’s a side effect of what makes human beings different from other animals. They have to just keep going. We have conscious minds with the ability of stopping to plan before we go on.
This is why we are able to learn from our mistakes and successes in a way other animals cannot. They have to learn from “behavioral conditioning,” that is, from repeatedly responding to a similar situation until they discover which response works. We are able—if we are attentive and courageous enough—to learn from one mistake or success, or even to learn from someone else’s mistake or success.
So, when Pema says, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering…?” she doesn’t mean just sit here and suffer. She means really let myself feel the pain and observe the circumstances which brought it about (both outward and inward) and all the unsuccessful ways I have tried to avoid it or fend it off or dull it. That is how I learn—not how to avoid or fend off or dull pain, but how to go on. Because now the pain is information. It is still pain, but it is now also a teacher.
A very strange way of thinking. Even so, it’s what I see Jesus doing: touching his own pain and that of others. Sitting there with it until he understands what is within the realm of human possibility to enable himself and others to go on.
And so it is.
Acharya Pema Chödrön is principal teacher for Gampo Abbey, a Western Buddhist Monastery in the Shambhala Tradition, located in Nova Scotia, Canada, which was founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1984.