July 30, 2012

The Wisdom of Our Difficult Times.


Do not be afraid to face your difficulty.

Turn toward it.

Lean into the wind.

Hold your ground.

~ Jack Kornfield, A Lamp in the Darkness

If you’re reading these words, you’ve probably hit hard times. Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one, or maybe you’ve lost your job, or received a difficult diagnosis, or someone close to you has. Maybe you’re divorcing or you’re in bankruptcy or you’ve been injured, or your life is falling apart in any number of ways. Maybe daily life itself has become too much for you, or not enough. But even in the best of times there’s plenty to worry about: seemingly endless wars and violence, racism, our accelerating environmental destruction. In difficult times, personally or collectively, we often begin to wonder not only how we can get through this difficult patch: we begin to question existence itself.

You are not alone.

One of the most difficult things about hard times is that we often feel that we are going through them alone. But we are not alone. In fact, your life itself is only possible because of the thousands of generations before you, survivors who have carried the lamp of humanity through difficult times from one generation to another. Even Jesus had hard times, and Buddha did as well. At times they were hounded, threatened, physically attacked, and despised. Yet their gifts outshone all their difficulties. And now, as you read these words, you can feel yourself as part of the stream of humanity walking together, finding ways to carry the lamp of wisdom and courage and compassion through difficult times.

Several years ago I was giving a talk on compassion with Pema Chödrön in a large hall in San Francisco filled with at least three thousand participants. At one point a young woman stood up and spoke in the most raw and painful way about her partner’s suicide several weeks before. She was experiencing a whole gamut of complex emotions such as agonizing grief and confusion, guilt and anger, loss and fear. As I listened to her, I could feel her loneliness, and so I asked the group when she finished, “How many of you in this room have experienced the suicide of someone in your family, or someone really close to you?” More than two hundred people stood up. I asked her to look around the room at the eyes of those who had gone through a similar tragedy and somehow survived, to sense some of the wisdom they had gained from that difficult experience. As they gazed at her, she and everyone in the room could feel the presence of true compassion, as if we were in a great temple. We all felt the suffering that is part of our humanity, and part of the mystery that we share. But it’s not only in great difficulties like the suicide of a loved one that we touch this truth: in the midst of our daily confusions, self-doubts, conflicts, and fears we need support, reminders to trust in ourselves. We can trust. We were designed to journey through the full measure of beauty and sorrows in life and survive.

Your Difficulties Are Your Path.

Grief and loss and suffering, even depression and spiritual crisis—the dark nights of the soul—only worsen when we try to ignore or deny or avoid them. The healing journey begins when we face them and learn how to work with them. When we stop fighting against our difficulties and find the strength to meet our demons and difficulties head on, we often find that we emerge stronger and more humble and grounded than we were before we experienced them. To survive our difficulties is to become initiated into the fraternity of wisdom. The real tragedy is when we refuse to acknowledge and respect our own suffering, and instead spread it unconsciously to others. As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has written, “Suffering confers neither privileges nor rights. It all depends on how one uses it. If you use it to increase the anguish of others or yourself, you are degrading, even betraying it. And yet the day will come when we shall understand that suffering can elevate human beings. God help us to bear our suffering well.”

As you go through difficult times sense how many other people on this earth are facing the same problems: loss, conflict, divorce. Feel your common humanity with them. When you can awaken your sympathy, courage often follows.

Awakening and freedom are found here and now, amidst the “tainted glory” of our own humanity. In “The Awakened Heart,” our morning deep dive with esteemed author and Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, we will engage in an immersive training to expand our capacity for extraordinary love, for joy, for communion with life, and for unshakable freedom.

We begin by first discovering how to bring our whole body, heart, and mind together in the beauty of presence. This caring attention is the gateway to our freedom. Through direct practice, meditation, storytelling, and teachings, we will learn the art of openhearted mindfulness, and deepen our capacity for compassion and freedom amidst “the 10,000 joys and sorrows of life.”

As our presence grows, we will then explore the four central dimensions of the awakened heart. Using the Buddha’s most important teachings on equanimity and peace, we will see how these can be joined with joy, compassion, and love. Through a powerful practice, we will discover how to embody these qualities in ourselves and how to bring them into direct connection with those around us.

Finally, through a third practice, we will explore how to sustain the awakened and liberated heart in the nitty-gritty difficulties of our own life. In this visionary training, we will transform the way we meet problems. We will learn how to stay in touch with our own Buddha Nature and live from the wise heart no matter where we find ourselves.


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