I’ve been quiet here all week because my home computer went kaput. It’s in good hands now–the same hands that fixed the laptop I’m currently working on–so I’m hopeful.
Tomorrow’s sermon is on open minds and open hearts, and because of the devastation in Japan, what might have been a paragraph or two about how to keep an open heart in the face of tremendous suffering is now the major part of the sermon. I think we close our hearts because we fear that one chink in our gates will let the floods in and we too will be swept away.
The best guidance I know on this topic is Buddhist. In an interview for the Shambhala Sun, bell hooks asks Pema Chodron about the suffering people endure when they are miserable in their jobs, and the answer goes beyond that situation and speaks to this question that’s on my heart, about keeping a heart of compassion when others’ suffering threatens to overwhelm us. You can change your job, Chodron says. (I think: You can turn off the radio, stop paying attention to the news, stay in your car so you don’t have to encounter the homeless people sleeping in the street.)
But just changing the outer situation doesn’t get at the root of the discontent. This gets down to the truth of suffering again. As human beings, we need to look directly at suffering, at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. So the first thing is to acknowledge, with a lot of honesty and heart, that no matter where we go or what we do, there are always going to be both positive and negative feelings and that this is a fertile situation.
That’s why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it’s always showing you the true nature of reality. No matter what movie you’re in, no matter what the plot is of the current film you’re starring in, it is the vehicle for showing you the true nature of your mind.
So I feel the whole thing comes down to being very, very attuned to one’s emotions—to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and has an aversion to what is painful. You work again and again on trying to discover how to get unhooked, to open and soften rather than to tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing the wisdom and compassion that are contained in this life that we have, just as it is. No matter how simplified or complicated life gets, it can make us miserable or it can wake us up.
We live in a culture that puts tremendous energy into escaping suffering, and if that means ignoring it–our own or others’–then that’s what we’re supposed to do. So we often pervert Buddhist teachings to make them sound like they are about escaping suffering, putting the laws the Buddhist perceived in the same basket as pretenders like “the law of attraction.” What grabbed me about Buddhism when I was 18 and James Stone, who would later be my senior thesis advisor (*bows*), stood at the front of a lecture hall and said, with that hand-rubbing relish of his, “Life is dukkha!,” was that this was not a religion that was going to dismiss suffering as an illusion. It is all about ending suffering, but the way is always through, not around. I love that Chodron refuses to make feeling good the goal. The goal, if one can even have a goal while being a Buddhist, is to open our hearts.
From an unknown source, Chodron again:
If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.
People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.