Sunday, September 9, 2012

How Can I Meditate When the World Is Suffering?

How do we stop climate change?
I just aided a weekend workshop at the DC Shambhala Center and one of the students raised a great question, something every social activist or engaged Buddhist has struggled with. The question went something like this: "how can I justify sitting on a cushion when others are suffering?"

There is no strategy for ending homelessness or saving the world in Buddhism. There is no formula, no sense that you should do this, or not do that. There is no way you are supposed to feel.

The only strategy is to touch your heart. Then you can use your experience to touch others.

You might be asking, "what the hell does that mean?!"

Touching your heart is being here, now. It is being totally present. You learn that through meditation. This builds your mindfulness, your ability to focus on one thing at a time. Out of mindfulness comes awareness. This awareness enhances your ability to know what is going on inside of your mind and heart.

As your awareness increases, you gain familiarity with your emotional, mental state. Then you see more clearly through the fog of emotion and mental patterns. You can work beyond aggression and irritation. You develop compassion, even for those who act out of aggression, because you realize that we all suffer from some neurosis and prejudice.

How do we end poverty?
The first time I went to India, I was shocked by the suffering around me. It seemed like we were constantly surrounded by beggars and people who wanted to take our money. This tall, but painfully skinny teenager came up to us, wanting to sell some incense. We said no, but he kept bugging us. We asked him to leave. He persisted and started to offend our sense of space. We felt a little unsafe. We had enough, so I pushed on his shoulder, very lightly. At that moment, this sorrowful, emaciated person fell on his butt and started crying. I was shocked and confused. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if this was a scam to get our money or if he was so malnourished that he actually couldn't stand. At that moment my heart seemed to break into a hundred pieces. I can't remember what I did, but I think I just hustled away like a coward, looking for some escape from the guilt I was feeling about my wealth and everyone else's poverty.

That was 12 years ago and I remember the incident because it broke my heart and woke me up. If I had the moment to do over again, I would do things more slowly. I hope I would be able to touch my heart and let the feeling guide my actions, from the moment the irritation struck. From there, I have no idea what I would have done, but having had the courage to inquire about my feelings, might have been a better way of dealing with the situation.

This might sound totally dissatisfying. It certainly won't appeal to that part in each of us that wants an easy answer. Getting to know your heart and developing this sensitivity takes training, or perhaps an indomitable spirit born out of great suffering (I'm thinking of Nelson Mandela, for example).

We tend to think really big when we are young, with no experience. When we've gathered more wisdom, we recognize that we should start where we are and work with what we have in front of us. We realize that we may not be able to end homelessness in this lifetime, but maybe we could simply look at the homeless person in front of us and see how it feels to do that.

If we can be so open, we might decide to give some money, offer moral support, volunteer at a shelter, or run for mayor. Nobody can tell you how to solve the world's problems. Only you can answer that question, and the only way to do that is to touch your heart. Even if you feel too selfish to give a dollar, touching your heart might plant a seed for some action later on in life, or the way you influence others.

What I'm proposing - touching your heart and letting it guide your actions - might seem small. But it is actually a big solution for big problems (and little ones too). As an engaged Buddhist and concerned citizen, I'm reminded that I don't need to have the answer to all of the world's problems. The world may be better off if I can simply be present and listen to my heart.



    We can help everyone, and people meditating in DC are particularly needed right now.

  2. Be sure to read the link.