The tidal waves rolled out from the epicenter at 500 miles an hour, the speed of a jetliner, taking up to ten hours to reach foreign shores. It took a few more days for the searing images to reach the television screen and the newspapers. Then the wave hit my heart, full bore. And rocked it.
I sat at the computer weeping at the sight of an Indian fisherman holding his dead eight-year-old son. A mother in Sri Lanka wailing as her child is interred in a mass grave. The 2004 tsunami left so many dazed survivors, devastated cities, broken bodies … the torrent of images was, at least for a while, too overwhelming to comprehend. But I could all too easily imagine the pain of individuals.
And I felt so humbled in the face of their anguish. It made me reflect on the terrible intimacy bequeathed by the media, the all-seeing eye that beams distant tragedies straight into our homes. Darfur, Beslan, Mosul, Banda Aceh, Aleppo — all connected in a vast web of suffering that extends across the globe.
How do we respond to this ceaseless wave of painful images? Most people I talk with in this country readily admit they don’t know what to do. “I see all those images on TV, and I just go numb.” “I feel overwhelmed …. sad … depressed.” “I end up feeling hopeless. What can one person do?”
At root, it’s a profound and ancient question: How do we deal with human suffering?
Whether we recognise it or not, we are affected by the pain of others. Because of this vulnerability, we need to respond emotionally — with empathy — and spiritually as well, with compassion. The news may be presented as a collection of facts, but we are human beings, not computers, and we can’t take in this information without being touched by it in some way. To pretend we are not is to deny our full humanity.
As humans, we are made to, meant to, respond to the pain of others. Especially now, it feels essential to do so, to the extent that we each can. Every iota of awareness and compassion we bring to a situation informs it, shaping it in some subtle fashion.
So you might consider taking up the spiritual practice of responding to suffering, whether it’s a wreck glimpsed driving by on the freeway, or a cataclysmic event like the tsunami flooding the airwaves. When you feel overwhelmed by a situation, make the time to acknowledge your feelings and deepen into them. Sometimes I just sit with the newspaper and cry — more times last year than I can count. Open your heart to feel the pain involved, the heartbreak and grief; as well as the pain of the ignorance that so often causes these. Breathing in this pain, you can take it into your heart … breathing out, send to the victims all the safety and comfort you experience in this moment, everything you have to give. In and out, sending and receiving.
This simple practice is called tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism, and I have no doubt it works in the world in ways I cannot articulate. I know it works for me at the personal level. It helps me feel connected rather than overwhelmed, more at peace with the rough, even horrific, aspects of life. Cultivating a practice like this, we learn to connect, respond, and let go — simple, necessary actions we do again and again as we move through life. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche, has a wonderful chapter describing tonglen practice.
A practice like this is no substitute for a practical response. Yes, you still need to stop to help on the freeway; you still ought to make a donation to Mercy Corps. But so often we are unable to respond directly in any way to a situation. It’s happening not in front of us, but halfway around the world, and we end up feeling disturbed and disconnected. Tonglen works on the inner level in a way I believe is equally important. It allows us to respond to the emotional anguish that arises when we see another’s suffering.
This kind of practice is subtle, portable, invisible, and always available to us. Sometimes it’s just a breath of acknowledgement, an opening of the heart that lets me slow down enough to offer myself silently to the present moment.
The endless stream of heartbreaking news images flooding our awareness can fuel the non-stop practice of opening our hearts to the world. This can bring us to the understanding that there is no difference between our pain and the pain of others. There are no boundaries where the heart is concerned. The things that break our hearts, that rip them right out of our chests, are the same around the globe.
And we come a little closer to the understanding that the heart is meant to be broken. Open.
Breathing in the suffering, and taking it to heart. Breathing out, and giving all the happiness I have in this moment — so tenuous, so fragile, so easily washed away. We are all, every single one of us, so, so, so, so vulnerable. This is what it is to be human. This is what all these people on the news are so beautifully, horribly, tragically showing us, night after night, day after day.