Every life is filled with change and insecurity, and every life includes loss and suffering and difficulties. When we encounter difficult times in our lives, often our initial strategy is to simply run away. But we find that our troubles follow us. Paradoxically, one of the best ways to heal is to turn toward that which is injured within us. It is important to remember that the healing journey is not always about overcoming the difficulties we’re experiencing or about getting well, at least not completely. We all have the capacity to heal, but we have to discover what form that healing is to take.
One of the most difficult things about hard times is that we often feel that we are going through them alone. But we are not alone. In fact, your life itself is only possible because of the thousands of generations before you, survivors who have carried the lamp of humanity through difficult times from one generation to another. Feel yourself as part of the stream of humanity walking together, finding ways to carry the lamp of wisdom and courage and compassion through difficult times.
Several years ago I was giving a talk on compassion with Pema Chödrön in a large hall in San Francisco filled with at least 3,000 participants. At one point a young woman stood up and spoke in the most raw and painful way about her partner’s suicide several weeks before. She was experiencing a gamut of complex emotions, such as agonizing grief and confusion, guilt and anger, loss and fear. Pema had her hold it all in compassion. As I listened to her I could also feel her loneliness, and so I asked the group when she finished, “How many of you in this room have experienced the suicide of someone in your family, or someone really close to you?” More than 200 people stood up. I asked her to look around the room at the eyes of those who had gone through a similar tragedy and survived. As they gazed at one another, everyone in the room could feel the presence of true compassion, as if we were in a great temple. We all felt the suffering that is part of our humanity, and part of the mystery that we share.
If you have lost money or faith, when you are sick or a family member is suffering from illness or addiction, even when a child is in jeopardy, you are not alone. You are sharing in the inevitable trouble of human incarnation. On this very day, hundreds of thousands of others are also dealing with loss of money, a new diagnosis, or holding their sick child. Breathe with them and hold their pain mindfully with yours, sharing in your heart a spirit of courage and compassion. For thousands of generations we humans have survived hard times. We know how to do this. And when we sense our connection, we help each other.
Two women in nearby towns in northern Canada were forced to venture out on a fierce winter night. One was taking her pregnant daughter to the hospital; the other was driving to take care of her ill father. They made their way along the same road from opposite directions, through hurricane winds and pelting snow. Suddenly each was stopped on opposite sides of a huge fallen tree that blocked the road. It took them only a few minutes to share their stories, exchange car keys, and set forth in each other’s cars to complete their journeys.
As you open beyond the self, you realize that others are part of your extended family. Sylvia Boorstein, a colleague and wisdom holder, tells how in Jewish synagogues there is a yearly memorial service for the survivors of relatives whose death dates are unknown—men and women who died in the Holocaust or are buried in unknown graves. Many people will stand for the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer. In temple on this day, Sylvia writes, “I looked at the people standing and thought ‘Can all these people be direct survivors?’ Then I realized we all are, and I stood up too.”
“We are not separate, we are interdependent,” declared the Buddha. Even the most independent human being was once a helpless infant cared for by others. With each breath we interbreathe carbon dioxide and oxygen with the maple and oak, the dogwood and redwood trees of our biosphere. Our daily nourishment joins us with the rhythms of bees, caterpillars, and rhizomes; it connects our body with the collaborative dance of myriad species of plants and animals.
Nothing is separate. Unless we understand this, we are split between caring for ourselves or caring for the troubles of the world. “I arise in the morning,” wrote essayist E. B. White, “torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it.” A psychology of interdependence helps to solve this dilemma. Through the loving awareness of mindfulness and meditation we discover that the duality of inner and outer is false. We can hold all the beauty and the pain of life in our heart and breathe together with courage and compassion.
Excerpt: A Lamp in the Darkness