I sat a ten day retreat up north last month and discovered – again – that I could not rationalize or argue my way out of outrage and anger about what’s going on in this world of ours. Instead, I found my way back to compassion and equanimity that lie in the “brahma vihara” practices of Vipassana meditation.
Many people I know have been suffering from this spinning of the mind, as they watch the affairs of the world play themselves out relentlessly and cruelly regardless of our best wishes and intentions. I plodded up the hill to the meditation hall and felt that I was literally carrying — like so many of my friends – heavy baggage indeed: Charlottesville and the burning torches, a horrific shootout in Las Vegas, hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico, wildfires in Northern California, and so on and so on…. And all of this overseen by a government which has clearly lost its way in matters of the heart and conscience. Cruel, unfair, unspeakable. We go about our days in a claustrophobic world, reeling here and there to find some way to help ourselves and our fellow human beings find relief from pain.
Sadly trauma such as this doesn’t beget solutions or relief or any sense of clarity, as we crash into the psychic walls that have emerged inside our heads. As we continue to crash, we suffer, largely because we are desperately trying to use our minds to unwind the tangle and discover the good plan. As brilliant as the human brain is, it has its limitations – especially those brains that haven’t had the benefit of training in mindfulness… This wild obsessed mind seems to be incapable of seeing clearly.
And what is to be seen, then? Suffering, plain and simple. Along with the breathtaking beauty of the ocean, a symphony by Beethoven, the smile of a child, or the flight of a hummingbird. Back when we all started this journey, we weren’t ever informed that we’d have to take the bad with the good, and so we inevitably feel outrage and resistance to pain and suffering. I remember saying more than once to my mother as a young child something like: “this isn’t fair!” And she responded matter-of-factly: “well, as John Kennedy always said, my dear, LIFE ISN”T FAIR!” Of course I hated this. It felt as though I was being discounted. I see the wisdom all these years later in JFK’s quote, which appears quasi Buddhist as it asserts an essential truth. Here is the dharma that we meditators spend much of our waking hours witnessing and coming to accept.
Up in the Marin hills, I sat on my cushion and practiced lovingkindness and compassion – the lovingkindness for myself, and the compassion for both my daughters. And as I breathed and looked inward, keenly aware of my whole – quite vulnerable – body, I felt my heart expand in my chest, and move in response to these aspirations. And as I stayed with the breathing and well-wishing, I realized that the evils of the world that I had dragged up the hill with me were not mine to resolve or fix. They certainly deserve my deepest compassion and love, and perhaps some good works when feasible, but they are in fact just another piece of vast complicated tapestry of human history in which we find ourselves.
When we stop to tap into the heart, we realize the power that the human being has to be in community with his fellow beings. This power certainly rivals that of our prodigious mind dancing all over the map seeking answers. And it brings us closer to creative constructive change in the end… If we humans can still the mind, then it will hear the voice of the heart reminding us that we are love, we are community.