“If you do not help us, we will be killed.” What can we do about large-scale sufferings?

Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.

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This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”

“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”

What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?

This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.

This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”

But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.

I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)

A lotus grows from mud

One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.

Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.

  • I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
  • With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
  • I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
  • In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
  • Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
  • I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
  • I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
  • I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
  • I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.

That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:

Not going to the assistance of those in need.

We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.

One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.