2.3
February 4, 2010

Helping Others without Hurting Ourselves.

Holding the Moth: Notes on Helping Others Through Depression and Hardship.

Editor’s intro:
There’s a mentality in yoga and spiritual communities that says: that person has problems, they’re negative—I want to stay away from them. I don’t want their bad juju. But that mentality, as it happens, is counter-productive from a Buddhist pov:
Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy. ~ Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
So: can we help others and work with their negative energy without paying a personal price? Can compassion actually make us stronger, happier?


Photo by flickr user Dan O.

When you are trying to help someone, you have to have humor, self-existing humor, and you have to hold the moth in your hand, but not let it go into the flame. That’s what helping others means. Ladies and gentlemen, we have so much responsibility. A long time ago, people helped one another in this way. Now people just talk, talk talk. They read books, they listen to music, but they never actually help anyone. They never use their bare hands to save a person from going crazy. We have that responsibility. Somebody has to do it. It turns out to be us. We’ve got to do it, and we can do it with a smile, not with a long face. ~ Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Well, I think to myself, re-reading this paragraph in my email inbox, where it was forwarded to me by a good friend (and the editor of this magazine). Keep the moth out of the flame. What the heck does that mean?

That’s the thing about Buddhist teachings. They can be so poetic, so comforting and spacious sitting on the page or springing from the lips of an even-keeled, experienced teacher. But it’s the practice—the slow steady integration of theory into everyday life—that gets tough. I read it again, and know that it contains some kind of necessary wisdom. Holding the moth in the palm of my hand is suddenly something that I want to know how to do, almost more than anything else.

It’s hard to write this post without filling in the details of my personal experience. But I also do not want to violate the privacy of people who are close to me and so I will say only that recently I found myself faced with the depression, the suffering of one of the closest, dearest people in my life. A person so close that at times it can feel hard to separate her hardships from my own. And because of this, I felt overwhelmed by it. I held her at an arm’s length, strained to confine our conversations to fun things, to small talk. I have been terrified of having to see the small thin lines of pain form around her mouth, the wet sorrow in eyes that I know so well.

Now people just talk, talk, talk. They read books, they listen to music, but they never actually help anyone. They never use their bare hands to save a person from going crazy.

And so I ask myself: What does it mean to use my bare hands? All theory aside, in the practical terms of concrete, everyday life…bare hands mean stovetop burns, papercuts, sore joints when I forget my mittens in the midst of an East Coast snow storm. I think of my dear sweet grandmother who cannot bring herself to remove her gloves in church, when it comes time for the peace offering, the point in the service when Catholics turn around and shake the hands of all the strangers and family and friends sitting in their near vicinity. “Germs,” she says, “You never know where people’s hands have been.” Bare hands mean the risk of discomfort.

Bare skin is the willingness to feel.

Mostly, my aversion to her suffering comes from my insecurity about being unable to fix things, of feeling inadequate because I can’t make everything better and happy and easy again. But I also know, from the times when I have been the one at the bottom of a long dark well, that I didn’t really need another person to make it better. Mostly I just needed another person. I needed another person’s willingness to feel, to help me have the courage to ride out my own pain, and not run away from it.

You have to have humor, self-existing humor, and you have to hold the moth in your hand, but not let it go into the flame. That’s what helping others means.

Recently, when we were talking she said to me, “Wouldn’t you rather me tell you things that are hard for you to hear, and know that I was being honest?” And I knew instantly that the answer was yes. Yes, I would so much rather know that I am getting all of a person, especially a person that I love so dearly, even if it is hard, than have it be easy and know that I was only seeing the surface of them.

What does it mean to think of the human heart as a small soft moth? With wings flapping against the inside skins of our hands? To hold it, all of it, away from the flame? I cannot say that I know the answer to this, but the question itself is helping me to explore new ways of being with the people I love, even when it is most difficult.

Merete Mueller lives in Boulder, and occasionally blogs at tothebones.me

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