Inspiration and Joy Amidst Suffering and Loss
At this time of New Years, like many people, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in the past 12 months and how it can inform me in the coming year. As a teacher of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, I’ve focused in recent years, through my Awakening Joy course on how the teachings can help cultivate more joy in our lives.
One seemingly paradoxical teaching with the lofty name Transcendental Dependent Arising is a key to this process. This teaching describes how suffering can lead to faith, which in turn can lead to gladness, joy, peace, all the way to the highest levels of happiness including full awakening.
When people first hear this, they often respond with skepticism: “Suffering leading to joy and happiness? How can that be?” But when I ask a roomful of people, “Who here has been motivated by sorrow, grief or suffering to deepen your spiritual life which has then led to greater well-being?” almost every hand goes up. This past year has been one where, more than usual, this teaching has been for me a lived experience.
Stretching myself to directly face suffering and personally going through a major loss, I now find myself as happy as I can remember, experiencing a new level of well-being. Perhaps as I grow older a bit more wisdom is piercing through the layers of confusion. But I also sense that my willingness to not flinch from death, illness, climate change and natural disasters has something to do with it, too.
I recently was invited to bring Awakening Joy and other dharma teachings to New Zealand. Although there is always the question of carbon footprint in such long travel, I hoped that the trip would be worth what I was asked to offer. My visit to Christchurch, the third largest city in the country, particularly moved me. In 2011, Christchurch experienced a devastating earthquake that left 70 percent of its buildings destroyed or uninhabitable. In the last three years they’ve experienced over 11,000 aftershocks. Imagine getting such a continuous lesson in what Alan Watts describes as “the wisdom of insecurity”! On top of this the recovery has been filled with bureaucratic snafus.
Getting to know the people and see how they’ve come together to support each other through this shared tragedy has been a truly uplifting experience for me. Their loss has led to a palpable sense of genuine connection and mutual support that I saw in everyone I met. Hearing people’s stories at the Quake City Earthquake Museum made me well up as my heart opened.
Their All Right? Campaign was designed to help people remember “that they’re not alone, encouraging them to connect with others, and ensuring wellbeing is at the heart of [their] recovery.” This campaign reminds people of all the ways they can reach out, appreciate each other and still enjoy life.
A Christchurch billboard expresses the indomitable uplifting spirit of cooperation in that community. This attitude of shared good will touched me deeply and has motivated me to reach out, tell those I care about how much I love them and do my part to support awakening the love and caring in everyone who is ready to help make this a better world.
Closer to home, in June my mom died at 94. Knowing that she led a full life and that she was ready to go certainly eased the pain. But, nonetheless, we were very close and it was a real loss. She was an unforgettable character. At the age of 91 my mom, Selma Baraz, became a famous YouTube star showing thousands it’s possible to change. Her transformation from complainer (kvetch in Yiddish) to gratitude teacher in her last years was one of her great gifts to me and so many others. She showed that continually appreciating the blessings in your life is a key to happiness.
And in her last year, after being diagnosed with cancer, her gratitude practice jumped to an unexpected new level of appreciation. Almost every conversation included her comment about how grateful she was for her life.
One morning a few weeks before the end that we all knew was coming, I walked into her room. With her eyes closed, she had a very contemplative but untroubled look on her face. When she heard me and opened her eyes, I asked her what she had been thinking about. She replied, “My mind was actually devoid of all thoughts except ‘Thank you, God. Thank you, God.'” I was pretty impressed. I asked her if I could quote her on that. She said with her classically wry tone, ‘Will I get a commission?” Her sense of humor remained to the very end.
And these were the closing words that she asked me to share with everyone at her memorial service: “My life has been so blessed. Blessed: It’s such a simple word, but it means everything.”
Looking for the blessings all around us helps us see them. Our brains are wired up for what is called “a confirmation bias” that notices what we are looking for. If we look for how terrible things are and how life will disappoint us, our hypothesis will be easily confirmed. However, even if things are hard, if we bring a sense of wonder to our life, it will inform and give a larger context to whatever challenges we face.
Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” I was recently reminded of the miracle of life when shown a picture of Chloe Thomas of Melbourne, Australia, born eight weeks premature, not yet nine months after conception at the time. She reminds me that our natural state is goodness and joy and to keep looking for the good even in the midst of difficulty.
This year I also have been consciously exploring illness, aging and death through a 2-year training program with a group of Buddhist practitioners. The Buddha suggested reflecting on these facts of life every day if you really want to conquer fear. By directly confronting aging, illness and death without flinching or turning away we find that they become vehicles for awakening. As we learn to courageously face suffering our fear is transmuted into wisdom and compassion. Participants in the program are learning that the real gift of this practice is being more present for the precious time we have while we’re alive.
The Chinese characters for “crisis” are “danger and opportunity.” This year we held an International Vipassana Teachers Conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where I teach. We decided to put climate change on the agenda and I invited my friend and sustainability expert, Bob Doppelt, to present to all the teachers in our community. Although the powerful presentation was disturbing and sobering, it was also deeply moving and motivated the teaching community to get involved. As wisdom teacher Angeles Arrien says, “Action absorbs anxiety.” And this proved to be so.
From that presentation, we held the first annual Earth Care Week with teachers focusing their talks on this issue. And after six months of harmonious collaboration between 15 teachers, a new statement has emerged: The Earth As Witness: International Dharma Teachers’ Statement About Climate Change. The purpose of this document is to help understand how Buddhist teachings can be applied to climate change and to inspire people to engage in meaningful solutions. Many teachers now see this topic as an essential one to include in their teachings. As of now over 100 dharma teachers have signed it and it is currently on OneEarthSangha.org where all teachers and practitioners can add their signature. I invite you to add yours here.
It’s so easy to despair for a world, consumed by greed, seemingly headed toward self-destruction. The wind-chill factor is 50 below in the Midwest, while the East recently had record high temperatures and California just had the driest year in recorded history. Everything seems so out of whack that one can feel too discouraged to act. But though those thoughts sometimes take me over, I also hold the situation as an extraordinary opportunity.
In one’s personal spiritual practice, directly facing the most frightening challenges is often the path to true awakening. In the same way, this situation facing all of us has the potential for awakening humanity in an unprecedented way. It could shake us out our sleepwalking and help us realize our role as wise stewards of a fragile but miraculous planet. It’s definitely time to act — and to do it with community.
As the climate change document points out,
“We may feel awed by the immensity of the challenge. We should take heart, however, in the power of collective action. History shows that with concerted, unified, collective effort, changes that at one time seemed impossible have time and again come to pass.”
This perspective of possibility is beautifully conveyed by singer-songwriter Vienna Teng in her brilliant album, Aims. Besides being an gifted musician she’s getting a graduate degree in Global Sustainability and this album is one of the most inspiring things I’ve heard in a long time. Check out her “Level Up” video from the album. When she sings, “If you are afraid, come out, If you are awake, come out. Come out and level up,” I’m energized and want to do my part.
As Buddhist teaching says, suffering has the potential to deepen our compassion and understanding of the human condition. And in so doing, it can lead us to even greater faith, joy and well-being. I hope that whatever challenges you face in the coming year can be held with this perspective and that the year is one filled with many blessings for you and everyone in your life.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post website and generously shared here. James Baraz leads a five month online course called Awakening Joy based on Buddhist principles to develop our capacity for well-being and happiness. Next class starts January 28th, live in Berkeley, and February 4th online.