9. Open to Suffering: Feeling Fear
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9. Open to Suffering
We open our hearts to suffering rather than isolate ourselves from it so that we can cultivate self-understanding, empathy with others, and benefit from the wisdom that we gain from seeing reality as it is.
When I was a kid scary TV shows sent me racing to change the channel. The eerie music and sense of dread terrified me. To this day I go for the safety of chick flicks, romance, and comedy – the feel good movies. The real world is scary enough; fantasy danger does not float my boat!
TV shows aside, struggling with my fear has been a lifetime challenge, as I suspect it is for most humans. Until about a decade ago, the way I coped with the world’s lurking dangers was to create an illusionary safety zone. I had an “over there” mentality. Danger was across the street, on the other side of the country, on a different continent, anywhere but in my own midst. Suffering was for someone else to bear and someone else to cause.
It is human nature to avoid things that are unpleasant or painful. Avoidance tactics take a more solid and habituated shape over time, acting cumulatively like a hardened shell – protecting not only from pain, but also from the wide range of human emotions -- including joy! The shell can also block our view and keep us from seeing things clearly.
If one isn’t dedicated to seeing things as they truly are, including the good, bad, and the mysterious, illusion and faulty premises can rule the day. It takes a commitment and practice to opening up to the full reality of how suffering presents in this world, and what our role and responsibilities are in relationship to suffering.
Paradoxically, though not uncommon, my own suffering through painful situations like losing my loved ones, grappling with a life-threatening illness, and living close to ground zero during 9/11, increased my capacity to open up to the suffering of others. Grieving rather than avoiding grief became a gateway to my own compassion. My suffering gave me a fearlessness that took me by surprise, and allowed me to look more closely into the face of suffering – my own, and everyone else’s.
My growing capacity to see into suffering has allowed me to come face to face with how I take part in creating my own suffering and other people’s suffering – directly and indirectly, and has prompted me into a new kind of activism. On the personal level, I am working on creating new habits of thought, and taking greater self-care. In thinking about my care of others, I am examining all the ways my behavior or my inaction impacts others and contributes to suffering.
I am consuming less, making more conscious purchases, changing the ratio of my spending and giving more away, not judging others as much, and being far more mindful about what I say about anyone or any group. I travelled to Rwanda this spring to be witness to the wake of genocide, and opened myself to the pain and grief of all holocausts (see link about this trip). All of these actions have opened up a deep feeling of connectedness to all that is, since I am no longer averting my eyes to the suffering in the world to avoid my own pain.
To my surprise, I have begun to be drawn towards suffering in a new way. My desire to be an effective activist is leading me further down the root of suffering. I want to become more knowledgable about its source. More and more, I am feeling my own fear and using my empathy muscle to feel the fear others. This practice is converting aversion into seeing, seeing into compassion, and compassion into more skillful action in the world.
At a recent Omega Institute program, Pema Chodron, one of the most masterful Buddhist teachers of our time, shared that in the Tibetan tradition when people are about to die they try to open to as much suffering as possible to bring with them so as to reduce the suffering of others.
Pema shared with us that we can help alleviate the suffering of others, and open or own capacities to experience a sense of joy and connection by practicing something called Tonglen, a form of meditation. For a wonderful explanation of Tonglen and practice tools see http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/tonglen1.php.
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