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July 2, 2019

Living an Awakened Life is Not a Choice—it’s a Responsibility.

 

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Times are tough.

Okay, I lied.

Times are really tough, and, honestly, they are becoming far worse.

Our stress and anxiety levels have gone through the roof, and it seems as though the world is going stark raving mad. Most people I see throughout my day are either extremely distracted or angrily rushing around. Many people I attempt to greet at work are so caught in their stuff they don’t even hear me, or, worse, they look me right in the eyes and walk right by. A moment’s hesitation as soon as a traffic light turns green will guarantee at least five people honking in a fit of rage.

Our politics have become a circus sideshow act, our country is divided, and racism and intolerance are on the rise, as tensions are growing worldwide. Throw in the threat of nuclear war and climate change, and even the Earth herself is growing weary.

One only needs to watch the news for five minutes to see what Buddhists call the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance fully in play. The seeds of these powerful forces only guarantee one thing: more suffering. And trust me when I say, there is already too much as it is, and, as fear rises, we all become less patient, more neurotic, and more entrenched in self-preservation.

Overcome with such immense turmoil, many of us have become fearful and may even feel hopeless and/or helpless. I know there have been many times recently when I felt this way.

But it’s important to remember we don’t have to be blinded by our fears during such tumultuous times. We are not helpless and our situation is not hopeless. We can, in fact, move the world in a more wholesome direction—but it’s not going to be easy. The task calls for each one of us to wake up, to be willing to be uncomfortable without reacting from this ancient habit of self-preservation.

We must stop defending certain beliefs (which divide us), and instead focus all our attention on not causing harm to ourselves, each other, and the planet, while also dedicating each day to alleviating the suffering of others.

In order to move forward, we must be able to listen to views that are not our own with respect, empathy, and curiosity, without feeling threatened or childishly bursting out into a tribalistic, defensive rage—something which seems to be the new norm.

Left, right. Republican, Democrat. Muslim, Christian. Whatever the differences are, we must realize our sameness.

Suffering is the key. We all want to be happy, and none of us wants to suffer. In fact, all of our neurotic behaviors are trying, on some level, to bring temporary relief. So, instead of arguing and blaming, let’s try to alleviate the pain in others through deep listening, kindness, and respect.

It’s okay if everyone doesn’t live the way we live. We must work hard to get over ourselves. More importantly, we must remember our deepest values and find ways to cultivate compassion and wisdom. These are the only “weapons” we can use to fight off the forces of the three poisons.

I have made a firm commitment to live my life based on three simple vows, which I believe can change the world, but, as mentioned above, cannot have a global effect if I do it alone. We must all be willing to move forward together in the direction of peace.

I used to believe living an awakened life was a choice, but now I feel it is our responsibility as human beings to wake up and to finally do things differently. This article is an invitation for you to join me in my lifelong project of world peace.

It’s important to use these vows as guides to an awakened life, not commandments set in stone to follow or be punished. They are the intention brought to each moment, each day.

Here are my three vows:

I vow (to the best of my ability) to not cause harm through body, speech, or thought.

I vow (to the best of my ability) to dedicate my life to alleviating the suffering of others as it arises, doing my best to respond appropriately for each specific instance with wisdom, compassion, and skillful means. Not to fix or cure, but to deeply care. 

I vow (to the best of my ability) to remain open to each moment of my life, just the way it is, engaging fully and directly.

I truly believe if everyone followed these three vows, from laymen and laywomen to politicians and world leaders, world peace would be possible.

I vow (to the best of my ability) to not cause harm through body, speech, or thought.

This first vow is living a life based on the concept of non-harming (ahimsa). If we set an intention to only use our body, speech, and mind in a loving, wholesome, and skillful way, we will create less harm in our lives.

Living ethically creates peace in our being. As author and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield always says, you can’t relax and be at peace after a day of killing and stealing. And this is so true! Much of our suffering could be relinquished by simply living in such a way that causes the least amount of suffering in the world, and this is what this first vow is really about.

If we want world peace, first we need to befriend the greed, hatred, and ignorance within ourselves. The horrors we see on the news exist within us as seeds. The question is, are we watering them?

We must look with mindfulness at each moment of our day, and, more importantly, to how we are responding to each moment to see what we are cultivating. What reactions are present within us? Are they wholesome? Will they cause harm? How can I meet this moment to bring the least amount of suffering into this world?

