“What can I do? I feel so helpless.”
This has been the repeated refrain this week, in check-ins during meditation practices and in community conversations. Inundated with despair is how, at times, I have been feeling about the bombardment of human aggression in the world.
During the practice with the sangha we have been exploring “beneficial action”; one of the four embracing virtues of a bodhisattva’s practice. This exploration was planned before the war in Ukraine began but feels like it is just right for these times.
The fundamental teachings of Buddhism are founded on the Four Noble Truths:
- There is suffering
- There are causes that lead to the conditions of suffering
- There is an end to suffering.
- There is a path leading to the end of suffering.
In the practice and our explorations in the sangha, I have wondered if the despair and helplessness that is experienced in these times could be addressed by looking at these truths.
There is Suffering. Even in the peaceful, rural areas of Costa Rica I cannot find sunglasses dark enough to shield me from seeing the ever-present suffering throughout the globe. It is evident in every form of community connection. And if I try to avert my attention from the external manifestations it bubbles up internally somehow. Although there may be palaces or islands that attempt to shield themselves and their inhabitants form the experience of suffering,( as Shakyamuni Buddha’s parents did ), we live in a time where that is just impossible for anyone. There is suffering! “I know, I know damnitt! Now what can I do about it? Please!!!”
There are causes that lead to the conditions of suffering. In general, if not universally, we want to skip this part. We want to get right to “the path that leads to the end of suffering”. “There’s a problem let’s just fix it.” Or at least let’s try to feel better by talking about ways to fix it. This, it seems to me, is the approach that leads to despair and helplessness. Even though we know from all of the wisdom teachings from Nature, Science, Psychology, Religion, etc, that we must discover the root cause to a problem before we can address it, we’re in a hurry. We want it done now. This research into the causes of suffering cannot be done through intellectual speculation or imposition of theory or relying on someone else, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to muck around in the soil of suffering in order to get our hands on the root causes. “But I cannot muck around in the soil of Ukraine, or Gaza, or the favelas of San Paulo, or the minds of folks who seem to live in another world from me.” So true! We can really only inquire deeply into the causes and conditions of the suffering in our own experience. We can really only understand and grasp the roots of suffering in our own garden.
“Great! I found the root, now I’ll just yank it out.” But as we pull and dig and yank we might see that there is no end to it and maybe, even, that it supports the whole structure of our being and we are back to helplessness and despair. This is where faith comes in.
There is an end to suffering. In my experience, faith seems to be cultivated by a practice of broadening my view of myself and the world. By taking a step back to try to see the whole picture. That allows us to see an expanded perspective of my garden and that the nasty root cause is, not only just a part of the garden but that it may even contribute to the well being of the garden as a whole. When we ask how the root came about and how it might contribute to understanding, we gain perspective. We see that it is not the only root in the garden. We begin to have first hand experience of the other aspects that might sprout and flower: joy, kindness received and offered, the deep compassion to end others suffering that started us on this journey, and ultimately equanimity towards all parts of the garden. From this perspective we can see the causes of the causes of the root of suffering and also begin to understand the causes of kindness, joy, compassion and equanimity. In the same way that we dig deep into the causes of our own suffering, when we begin to explore these attributes we discover the causes of these innate perennials of goodness. Then we can begin to cultivate them, bring the garden into balance and begin to make these experiences sustainable. And, if even only for a time of one breath, we experience being without suffering. And perhaps, in that moment, we also get a glimpse of the true root cause of suffering. That we have been unaware of, the true nature of the garden. That it is not only not Knotweed, but that it is that, and dahlias, and apple trees, and jungle and clay and loam and love, and compassion, and kindness… Then that grumpy neighbor, who always seems to be ranting about the way people put their trash out, walks by and is taken by surprise by the brilliant smell of the jasmine of joy emanating from your cultivated garden. And they ask: “How did you grow that?”
There is a path leading to the end of suffering. “Well ya see, I…” And then we see. And faith flowers and beneficial action fruits and our garden expands and includes.
“But what about Ukraine? It is my experience that all that I have to do is ask the question, be open to whatever arises as action, and then get out of my own way and the tumble of habits of thinking that block the path to action.
“And helplessness?” The smile on the grumpy neighbor smelling jasmine of joy, the laughter of the child plucking a sunflower of kindness, the fruit of compassion, harvested and shared with family, and community, the cultivation of the garden of equanimity of our being while knowing that the yield will somehow benefit anyone who experiences it. These may not eliminate helplessness but they will bring it into balance within the garden of our being and this action, this gifting, reflects and makes space for the true nature of all beings to come forth.
Oh yeah… and practice, practice, practice.
May all beings throughout all directions and all times be free from suffering.
Through regular practice of attending to our breathing and inquiring into the causes of our suffering and the suffering of others, we may begin to experience a growing ease of being. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, this first hand experience may lead to an arising of spontaneous compassion and a motivation to act in a way that brings this ease to all beings who experience suffering.
According to many wisdom teachings, in order to be of help to others, we are advised to realize our interdependence and interconnectedness with all beings and then to act out of that understanding. How can we do this in a way that recognizes the infinite experiences that have led to suffering, and honor the infinite ways that point to or offer relief from suffering, without judgment, recrimination or any other type of diminishment of those who may be suffering.
Please feel free to join us in practice once, intermittently or as often as the inspiration arises! Your presence and insights contribute to this practice and the end of suffering for all beings in all directions and in all times.
We practice on ZOOM:
Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 AM Eastern Time
Sunday at 10 AM Eastern Time
Wednesday evening at 7:30 PM Eastern Time
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789
Sangha of the Pandemic
Brian, Linda, Chuck, Paul, Paul, Ginny, Jeff, Ned, Richard, Timmer, David, Christo, Angie, Damien, Mike, William