Responding and reacting

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CPR masks

What?  Yet another act of mass violence? This one very close to home …

I arrived in Boston yesterday morning, just a few hours before Logan airport was closed down due to the marathon bombings.  A friend picked me up and took me straight to a local hospital so we could spend time with a mutual friend who was having her first chemotherapy treatment, for recently diagnosed Stage IV cancer.

Leaving Boston later that afternoon, we saw police cars escorting convoys of dozens of empty school buses driving into the city.  It was an eerie sight, and we wondered what was going on.  Perhaps some kind of disaster-response rehearsal?  But it wasn’t a rehearsal, it was the real thing.  (Am assuming the buses were needed to take survivors to safety)

A day later and my mind still struggles to take all of this in.  It shuttles between aversion and delusion, two of the three “root poisons” in Buddhist thought – i.e. not wanting / resisting, and not knowing / ignoring.

I go on-line, looking for consolation, and come back with this piece by Pema Chodron.  Ah, yes, the consolation of no-consolation!  Staying with that “queasy feeling” and being able to say “this too, this too,” to Stage IV cancer and bombings and ————- (fill in the blanks).

Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not only hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.

Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love.

Pema Chodron, from The Places That Scare You (Shambhala Publications)

2 thoughts on “Responding and reacting

  1. Graham Oliver says:

    Hi Jill
    Yes this is interesting. I have the great good fortune of being ‘open’ 🙂 That is, it doesn’t matter what I do (as far as I can work out) I am open to others state of being and the bad things that happen in the world.
    However, this does not seem to be the case for everyone? My ‘default’ response to the bombing was ‘Crikey America is so violent’, but of course any glance at Wikipedia will show you that yes it may be near the top of the homicides list but there are other countries as bad or worse:-(
    However, I notice that a significant number of people are interested in things like ‘houses’ and ‘stuff’ and as long as bad stuff does not impinge they are ‘happy’. As stated initially this doesn’t seem to be the case with me.
    What I have noticed is that those people that have managed to stay open to the ‘pain’ are generally nicer to be around and more humane (you talked about ‘going down’ in another conversation).
    I suppose that I believe that ‘Life is conditioned by suffering’ is a fact and it is how we respond to that fact that in effect determines our life! I was saying only yesterday that as far as the 2nd Noble Truth is concerned I feel less in the ignorance camp and more in the craving / aversion camp! Because for me (as stated above) I am ‘open’ and know I am interconnected.
    But for me I know (or I believe) that there is a limit to the amount of suffering that I could cope with before I would ‘crack up’. So I have doubts about the quote ‘When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously.’
    It could read for me ‘If we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion may arise spontaneously but it may depend on what we are in the middle of!’ It may be that we have to run away and reconsider things! How much pain can I deal with in reality?
    The running away is surely what most people do. Perhaps the trick is to try and do it consciously and evaluate rather than unconsciously and look for nicer curtains for the spare bedroom 🙂
    Take Care
    G

  2. jill shepherd says:

    Hi Graham
    I appreciate all the issues you’re bringing up here. I agree that when working with intense suffering it’s often necessary to make a strategic withdrawal, and that this is not the same as running away – because it’s done with full awareness. As you say in the end, the trick does seem to be to “do it consciously and evaluate.”
    I like the distinction you made between knowing (or believing) that there’s a limit to the suffering you can cope with. That’s an interesting area to me: seeing how beliefs can shape and limit my capacity, but in spite of that, how often I actually AM able to survive challenging situations. It often seems that when things get tough, inner and outer resources also get catalysed that make the situation manageable – though not always graceful or pretty!
    For me, this path is about expanding boundaries, coming up against my own limits or edges and finding ways of stretching them, gently. Like mental or emotional yoga, maybe. But not forcing myself to be more caring or more kind or more compassionate, because then that starts to feel like another form of violence, in a way.

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