There is chilling security camera footage of an Asian-American woman in New York being knocked down and kicked. It is part of an epidemic of such horrendous behavior, but the most shocking thing about this video is not the event itself but that the doorman after watching the attack didn’t rush out to help the victim. Instead, he closed the door.
He turned away. Was he numb? Disconnected? Did he see both the perpetrator and the victim as ‘other’? There’s no audio, so we don’t know if someone told him to shut the door, or if he did it of his own volition. We don’t know anything really, other than a series of thoughts and emotions transpired that caused him to shut that door and turn away.
Most of my students are not prone to numbness and disconnection. They are more likely to be prone to empathy overload. Finding a way to be in the world without being overwhelmed is challenging. And why shouldn’t we turn away if something makes us uncomfortable? Isn’t that what we do in meditation, creating a spacious suffering-free zone where we can hang out blissfully free of the world and its sorrows?
While it might seem like that, we definitely don’t meditate to turn away. We meditate to develop a skillful way to be with whatever arises, both in our thoughts and our lives. We are cultivating awareness and compassion. We take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha so that we can engage with equanimity.
Our practice is to focus attention on the breath. But then…well, you know…thoughts show up. Is this an invasion? Should we pull up the drawbridge, rush to our battle stations, and ready our weapons?
No. Thoughts are not enemies. Just brain activity. Some thoughts might activate tension, even triggering fight, flight, or freeze. In the clench of that tension, we probably chase thoughts with more thoughts, but with practice we learn that we can simply breathe into the tension that’s come up, relaxing and releasing to whatever degree we are able. Imagine the way the vast blue sky has room for clouds, storms, rainbows, hurricanes, and tornadoes; yet the sky itself is still clear, open, and unaffected by what passes through. Just so, we rest our attention in that spacious field of awareness, and our breath focus allows us to stay balanced and grow our awareness as big as necessary to hold whatever is arising.
What are all those storms anyway? We know them as memories, judgments, grudges, opinions, worries, plans, dreams, and fears. But their physical existence is a microscopic array of synaptic electrical charges and chemical bursts in the brain. Yet it feels like the world to us, doesn’t it? Our minds hold the past and the future, all the places we’ve been, seen, read about, or imagined; everyone we’ve ever known, seen on screen, read about or dreamed of.
When we recognize the activity for what it is we learn how to notice it without getting entangled in it. We can hold it all in an open and compassionate embrace. And then, if we can do that in meditation, can we also learn how to be with all that arises in our lives without turning away? Without making an enemy of it? Without feeling invaded?
Yes! Our practice of meditation establishes clarity of mind, a deeper understanding of the way of things, and the ability to be fully present. All of this is useful in daily life. We see how powerful we are to affect the course of our own lives and impact those around us. We can use wise intention and wise view to co-create a life of meaning, kindness, compassion, and joy. (I say ‘co-create’ rather than ‘create’ because we are always in collaboration with others, whether we acknowledge them or not, and always collaborating with the conditions of the world we inhabit.) Our ability to make choices, to have agency in our lives becomes easier to see. We have a clearer sense of personal meaning, our relationships improve, and we live with more joy and ease. All good!
But what about all we see and hear beyond our immediate sphere of influence? The whole world seems constantly with us in a way it wasn’t for our ancestors. News travels instantly and many of us have traveled too and feel such a deep connection to places and cultures beyond those we were born into that the word ‘foreign’ seems antiquated. Few of us would trade places with our ancestors, facing the hardships they faced. But they would probably not trade places with us either. Our lives in the 21st might seem delightfully luxurious at first but soon enough they would feel overwhelmed and oversaturated with the frenzy and sorrows of all the lives on the planet and the planet itself. While the hardships our ancestors faced are undeniable, it was clear to them what they needed to do. It is much less so for us.
For example, if a distant ancestor was here this week watching a video of a man being murdered by a person who pledged to serve and protect him, could that ancestor understand that even though she’s seeing it now, the event itself happened almost a year ago, that this is a trial and we have no say on what the jury will decide about the fate of the police officer? She would be astonished that we have the technology to watch a trial from thousands of miles away, and that the jury could watch a recording of the murder, and we along with them. But beyond the technological wonders, unless she was a shaman with a deep sense of connection to all life, she might wonder at our capacity to care what happens beyond our immediate community. She might not understand how this same technology has made us a global community. And how what happens in one place in the world, whether in Minneapolis or Myanmar or Miami, affects us all.
Of course, we can choose to live more like our ancestors, paying attention only to our extended family and a small community of friends and neighbors. We could toss out all the technology that keeps us informed and connected to the rest of the world. And if we did so, would that be better? Would it be kind? Would it be selfish? Would it be responsible? Can we find some middle ground, some balance?
Since few of us are going to completely disengage from the world, we need to learn how to be in a skillful relationship with all that arises in our own lives and in the world of which we are intrinsically a part. That’s our challenge. We begin with giving ourselves the mental space and time we need to develop some ease, clarity, wisdom, and compassion. If we skip over any of these, our compassion is ineffective and even destructive. So that’s our purpose here.
If we meditate regularly, give ourselves time alone in nature, engage lovingly and respectfully with people, human or otherwise, discover our capacity for joy, then we can be with all that arises in our world. We become more skillful in our response rather than just ranting against the ills of the world that is full of suffering and has always been so. We may see that our votes matters, that our voice is part of a powerful chorus, that our postcards to those who represent us are read, that our emails to our mayors and councilmembers are considered, that our participation in our families, workplaces, and the community make a difference.
Even when there is nothing we can do, when it’s out of our hands, we can always send metta, infinite loving-kindness to all beings. Metta radiates out from us because we have allowed it in, we have spent time taking care of ourselves so we can be there for others without turning away.
Artwork by Gordon Onslow Ford, an artist who clearly understood the nature of things.