In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy. Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”
It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet. The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering. Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.
So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet? Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.
Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life. On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example. On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive. An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.
If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need. Get intimate with it. What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk? Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost? Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us. Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply. This can look many ways.
One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation. Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world. On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful. A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you. Some people find ceremony helpful. When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.
In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth. We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more. One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations. When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits. When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.
We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain. Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body. Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world. One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers. I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing. When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt. I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health. If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?
After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place. If so, read on.
I Have the Choice to Do Something
There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world. Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them? This is something only you can decide for yourself. The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.” A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright. It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food. You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there. It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.
The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need. This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes. It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us. Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it. If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.
Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog. I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog. My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct. I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.) My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact. It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!
I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering. Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos. We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe. We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors. No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth. In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.
With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering? You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it. For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce. On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media. You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect. You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care. You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare. You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!
Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across. For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help. You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street. At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.
The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself. When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world? How do you process the deepest suffering? How do you decide when to act, and when to not act? Please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!