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Spiritual Activism

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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Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega Institute's chief external affairs officer and cofounder of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. An attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy, she has contributed to more than 100 city, state, and federal laws, and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women’s rights, poverty, public health, and social justice. She is a commentator for WAMC’s show, 51%, writes a column and serves on the advisory board for Feminist.com, and serves as advisor to Women Without Borders.

Before joining Omega, Carla Goldstein was vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC), where she directed the agency’s advocacy and strategic communications work. Before joining PPNYC, Goldstein worked for the speaker of the New York City Council, where she helped craft and advocate for state and federal legislative agendas. While in law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she was cofounding editor-in-chief of the state’s first women’s law journal, the Buffalo Women’s Journal (now published as Buffalo Journal of Gender, Law, and Social Policy). Goldstein has also been featured at the New York State Bar Association’s “Women on the Move: Successful Women in the Know”.

Goldstein was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College for eight years, where she taught a course called Law and Social Justice, which was designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. She now teaches a variety of workshops at Omega, including Omega’s Women & Power conferences and retreats, which inspire thousands of women from around the world. Carla Goldstein also appears regularly on local and national radio and television, and makes public presentations on issues related to women’s empowerment, holistic and sustainable living, activism, and spiritual activism.

Follow Carla on Twitter @Carla_Goldstein

Read Carla's article about her recent trip to Rwanda: Omega Attends Women's Conference in Rwanda

Founded in 1977, Omega is the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops, retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.

The Omega Women's Leadership Center, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since 2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political. The OWLC provides opportunities for women and men to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices through unique learning and community building experiences.

For more information, visit www.eomega.org.

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