May 9, 2014

Can We Make Sense of Violence & Suffering?


Eric Klein Illustration (do not use)

The intensity of violence that is erupting around the world is staggering. The combination of savagery and technology fueled by the thirst-for-power and ethnic hatred gives rise to unimaginable suffering.

One Wisdom Heart reader—overwhelmed by the mounting global violence—sent an email asking:

What can you say to help me make sense of these events?

I can’t say anything to make sense of these events.

I believe that seeking to make sense—too quickly—is a way of distancing ourselves from experiencing the impact, the power and the message that is encoded in our situation.

It’s a way of staring into the face of unmasked suffering.

It’s natural to try to distance the mind and heart, to pull back and protect ourselves when confronted with such rawness and horror. I’ve seen this distancing tendency in myself and my friends.

  • In the spiritual community there is the tendency to weave a metaphysical cocoon around the event, dulling our sensitivity and awareness. This is a way of shutting down—even when it’s framed in the language of opening up.
  • In the political community there’s the tendency to assign blame to an individual leader, to one or more political parties, or to the culture. This is a way of lashing out—even when it’s framed in the language of rationality or social justice.
  • For many the distancing reaction arises as the impulse to stay busy with today’s to-do list in order to distract attention from the anguish that keeps scratching at the door of the heart.

What about you?

How does the distancing reaction shape your thoughts, speech, or actions?

It’s absolutely essential to notice, to name, to be aware of these distancing tendencies—if you want to create conditions that can heal the deep causes of the violence in the world.

Because, if what we think, say, or do is based in distancing, I’m afraid it will never lead to the kind of understanding, dialogue, relationships, or actions that will preclude these events from happening again.

If what we think, say, or do is based on distancing, we will not fully receive the impact of what the events reveal; we will not be changed by this revelation; and thus, we will not change the conditions that generate the tragedies.

Distancing strategies (we all have them) do not transform our situation.

They’re not designed to do so. Distancing strategies are designed to reinforce our existing worldview and to perpetuate our conditioned ways of being in the world.

But, our currently enflamed situation deserves more than distancing. It deserves more than formulaic spiritual, psychological, or political understanding.

If facing the latest report of death, destruction, and suffering confirms what you already know, I’d like to suggest that – you’re missing the point.

If our collective reaction to current events simply prolongs the familiar perspectives, debates, and actions—we’re missing the point.

Understanding can come.

But only as we open to and fully experience all that arises, all that is evoked, all that is revealed as we contemplate the suffering.

The anguish and intractable nature of our situation asks you, me, all of us:

  • How can you meet this impossible situation in a way that does more than confirm what you already know, what you already believe?
  • How can we, individually and collectively, take what is happening so deeply to heart that it overrides strongly held convictions and undermines heavily ingrained habits of distancing?
  • How can I, you, we meditate upon our situation in such a way that creates conditions which preclude re-enacting the same drama.

These questions can’t be answered by the mind or the emotions—both are heavily conditioned and rooted in the past. We can’t look to our conditioning—including our spiritual and political conditioning—to create new conditions . . . a new world.

Relying on conditioned reactions will only perpetuate the conditions that have given rise to the suffering that surrounds us.

When we respond to what is arising with the conditioned mind and reactive emotions, we fuel the very conditions that give rise to the events we bemoan.

But how can we do otherwise?

How can you do otherwise?

How can I do otherwise?

What can we do to develop our individual and shared capacity to meet our situation—and all experiences of suffering —without the overlay, insulation, and protection that comes from relying on patterns of the past?

All the wisdom traditions agree, that for violence to arise there must be the conditions that foster, support, and give rise to violence.

Collectively we have fostered, supported, and given rise to such conditions. That much is obvious.

But, when we refer to the collective—what are we talking about? This word—the collective—can become, itself, a distancing technique. But, let’s be clear—the collective is a fabric woven of many individual threads.

You are a thread in the collective fabric as am I.

Neither of us is separate from the collective. The collective is the body, mind, and heart of our inter-being—to use Thich Nhat Hahn’s wonderful phrase. Recognizing the reality of inter-being, begs, again, the question:

What can I do right now so that my thread weaves the conditions of peace, of healing, of awakening into the collective fabric?

We need to develop our capacity to meet the gritty, often painful, truth of our experience without being overwhelmed.

Because when we are overwhelmed, reactive distancing kicks in. And when this reaction kicks in, you and I fall back on our habitual spiritual, psychological, and political patterns.

To let go of these patterns can be terrifying.

But the alternative—the perpetuation of the past and the prolonging of the conditions that create such acts of violence—is more terrifying. Rumi wrote, “The cure for pain is in the pain.”

We need to develop our capacity to enter the pain with loving awareness.

To enter the pain in our individual body and mind and the pain in our collective soul.


Through meditative awareness. As the temperature of suffering rises around the world, so too has the awareness – if not the actual practice – of meditation. But, what does it mean to meditate?

I believe we need to upgrade our approach to meditation.

Indeed, to all spiritual practice. If we want to untangle the knots of suffering that weave themselves into collective acts of violence, we need an approach to meditation that goes beyond stress reduction, beyond the relaxation response, and beyond individual enlightenment.

We need to practice in such a way that we enter into the tangled web of our individual and collective conditioning with loving awareness. A way of practicing that can—individually and collectively:

  • Untangle the knots of afflictive emotions
  • Still the swirling of confused thoughts

The wisdom traditions all point to a state of consciousness that is capable of healing even the most horrific suffering.

This state of consciousness is within you. Spiritual practice can cultivate the psychological, emotional, and physical capacity for you to allow that state of healing presence to do its work.

If you’ve read this far, you know what I mean.

You know that there is a healing presence—a loving awareness—which transcends and can transform suffering. Whatever is not included in the embrace of loving awareness—whether within you or outside you—will remain in the thrall of the patterns of the past.

Loving awareness is the antidote to distancing.

It embraces everything—not with a spacey, emotionally sloppy group hug—but with the fierce compassion and unwavering clarity that can create the conditions that can change our world.

Here’s the deal – loving awareness won’t arise in your individual experience through thinking or emoting. It won’t take root in our collective experience through thinking or emoting.

For loving awareness to transform suffering, you and I have to embody it. This takes practice.

This brings us back to the question: What can you say to help me make sense of these events?

When you and I practice . . . a new kind of sense will arise. Not intellectually but in every cell of the body. We’ll understand with profound intimacy and without distancing. We will realize, embody, and express a new world.


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Editor: Renée Picard

Illustration courtesy Eric Klein

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