Suffering and the Art of Balance

Today is the eleventh day after the start of my menstrual cycle, which means that I will be easily saddened and most likely irritable.  On this hormonal morning, as I perused some news on the Internet, I came across an article on the children of Pakistan who are suffering profoundly from malnutrition as a result of the recent floods.

The article featured a photo showing two emaciated children lying beside each other covered in flies. I felt my chest tighten and the pressure of tears begin to mount within my eyes. The image was close to unbearable. Unable to let go of the image, I found myself sharing the photo and article on Facebook, wanting friends to see too the result of an epic ecological disaster, the reason for which rests with the actions of the human species.

I thought about not posting it. I didn’t want to be a downer in everyone’s day, sending something they would rather not see, an image that might take some of their happiness away, happiness they most likely needed for the start of another week. Maybe it was my eleventh day that was causing me to send it, and I should therefore refrain. Then again… 

Then again, I recognized that I have eyes and a heart that are willing to open to suffering. Perhaps, regardless of where I am in my hormonal cycle, it is my duty to send the information out to honor those Pakistani children, to honor all the children in this world who I feel so obligated to, so obligated to do what I can to wake up our world to the fact that these ecological disasters are a direct result of the lifestyle choices that humans are making, choices that have put the living Earth so profoundly out of balance that little time remains to ignore the call to change, to change how we live on this Earth, for the sake of the children.

The reasons for the flood in Pakistan are numerous and not what I want to focus on in this essay. Global warming and manipulation of river flow are two paramount reasons for this flood and for the many floods that will follow in the years and decades ahead.

And it turns out there was another contributing factor involving the U.S. military and the drone warfare that is going on regularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The United States has carried out at least sixty-three drone strikes inside Pakistan this year, killing an unknown number of innocent civilian lives, including children.) In order to protect a base that was built in Pakistan to house the drones, the U.S. military manipulated the left bank of the Indus River.

As Pakistani actress, filmmaker, writer, and human rights activist Feryal Ali Gauhar explained on Democracy Now, “the breaching [of the river bank] caused, consequentially, the inundation of an entire district, which resulted in the displacement of millions, not thousands, but millions, because we have 170 million people in the country, and this particular district is one of the most densely populated.”


Here I am focused on the environmental factors that caused the flood and suddenly another reason is found. War. Robotic warfare, no less. How do I digest this? What do I do with this insane information? War makes me crazy, as crazy as the blind ways in which humanity continues to destroy the Earth upon which our very survival depends.

Then there’s the incomprehensible imbalance between my life and the innocent civilians of Pakistan who are dealing with epic floods and war at the same time. They are packed in 100-degree, disease-infested camps reeking of urine while I sit at my computer sipping super-antioxidant green tea. How do I make sense of the contrast?

I can’t. No one can. Such inequities have been going on for centuries, inequities founded in a psychic imbalance caused by an all too strong leaning toward greed, fear and destruction and away from generosity, love and compassion. So what can I do on this eleventh day of my menstrual cycle to shift the destructive dynamic?

Write, so it seems. Try to say something that reaches people’s hearts and makes them wake up to a world so unnecessarily imbalanced. The children of Pakistan are our children, too, as are the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. War will never create a peaceful world. Destroying the Earth serves no one. If we can begin to tend to all things, to care for all life, to become conscious of how our choices affect the world, to make changes big and small, then we stand a chance of coming back into balance and surviving the results of our destructive behavior.

I think it is critical to take in the suffering of others long enough to let it truly touch us. It makes a difference to spend a minute looking at that picture of the fly-covered children in Pakistan. It forces us to understand it is real.

Same goes for the images of war. The government and the media hide so much of the information on the true toll war takes on both U.S. soldiers and the civilians of the invaded country. If we were thoroughly exposed to the true damage caused by war, maybe we would not stand for it. Maybe we would feel the pain of both sides and see that no one is winning. Maybe we would see clearly that we are pissing away money on something pointless and not spending it where it is truly needed. One can only hope.

There is an ancient Buddhist practice called tonglen in which one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all beings. I had learned about this practice years ago and was working with it for a short while, but it slipped away. I remembered it as I was looking at the photo of the children and found it to be worthwhile. It somehow let me take in the tragic truth before me, feel the profound sadness and then go and pick up my daughter from school and happily play with her on the playground. There was room for both.

The Dalai Lama is said to practice tonglen every day, and has said of the technique: “Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense. ”

Being effective is paramount right now. I believe that if we take truth and tragedy into ourselves through the power of breath, we can handle it and be moved by it. It can help us break free from all we are denying/suppressing and open us to the art of future possibility. When you see an image that reflects the pain of our times, try breathing it into your heart and breathing out happiness, peace, well-being, success or whatever you choose to send out. Be moved, even though you are busy with the details of daily life. Be moved and contribute in any way you can to create a world built on kindness and compassion. Lead life from your heart and bring the world back into balance. The children deserve nothing less.

One response to “Suffering and the Art of Balance

  1. Lisa, thank you for this sharing….I was not familiar with the practice of tonglen, and am moved: it reminds me of Matthew Fox’s reference in Original Blessing to “praying the news.”

    I am reminded also of a particularly powerful distinction made between “caring” and “loving” in Conversations with Ivan Illich, – how Illich did everything in his power to eliminate any sense of care for the concept of starving children in Africa, choosing rather to experience horror that such a thing could happen. He could not, personally, love any one of those children, “because to love them…means to leave aside everything which I’m doing at this moment and pick up that person.” In honesty, he had no intention of doing so…so, he asked, “why pretend that I care?”

    To care, at a distance, he said, is not to love:”Thinking that I care, first, impedes me from remembering what love would be; second, trains me not to be in that sense loving with the person who is waiting outside this door; and third, stops me from taking the next weekend off and going and chaining myself to the door of some industry in New York which has a part in the ecological disaster in the Sahel.”

    I just discovered a network called Evolvers that addresses questions like these – there is a local circle that I am thinking of exploring. Would you like to join me?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s