I sit on a blanket at the front of a classroom of students, also sitting on their own tiny constructed platforms. Two things swim through my head: "Be Grateful to Everyone", a slogan from the 12th Century Lojong teachings of Atisha (my planned philosophy theme for the day), and the recent headline "Car Plows into Crowd as Racial Tensions Boil Over".
Somewhere in the background of my mind is a cordial but serious discussion. When there is so much suffering, hatred and violence in the world, is it of actual benefit to offer gratitude or compassion work as a public teaching, especially for those things that challenge and even hurt us? Further, am I someone who should be offering these teachings, when my own pain and suffering certainly appear to pale in comparison to world events?
To be honest, I never come to any absolute or definitive conclusion from this ongoing dialogue (I have had some iteration of these same questions through many tragic world events). There have certainly been times I have wanted to step away from teaching; when the weight of what was happening in my city or country or on Earth was so heavy that my work felt almost like a mockery of such suffering. To sit in an admittedly privileged position in front of students (usually without knowing their personal history) and offer a teaching from another century on compassion or fearlessness or gratitude can feel like I am extending the tiniest band-aid to the world's largest heart attack.
And yet, for now, I continue. And with the intention of making an offering in some small way to the larger movement against hatred and bigotry, I want to share a few of the reasons why I still teach these practices and how they might be useful to you or someone you know.
The Truth of Interdependence
My feelings of anguish and helplessness as I gaze through the newsreels of intense suffering in the world are often funneled and shifted into a deeper sense of connection to humanity when I work with compassion and gratitude practices. These practices, like Metta or Tonglen, or working with a slogan such as "Be Grateful to Everyone" have the opposite effect of hatred, the opposite of overwhelm or fear or separation or discord. They open the possibility for something other than a blinding aversion to people and actions that I find atrocious and evil. They also give me some insight into how I can hold myself accountable and stop pointing fingers so quickly and in vain. Compassion and gratitude ultimately give space to see the humanity in others who initially evoke within me fear, outrage and disgust. They give me room to take actions that stem not from emotional overcharge, but from wisdom and clarity.
The Universal Nature of Suffering
I mentioned that I feel sometimes that my own suffering is so small in comparison to what I read about in the news. The most difficult situations that arise for me in my life do sometimes feel petty or trite when I compare, but they are ultimately human and universal. They include feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, isolation, grief, anger and even rage. Gratitude and compassion practice has been a pillar of my efforts to quell the downward spirals that have, at times, arisen from those difficulties. When my lifelong best friend died of cancer a few years ago, I dove into Metta and Tonglen to connect to the blazing spirit of my dear friend and also to feel less hopeless. Since I moved to Switzerland, my sense of autonomy and personal identity has been challenged fiercely. I have used gratitude as a reminder of all that is still available to me. It helps me remember what bounty overflows and acts as a powerful antidote to the moments where it feels that I have lost or left behind so much that was meaningful. In the end, I am not sure if there is a measure of who suffers more than another but the truth is that we all do, and many of the ways we suffer have a similar tone even if they are not exactly the same. These practices give us some breathing room around our pain, whatever it is, and air things out when intensity can be claustrophobic or keep us small-minded.
Obstacles as Teachers
Ultimately, as I reflect, the greatest obstacles I have faced in life have molded me in to the person I am. Injuries have made me a clearer and safer teacher, times of financial hardship have given me insight into the value of money and empathy toward others who struggle with it, experience both first and second-hand with depression has gifted me with the ability to hold space for myself and others at their lowest. Moving to a new land where I do not speak the language or understand the cultural nuances gives me a small glimpse into what it feels like to be invisible or powerless. It has also given me a greater appreciation for the ways in which I am incredibly privileged. When I offer gratitude to my challenges, when I meet my "enemies" with thankfulness and compassion, it transforms me. Even if the person or situation is not changed at all, I am. How I see and feel and taste hardship changes. And, in my limited but real experience, it makes a profound difference.
It can be like sitting on hot coals or suffocating when we come face to face with some of the greatest hatred and evil in our world. These tools that I outlined are ancient but they are incredibly potent and relevant today. No matter how little or insignificant we feel, they can offer us a chance to step out of our small-mindedness, out of fear and rage, out of despondency.
I hope to outline, in some detail, a few of these in the coming weeks as my writing seems to be returning. In the meantime you can google Tonglen, Metta or Maitri, and the Lojong Slogans to find more on the internet. Or if you are local, come to class.
Until then, please be safe and hold each other up. Use your anger and discontent as a channel for wisdom. And be kind to yourself first and then spread it around.