This vow demands constant attention and the willingness to not be so reactive to our first impulses to get instant relief from that which makes us uncomfortable. Meditation can help us gain the ability to be aware of thoughts, moods, and emotions without getting ensnared by them.

When we have a firm commitment to not add suffering to the world, we have an unshakeable inner strength that will not only bring peace to our being, but also to those within our immediate circle—friends, family, coworkers. Once we are at ease, we no longer contribute to the disease in the world, and being a warm, loving presence tends to diffuse situations, which could’ve ended up far worse had we been unconsciously caught in a reactive mind.

With this vow, peace spreads from our own lives to those around us.

I vow (to the best of my ability) to dedicate my life to alleviating the suffering of others as it arises, doing my best to respond appropriately for each specific instance with wisdom, compassion, and skillful means. Not to fix or cure, but to deeply care.

The second vow is learning to live a life dedicated to relieving suffering in the world.

In Buddhism, this is called a bodhisattva, and, as bodhisattvas, we are called to help in whatever way we can.

The first vow is important to help us step out of ourselves, so to speak. If we are too caught on “me, me, me,” or on life going our way, we will act from the three poisons and only add more confusion to the world. Once we have worked with that, even for a little, we realize we are not the only ones who suffer.

Everyone suffers in this life. No one can escape this fact of existence. Instead of being depressed about this, we can allow it to touch our tender heart of compassion. The angry coworker, the annoying family member, the difficult friend—all of them are suffering in some way or another.

Remember, hurt people hurt people. No one causes harm when they are at peace with themselves and their lives. If we aren’t caught in the immediate defensiveness, we can be spacious enough to see the suffering of this person, and, with this second vow, we can be committed to relieving that suffering, or to at least finding a way to not escalate it. At any given moment, we can ask ourselves, How can I meet this moment to be of most benefit to all beings?

The other great thing about this vow is that it is an endless source of joy. Helping other people feels good, but be warned, this is not another self-help, feel-good-all-the-time project. This second vow is about living a life dedicated to relieving suffering. It’s not about us, although we may feel good while we do it.

We don’t need to become doctors or find a cure to a disease (although if you can, that would be great!) to live this vow. Checking in on a friend who is sad, smiling at a stranger on bus, holding the door open for someone—all of these simple acts fulfill this second vow.

When we see suffering, we try to alleviate it. Plain and simple! We are not trying to fix or cure a situation, but just bringing loving-kindness and care to it. We can trust our own wisdom and intuition of what the moment needs and do that.

Could you imagine if the world leaders today looked into their countries, saw the cries and suffering of the people, and said, “How can I help alleviate this suffering?” What a better way to live, rather than stay stuck on political ideas or sides. To actually have the pain touch their hearts, and to use that pain to connect with their wisdom in order to bring relief could bring about radical transformation.

Even better, imagine if everyone in the entire world lived to ease the suffering of others. No more fighting out of fear or pain. A little idealistic, I know, but if we all begin practicing together, it surely would be a better world.

I vow (to the best of my ability) to remain open to each moment of my life, just the way it is, engaging fully and directly.

This last vow is the glue that holds the other two together. Without this as a base, none of the other two are possible.

Much of our suffering comes from resisting life, from wanting it to be other than what it is. Many of the terrible things in this world come from aversion to people, places, or situations, from being unwilling to stay with the discomfort of things being other than how we want them to be.

This third vow is learning to touch life directly, just the way it is in this moment. We let go of “our way” and align ourselves with what’s true right now. In other words, we shift from a self-centered life to a life-centered one. This allows us to be at ease no matter what. It allows us to cultivate an unshakeable peace and equanimity from which we can appropriately respond to each situation.

With practice, we learn to rest in “the still point of the turning world,” fully engaged with the conditions of our lives without being enslaved by them. Only from this place can we truly not cause harm in this world and are we able to best help others. Buddhist teacher and author Sylvia Boorstein says, “Can I meet this moment fully? Can I meet it as a friend?” These two lines embody the third vow.

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I hope we can take these vows and move forward with confidence in our lives. Let us be the change we want to see in the world, before it’s too late.

I’d like to end with my new favorite chant:

“Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu”

May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

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author: Mark Van Buren

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Editor: Kelsey Michal