The courage to love

hate is easy“I’m ok, I suppose”, said the woman sitting opposite on the train into her phone a second ago, “but just reading about Manchester, it’s really sad. I can’t take much more of this.”

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.)

ManchesterBut 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 precious human lifeaway, 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?

love quoteOnce 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.

Dualism

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. self-cherishing me better than you

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.” ?

self-cherishing 2Or, 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 Manchester 2wondering 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

sowing seeds of loveThis 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?

Related articles

Delusions are our real enemies  

Using a Lamrim meditation to make sense of the senseless 

The age-old foes of our people 

A Buddhist meditation for coping 

What can we do about tragedies?

 

 

How to be a hero

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.”

If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?