Archive for suffering

Compassionate Heart

As I listen to the news lately, I hear yet another story of killing in Syria or Afghanistan.   The reporter then switches to a story about a mass murder at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and I begin to feel overwhelmed by all the violence that exists in our world.  How does one remain open to the suffering that occurs daily without developing a numbness or a cold heart that makes the suffering of others as distant as possible?  Do we just have to “turn the other cheek” and allow the brutal people of the world take over?  How can we remain compassionate, open to the pain of others without letting ourselves become a doormat or our hearts to be hardened into a narrow minded focus that cares only for ourselves and our immediate companions?

And what if in the past someone has abused us or taken advantage of us in an unfair way?  Are we who are striving for a compassionate heart supposed to forgive and forget?  Are we to let them continue to hurt us?  Do we have to continue to relate to them without setting any limits on their behavior?

For answers, I turn to two great spiritual leaders, Jesus and Buddha.  Both urged their followers to have a compassionate heart and to love one another as brothers and sisters.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “You know you have been taught, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you.  When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” (Matthew 5: 38-39)

What is meant by this statement?   If we look only at the surface of the statement from Matthew we might think Jesus was urging us to be passive and not resist evil when we face it.  In fact, this scripture has been used to oppress people and keep them in a one down position.  Dr. Walter Wink, in his book, Engaging the Powers, sheds light on what these words probably meant, given the social context of the day. According to Dr. Wink, no one in that culture would use their left hand to strike anyone as it was considered the unclean hand.  So in order to slap the person’s right cheek,  he had to use the back of his right hand.  This gesture was meant to be demeaning to the one receiving the blow.  Masters would backhand slave and Romans would do so to Jews.  If you present the other check, the person must still use his right hand and then he will have to use his fist or palm. That was a gesture used only between equals.  Thus, by turning the other cheek a person would be communicating that he or she refused to be humiliated and must be treated as an equal.  It was a non-violent but non passive response to the other person’s grasp for power.*

Buddha says,”Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another.  Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world…”(part of the Metta Sutta).  How does one cherish all living beings when some seem so bent on perpetuating evil in the world?  According to Sharon Salzberg in her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, “Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us  Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary.  Compassion is not at all weak.  It is the strength that arise out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal…Compassion can lead to a very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it.”  We need to be open to exploring the context out of which the negative behavior arises before we judge the person who commits the act.  If we can see what lead up to the behavior, we can hold an open heart towards the person while still not condoning the act.

A practice that has helped me remain more open to others and to develop a compassionate heart is that of metta.  In doing metta practice, we gently repeat phrases that are meaningful in terms of what we wish for ourselves and others.  We always begin with ourselves as any practice of lovingkindness that based on self hatred or depreciation cannot sustain itself.  We are called to love one another as we love ourselves which means we need to love ourselves first.

Sharon Salzberg’s book gives an in- depth look at how to do this practice and the benefit from making it a daily routine.  Briefly, we repeat four phrases that state our wish to  be free from danger, to have mental and physical happiness and ease of well-being.  The phrases I like to use are taken from Rami Shapiro and are

  • May I be free from fear,
  • May I be free from compulsions,
  • May I be blessed with love,
  • May I be blessed by peace.

I always start with myself but then call to mind images of people that I love and state the same phrases for them.  I then move to someone I am having a hard time loving or with whom I have a conflict.   After this I expand it to the world or particular world leaders.   The last step is to pray this for all beings, animal and human.

So, this is my prayer for you, dear reader:

May you be free from fear.

May you be free from compulsions.

May you be blessed with love.

May you be blessed by peace.

*For a more in-depth discussion of this passage and others like it, read Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Denis, Sheila and Matthew Linn

Learn to Dance

        “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”  Anonymous

I just returned from a weekend yoga retreat  led by three wonderful instructors from Three Trees Yoga Studio. The retreat was held at Harmony Hill  on Hoods Canal.  Harmony Hill is a retreat center whose mission is  “to provide support for those affected by a cancer diagnosis including caregivers and health professionals.”  As I settled into this space for the weekend, it became more and more apparent what a sacred space it was.  It had deep healing properties.  The food, the landscape, the staff all contributed to this healing medicine.

Our yoga instructors led us in exercises focused on stretching our bodies and spirits using the ancient art of yoga.  Our first evening and morning was spent in a time of great silence. Gazing over the still waters of Hoods Canal with the fog settled gently around the feet of the Olympic Mountains, I heard the early morning cries of the birds as they called to the earth to awaken.  Walking in the paths sprinkled with dew, I noticed the many colors of the dahlias that graced the gardens.  I made my way to the labyrinth that is laid out around a huge evergreen tree that I later learned was called “She who knows.”  As I walked this path in silence, I could feel the spirit of the many participants who have shared their stories and received healing from their time here.  Reaching the center, I noticed the mementos that had been placed within the bark of this giant tree.  The pain and the healing that each of these offerings represented was palpable.  I was overwhelmed with tears and thoughts of those I have loved who have walked the journey of cancer.  Yet, I was not overwhelmed with suffering from the loss but with gratitude of having been a part of their journey: both during their lives and their surrender to death.

Life is a mixture of pain and joy, gain and loss, love and release.  I have heard it said that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” If we wait until there are no problems to seek the joy in life we will miss what each moment has to offer us.  Each moment we have the choice to focus on joy, beauty, and gratitude.  According to Pema Chödrön, in her book The Wisdom of No Escape, 

      “(A) sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, ever movement of  own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it.  The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.  Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are.  Resenting what happens to you  and complaining about your life is like refusing to smell the wild rose when you go out for a morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see the huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under.”

Each moment we have a choice between noticing the beauty around us or  focusing only on the negative that we see in our lives.  And we each will have challenges and things that continually pull us towards resentment and suffering.  Yet we can live our lives in healing and wholeness if we chose each time to focus on the gratitude and joy that is also present for our eyes to see.  The more we develop our “gratitude muscle” the easier it will be to learn to dance in the rain rather than become a wallflower that waits for the storms of life to pass.


The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, by Pema Chödrön

Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong, by John O’Donohue