When someone we know is suffering, one of the most profound gifts we can offer is our presence.
Yet it can be hard to know exactly how to respond. Most of us have never been taught how. And truth be told, it can feel easier to step back, walling in our own feelings, than to engage with the effects of illness, loss, hardship or the untold sorrows a person may be enduring.
Still, we may feel a heart-tug or have our own nagging thoughts that we could do something. We just don’t know what.
Is there a process that might help us proceed with wisdom and compassion? Especially when we’re not sure what that “something” is?
Quieting the Mind to Listen
One of the finest ways to understand the next best step is to quiet the mind.
Cultivating a practice of meditation helps you to do more than just that. It also helps you access intuition and move beyond rational problem-solving, fostering deeper awareness of a person or situation.
Before meditation practice, silently ask yourself, “How can I be of maximum service to this person at this time?”
Ask the question once. Then begin your practice with sincerity. If you’re new to meditation, simply focus on the breath.
Again, the breath.
And listen. Amidst the monkey mind’s agendas, cluttered with lists and worries, you may receive an answer. Sometimes it may be so obvious you’re surprised it didn’t already occur to you. Sometimes the answer may be that you’re already doing enough – or doing as much as you can.
The answer may not be linear or logical, which is exactly why cultivating a silent space for your heart/mind to communicate is so valuable. It may be an idea, a new approach, or perhaps the “right” words.
Trust the answer. And if the answer doesn’t come immediately, no worries. It may arise later.
This act of contemplation alone is itself an act of service, whether or not the person of your concern is even aware of your intention to support them. It may also be an invitation to action – even action as simple as a phone call, card or email; or perhaps an offer to run an errand, accompany them to an appointment or share a meal.
Sometimes your “answer” guides you to ask more consciously and deliberately: “How may I be of service?” The act of offering can be a healing for both the recipient and the sender.
Sometimes when offering help, you may notice your own resistance. It feels like a push-pull. You want to help, but maybe you shouldn’t. You’d like to do something, but you don’t have the time.
Be curious about these internal conflicts. Learning about your own discomfort provides you with the opportunity to polish rough edges – places where you might unknowingly hold fear or unresolved issues.
A Meditation for Global Suffering
But what about suffering that’s so vast, it’s practically impossible to wrap your brain around it? Gun violence, natural disasters, terrorism, pollution, the ravages of climate change – the list is endless and incomprehensible. The suffering of people and our planet alike can cause us to fold in upon ourselves or wrack our brains for solutions.
Think of it as an opportunity.
When every fiber of your being is yearning to do something – anything – to help, I have found the Buddhist practice of Tonglen to be incredibly powerful: the practice of receiving and sending.
Tonglen is often misunderstood, largely from fear that by intentionally receiving others’ suffering, we will increase our own. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this practice, we’re merely creating a space to acknowledge the myriad emotions around a circumstance or situation – the fear, anger, doubt, rage, pain, sorrow and all.
First, breathe in these feelings with a sincere willingness to keep an open heart, even in the presence of so much pain.
With your next out-breath, send back well-being, healing or the highest good to the situation on which you’re focused. It may also include thoughts of a peaceful solution or resolution.
By the simple act of receiving and sending, the dynamics of a situation can dramatically shift. You needn’t say a word.
If you are a visual kind of person, imagine the sufferings as a dark color or smoke before you. Let your in-breath dissolve the sufferings. With your out-breath, imagine casting forth a white light or color of your choice – the opposite of the suffering.
This practice can be directed to a community, a country, or the planet. It can be directed to an individual with whom direct communication may be impossible. It may be directed to a stranger.
As with the meditation on service, Tonglen may present invitations to action – “answers” for how we may actively do more to address or counterbalance issues beyond our immediate control or influence.
Putting These Practices into Practice
Whether you’re more interested in the inquiry meditation or Tonglen, we’re not without opportunity to practice in these challenged times.
Try one of them – or both – for a week, once each day, and share your experiences. We’d love to hear from you.
Image by i-am-JENius