Sometimes we are a little reluctant to keep our eyes open to the suffering of others — we can only do so much of it before we switch channels. You know that thing when some horrible disaster appears on the news and you think, “Oh, no, no, no! Wait a minute, let’s check my Instagram feed, that’s going to be more entertaining at this point.”
At Denver airport en route to London last night, the news of the bombing of young concert goers in Manchester Arena was just breaking. I saw it in the newsagents buying my water, where a pundit (or knucklehead, depending on your perspective) on Fox News was also mysteriously commentating: “It is lucky that we have Mr Trump as our President!” I paused to take heed, then like everyone else I shook my head and thought, “What is the world coming to?” And sooner or later we switch off, don’t we? (Or self-medicate. The young and seemingly underage guy next to me on the plane drank gin and tonics chased by wine, and then passed out. I don’t know his reasons, but I’m sure he was not the only one drinking himself into a stupor last night.)
But there is nothing to fear and everything to gain from extending our love and compassion even and maybe especially in the face of danger — wishing other beings to be happy and free from suffering more and more until no one is left out. We may have no alternative if we wish to be safe. As a friend just posted on Facebook:
So tragic and frightening. So unnecessary and senseless. What can be done – feels so hopeless. Yet a quiet voice calls from the heart, “Now is the time to love – fully, deeply, and fearlessly.” May all beings abide in peace, free from suffering and fear.
At heart all of us have a good nature, as Buddha explained, all of us are in fact pure and very kind; but through trepidation we can hold ourselves back from feeling it: “If I think about everybody’s suffering, I am just going to be overwhelmed and discouraged and depressed, and I already have enough suffering of my own, thank you very much, so I just need to focus on that, and maybe my family, and if I have any time or space in my mind left over then perhaps I can focus on a few other people.” The young woman selling me my Sim card at Heathrow just now said that everyone in England is in a state of melancholy today, and that her father in Northern Ireland wants her to come home right away, London is too dangerous, working in an airport is too dangerous. But she and I agreed that it is not true that we have to batten down the hatches. We have to live.
And what does it mean to really be alive, I thought? We all have the potential to love everybody, wishing every single being to be happy all the time, and to wish for all living beings, including animals, to be free from all their suffering and its causes. This needn’t overwhelm us, and indeed compassion and love are the “great protector”, Buddha said, protecting us from the discouragement and fear. These minds are incredibly beautiful, even blissful, states of mind that will help us as well as everybody else, eventually leading us to enlightenment, the main meaning of this precious human life.
So what’s holding us back?
Once we have heard that we have this potential, what is holding us back? Why might we develop reluctance or fear or apathy about going there? According to Buddhism, it is due to two ego minds. One of those is just basic ignorance, confusion, holding onto a real, solid, absolute sense of self or me. Our world revolves to a large extent, maybe entirely, around Me, Me.
And which me? This me sitting here. The real me, which would be me. Not your me. I don’t even see your me.
And, weirdly enough, you don’t see me when you look at me. You see you or her. Which has got to make us wonder — if no one else at all ever sees this me that is the known center of the universe, where on earth is it?
We are all called me, but when we look around we just see other. We all have our own sense of me, and we feel that this me is the real one. Do we not? If I was to say “Hey, all you reading this, stand up the real me! ” — we would all have to stand up. Because that’s how we see it. Do any of you here reading this think you are not really me? We all naturally think we are really me, do we not? The other me’s are a little bit pretending because I can’t even see them — to me they appear as other and I buy into that appearance wholesale.
“But what’s wrong with that?!”, we may be thinking, “What’s wrong with thinking I am me?” The problem is not with thinking we are me but thinking we are the real me, which means that everyone else is necessarily not me. For example, if left is absolutely left, then right must be right, right?!, not left. And that is generally at the moment how we dichotomize self and others, without even having to try. We don’t see a room full of Me’s, we see a whole room full of Others. We see a whole room full of Them, You’s, He’s, She’s, and, on a good day, maybe We’s.
Generally, our strong grasping at self, which is called self-grasping ignorance in Buddhism, immediately throws us into a “them and us” situation. Or a “them and me” or a “me and you” or a “self and other”. It immediately throws us into a dualism – there is me over here and everybody else over there.
And because we feel that this me is the real me, what happens next? The other ego mind is the self-cherishing that believes that this me is the most important me in the universe. We naturally put it first because we naturally believe that real self is more important than real other. This means that we play along with the assumption that “My happiness and suffering matter far more than yours, than anyone’s.”
Which is pretty wild, if you think about it. For on which planet is it actually true that I am more important than all of you?
I may not fess up to this at a polite dinner party, “Hey guys, did you know I am more important than all of you?” But if we are honest about what we are thinking, are we not generally thinking, ” I am more important than them, my happiness matters more, my feelings matter more, my interests matter more, I am generally more interesting, etc.” ?
Or, on the flip side of that, “I am the worst, most boring person on the planet.” Either way, as long as it is about us, we love thinking about ourselves. Actually we hate it, but we love/hate thinking about ourselves. Point is, we can’t help thinking about ourselves at the moment because we keep gravitating towards this me. Why? Because of the habit of ignorance. Our thoughts have been circling around this sense of me, from a Buddhist point of view, since beginningless time. And this is a major, major problem. This is our own biggest problem, and the biggest problem facing humankind. Luckily, it is a problem that can be solved.
As it says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:
Since throughout my beginningless lives until now, the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind,
I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.
Danger Level: Critical
It is of course easier to keep perspective when the tragedy hasn’t yet reached your own doorstep … I don’t really know how I would feel if I had a little girl wearing kitten ears who had just been killed or maimed, whether in Manchester or in Syria — I don’t know if my grief would overwhelm my love, I would hope not but who knows. I was also wondering whom I would want to blame and hate — the deranged suicide bomber? the people who brainwashed him? the whole terrorist network? the enabling governments? those who voted for them? Where do you start and where do you end the blame game? Is everyone who has delusions at fault?
It still makes the most sense to blame the enemy of the delusions themselves. The danger level in the UK has been raised to critical, indicating more attacks on their way — but the real danger is the one still lurking in our own mental continuum. I also think this Facebook comment makes an important point:
If this kind of atrocity leads to hate and fear growing in your mind then their mission is accomplished, they win. Do not put everyone in the same group based on the actions of an individual, this is the very epitome of prejudice. Treat every person as an individual, judge them on their own actions. There is far more that unites us than divides us.
Right this moment, seemingly at leisure in the heat-drenched Norfolk countryside, I do have a choice to make when looking in the mirror of these tragic appearances – to give in to danger or to work to overcome it at its core. If I let the self-grasping Them and Us mentality stick around in my mental continuum, there is no guarantee of my safety:
In the cycle of impure life, samsara,
There is no real protection from suffering.
Wherever I am born, either as a lower or higher being,
I will have to experience only suffering. ~ Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra
This was an extreme deranged manifestation of “me vs them” displayed by the suicide bomber, who in all likelihood is going straight to a hell realm hallucinated by his own self-appeasing hatred and negative actions. However, none of us is safe in samsara from committing negativity while we remain with delusion and an endless history of negative karma in our minds. So, do we give in to these bad habits or keep trying to fly in the face of fear? Loving and praying for each other more, not less, starting perhaps with those in today’s firing line and working together wisely, creatively, and consistently to create purer minds and purer worlds?
Comments are welcome — what do you think about all this?