Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Compassion and the High Life

My neighbors down the street have been drunk since 4pm yesterday, roughly two hours after the explosions in Boston. I could hear their hollering from inside my kitchen all afternoon and evening. They’ve been out on their porch again today since I walked my dogs this morning, holding cans of beer in soggy paper bags.

Does this make me nervous? Yeah, kind of. When they’re sober, they wave and say hello, but when they’re drunk they just stare at me hard when I walk by. If you aren’t the kind of person that’s drunk at 9am on a Tuesday, it’s just sort of hard to wrap your head around, which is why I’ve been thinking about it all morning.

I’ve been trying really hard to practice feeling compassion for them. I was mostly failing until a few minutes ago. And then I thought about how I felt when I heard the news about Boston.

I felt scared, angry, sad, and confused. I felt like something bad had happened and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt like something bad might happen to me, my loved ones, or my home and there was nothing I could do about it.

You name it, I felt it. We all did.

And maybe if I hadn’t sworn off drinking for 2013, I would be drunk right now, too. Because that moment when you are overwhelmed by grief and confusion always seems like the best time to have a beer.

I can imagine my neighbors watching the news for an hour, growing increasingly more agitated, when finally someone suggested that they turn off the TV and roll a blunt on the porch. What a relief that first hit and that first crisp swallow of cold High Life must have been.

And maybe for a few hours they talked, and consoled each other in the way that a lot of men (and not just men) seem to; by theorizing about who to blame and how to get revenge. And then a few hours of beer and weed and talk of vengeance might have passed and eventually settled into angry despondence.

And that’s when I walked by with my dogs and waved and my neighbors were just too drunk and overwhelmed to acknowledge me, to do anything but stare. And their stares seemed scary because they were scared.

And then I was scared.

And this, my friends, is often how we deal with grief. We get it drunk and high and pump it full of tense angry fantasies until it’s transformed from pain and sadness into a thick blank gaze that sees nothing. This is how we make ourselves invincible.

If any of this resonates with you, then you already know how it ends.

There’s always a hangover, a next day, some sober moment when everything you didn’t want to think about yesterday is still on your mind and you’re so tired from pushing it down and away and finally it explodes out of you in some way that you can no longer control. You fight with your girlfriend. You wreck your car. You cry uncontrollably. Whatever.

The how of this emotional explosion is both completely arbitrary and intensely personal. The point is that it’s inevitable. You are going to feel something sometime. It’s just a matter of when.

And this is where the practice of yoga offers us something truly revolutionary and transformative: resilience in the face of discomfort.

I often tell people that, in yoga, the struggle is the practice. And so you might be like, “Why the F would I choose to spend my time struggling?” but the truth is we are already always struggling all the time, yoga is just the practice of struggling.

It is the practice of putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions and just staying there.  It is the practice of staying quiet and still when the chaos of your mind and body are absolutely overwhelming. And when tragedies unfold in the world around us, it’s time to take the practice off the mat.

Practicing yoga in times of trauma means feeling the pain. It means accepting the reality of grief and sadness. It means recognizing the pain and suffering and struggles of others and ourselves and not running from them. It means staying present even when the present sucks.

Why? What’s the point? Am I about to tell you about how sitting still for suffering is going to make you feel better? Well, only kind of. The point isn't that you get to feel better. The point is that you get to feel. You get to feel the immediacy of your emotions and make something usable out of them.

If you accept the reality of suffering, what you will find in that process of acceptance is compassion. The Dalai Lama says that the discomfort we feel when we see/imagine the suffering of others is the seed of compassion. He says, “We are thus impelled to relieve the suffering of another so that our own painful suffering may be relieved.”

In other words, sticking with the discomfort is a practice that leads to compassion which is a practice that leads to taking actions that relieve suffering.

And that’s what makes the world a better place, right? Taking actions that relieve suffering? Less suffering = better world. I think we can all agree on that.

The Dalai Lama also says that “ignorance is the root of all suffering.” Here I am going to interpret ignorance as willful avoidance, which is what we do when we try to postpone or obliterate pain instead of accepting it.

If it seems like I am judging my neighbors (or you, or anyone) right now, I’m not. I promise that, depending on the year, it’s just as likely that you would find me tripping on acid at 8am as meditating. What I am trying to say is: There’s another way. It’s hard, but it’s worthwhile. For yourself and for the world.

So, whether you get drunk or high today or not, try to take a few minutes to sit still. Take a few minutes to tune into your pain and the pain you feel on behalf of all the victims and their families in Boston. Don’t push it away. Don’t try to pretend that it’s not there. Just sit with it and see it and see what happens.

Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe you’ll just want a beer even more than you did before. Maybe you’ll drive to your local hospital and give blood. Maybe you’ll hug your girlfriend or pet your dog or cry. Whatever happens is okay. It may be High Life for you today and a higher life for you tomorrow. Maybe you’ll just get high.

Whether or not you feel overwhelming empathy for your fellow man or you just feel sorry for yourself, for however long you sit with intention in the presence of your pain, you will be practicing turning towards compassion. And even if practice doesn’t make perfect, it does make progress.

Thinking About Ways to Find Hope and Peace in Times of Tragedy:

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