It’s been a traumatic month. Mass shootings, wildfires, and other climate change driven disasters have filled the news. A now endless looking war in Ukraine is taking a second tier for our attention, and price hikes across the globe are a daily struggle, hitting the less privileged the hardest. People are suffering, as the buddhist teachings call it: dukkha or sankhara dukkha, the suffering of conditioned reality. This means having a body and living in the world, goes hand in hand with suffering.
My suffering this month was limited to dealing with a price-gauging moving company, ungodly hours for delivering my stuff (what moving company delivers at 9:00 PM?). I developed plantar fasciitis in my effort to train for a section hike this summer (carrying too much weight on difficult terrain). Moving into a new home meant I had to find help to fix things up to my liking. Finding paid help has been a struggle. Waiting for escrow to close the last 4 months paid off. I developed patience and changed my expectations: I didn’t loose my cool. I remained persistent in my problem solving. I found more rewarding things to do, such as arranging my familiar things in my new home; I enjoyed learning about plant life on my little plot of land, as I watered 13 young trees that came with the property, by hand. A broadband company hooked up Wi-Fi before I moved in, and now I can access screen entertainment when I want to escape my daily problems. I’m privileged. And yet, I feel the pain of family experiencing setbacks, friends dealing with health issues, communities grieving as wild fires destroy a way of life, and shooters kill their children and loved ones.
Life isn’t fair. I may think I have solutions for the enormous problems in the world, but politicians don’t listen to my solutions. How did money hungry sponsors get to determine what rule makers can and cannot do? Rules that better society but don’t create immediate profit, are a thing of the past. The small steps, a small amount of money for self promotion, grew into big steps and big money to keep people in power. Does Grassley contribute to the betterment of his constituents after 7 terms in office? Doesn’t he know when it’s time to bow out?
So how do we live in these trying times? I rely on Buddhist teachings for guidance. One teaching explains how to experience mudhita, joy. You will experience joy if your attention is on whatever is happening right in front of you. If you focus your attention you can respond instead of react, and you can act from a place of wisdom and compassion. Responsiveness generates a sense of joy. Remember how you feel when you hold a door for someone and you get a smile and thank you? That is mudhita. If you pay attention to the surrounding misery, and act in response either by reaching out, or just listening and being present, joy arises. Right action produces joy.
We’re all in this together. Separating yourself from the pain and suffering of others goes against the grain of this universe. What happens to another person, animal, or ecosystem happens to us. The effects of climate change on our life should teach us that. Everyone and everything is affected. Try as you might, you cannot escape it. You may think the fires in the Arctic will not affect you when you live in Massachusetts, but you’re wrong; smoke travels and will pollute your air. Warming of permafrost increases carbon in the atmosphere, which will heat our planet even more. The melting of the ice will raise and warm ocean water levels and affect weather, animal migration, food sources and more. I live near a wild fire that destroyed people’s homes and land. These people are now living as evacuees in my town. They need food and shelter. I see what is needed. I can ignore, or I can help. If I ignore, the suffering will continue; if I help, I experience connectedness and joy. It’s a simple equation.
I discovered this sense of being connected when I was hiking weeks on end on the trail, carrying my food and belongings in a backpack. Living out in nature, I was affected by weather and terrain; it taught me I’m a minor cog in the wheel of life. Observing the trees taught me how to listen and understand how the forest functions, the snow nourishes, the rocks protect the plants. In the civilized world where I live in a house, I sit with what’s happening around me. I write a letter, advocate for a cause, donate money, employ people who’ve lost everything and are starting over again. Next time it may be me who needs the help. I know I will never be separated from the rest of this world.
We can’t escape pain and suffering, but we can diminish suffering by being present, and respond by putting an arm around somebody, by sharing what little we have, by thanking your FedEx delivery man, by speaking up, by refusing to take part in wasteful consumption. You can do much good when you think about each act in your day. Go slow, be one with the cactus people, do less and know that you’re infusing the world with kindness. If that doesn’t bring joy, I don’t know what will.