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Can we meditate while the world is burning?

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

A participant in the last retreat I led asked a very good question that often arises in retreats. “It’s all very well us pondering our minds in the luxury of a Sussex retreat centre, but what good does that do for a woman who is waiting for a bomb to fall on her house in Ukraine?”


I answered in a clumsy way but the question has remained with me since and I formulate it for myself in these ways:


Is it morally Ok to enjoy the freedoms and pleasures of a good situation when there are many beings around the world who are suffering terrible deprivation and fear in much more harrowing situations?


and related to this:


Does the taming of the mind make a difference when your physical body is in danger from threat and violence?


and a third aspect:


Can we meaningfully speak about other people’s suffering without turning their experience into a rhetorical extension of our present situation?


These are all really important questions and although I have no ultimate answers it helps me to work through them here and perhaps you, dear reader, will have some thoughts or insights that will help us clarify them.


 


Firstly, the issue of enjoyment when others are suffering.


This is much in my mind at the moment as I immerse myself in the literature around the climate crisis. To what extent can I sit in my garden and enjoy the pleasant April weather, happy in the warm sunshine and amazed at the beauty of the sky, sea, birds and plants when other parts of the world are being scorched by wildfires, drowned by floods and choked by unprecedented pollution?


Or thinking on a more temporal scale: how can I enjoy the sound of the linnet and blackcap aware that my present comfort and contentment are paid for by their extinction further down the line? (That is to say, the electricity, car and food I consume are all part of the network that creates toxic greenhouse gases that will end up destroying animal diversity on the planet.)


This is, literally, a burning question. Does the very fact that I have the leisure, comfort and time to sit and meditate come on the back of the degradation and combustion of limited natural resources?


 


I think back to the original Buddhist practitioners who inspire me so much and I see that they were able to find a way of life that had little or no impact on the environment.


Siddartha gave up his life of conspicuous consumption (he was the son of an Indian raja) and lived simply with a community of practitioners supported by the generosity of others. Theirs was a simple agrarian community that had not yet developed devastating levels of fossil fuel extraction and combustion. Similarly, Milarepa, my yogic hero, lived alone in caves in the Himalayas surviving by foraging nettles and warming himself with inner fire.


The vast monastic communities like Nalanda in India, or the myriad big monasteries in Tibet may well have had some exploitative relationship with the peasant community they nested in but again, there was no overarching technology that was hurting others at a distance or later down the timeline.


Nowadays, international travel and the internet (one of the biggest users of electrical energy) allow dharma teaching and the blessings of Buddhist meditation to travel across the whole globe in the blink of an eye. Great teachers can fly around the world and touch the lives of millions of practitioners. But all of that comes at a cost of course - flying and the internet have their impact. And then people in warzones, in crushing poverty, in agonising pain or with severe mental ill health do not have the time, space, capacity or luxury to receive the teachings even if they are available.


In short, what to do about our good fortune?


 


Mingyur Rinpoche offers a lovely version of the famous Four Thoughts for daily contemplation. The first one runs:


Begin by cultivating a sense of delight in the qualities of the freedoms and riches:


Seeing its many wonderful qualities

I rejoice and delight in this human life.


The ‘Freedoms and riches’ he alludes to are the 16 freedoms and 10 riches of the precious human birth. Jamgön Kongtrül in the Torch of Certainty elucidates them fully* but they point to things like that fact we have our mental faculties and are able to hear and ponder the Dharma; the fact we are not living in enslavement or overwhelming suffering; that we are not living with psychosis and our characters are not completely destroyed by bad company or degrading circumstances. Likewise, we are able to access the riches of the Buddha’s teaching. We didn’t live in the immense stretches of time when there was no spiritual enlightenment. On the contrary, we live in a time when the Dharma flourishes and there are still many fine practitioners we can learn from. These - from a Buddhist’s point of view - are the riches of life.


If we don’t subscribe to the Buddhist Dharma we can still appreciate the fact that our life, right now, is (most likely) not in a warzone, and that we don’t have an incapacitating mental illness. That there are inspiring words and people and landscapes around us that we can still appreciate.


Our practice, when we have the fortune to do it, should begin with a recognition and celebration of the fact that we can practice. And why should we find this delightful rather than feel guilty for having a benefit that others don’t? Well, for the simple reason that our practice helps the world rather than hinders it.



 


This brings us to the second question: Does meditation really help anything?


When we think about that woman waiting in a cellar in Ukraine for a bomb to fall. Does it help her at all that our minds are tranquil and full of insight? Well, yes and no.


Imagine, instead, that you were that woman in the cellar. In that terrifying situation would it be beneficial to have a calm mind or a panicking mind? Would you - despite the external horror and uncertainty - experience less suffering if your mind was, for example, brave and inspired to protect your children and help others? Or would your suffering increase if your mind collapsed, closed-down with terror and self-contempt?


This is the crucial difference that working with the mind can make. Obviously, meditation is not the way to end a war. Political engagement, economic sanctions, and fighting end wars. But in terms of the mental clarity of the soldiers, civilians, politicians and bystanders, then working with the mind is perhaps equally important. Perhaps, were politicians, citizens and neighbouring nations better able to see their minds at work, better able to illuminate conflicting emotions and psychotic nationalism, then wars would not start.


But even if you think that is utopian, the on-the-ground fact remains that working with the mind in circumstances of external harshness and overwhelm is not trivial. It is the thing that can make a citizenry survive and flourish after trauma as opposed to collapse into suffering PTSD.


 

This brings me to the final question. (Please notice that I haven’t really been answering any of these questions, mainly turning them over in my blog-mind).


Can we meaningfully talk about other people’s suffering without it becoming an extension of our present moment?


This is most vividly, and painfully, brought into focus when in the heated, hate-filled atmosphere of social media, conversations inexorably end up talking about the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust.


Quite apart from the barbarity of using the death of 6 million people to make a rhetorical point, the more serious question is can we ever talk about the suffering of even one person in a meaningful way without there being something dishonest or at worse manipulative in it?


The most clear-sighted response to other people’s suffering is not to talk about it but to actually do something about it. And recognising the tendency of “talking about” to become the proxy for “doing something” is a potent point of recognition.


I am horribly guilty of this, and I am trying to be much more accurate and particular about talking about suffering. There are some people who I help - my clients and my meditation students - and I hope that my help doesn’t go astray and lead to more suffering. Ultimately I cannot really control what people do with my help, I can only offer it in a relatively clear-eyed way. But I recognised that there are billions of beings - humans, animals, plants, landscapes - who are suffering in ways I cannot imagine or know.


 


There’s a line in the Bodhisattva Vow - “Suffering beings are innumerable, I vow to save them all” - which highlights this. It is impossible to save all suffering beings, but nonetheless, I aspire to do it, because that’s all I can do. Intend with a good heart. And part of that involves reflecting on my good fortune and using the window of health, safety and comfort to incline my mind to love. And, perhaps more importantly at first, to root out any of the proxy expressions of love that just “make the noise” of loving instead of actually doing it.


For example, I can get angry and incensed about the many innocent people trapped, terrified in cellars across the world waiting for bombs to fall, but at the same time be mean and bad-tempered with my husband. That lack of congruity about the meanness and anger with the people right next to me is exactly the same that leads politicians to fire those bombs. I am a hypocrite if I don’t open my eyes to the similarities between my anger and meanness and other people’s anger and meanness.


Krishnamurti always said “The seeing is the doing” and I feel that that stops short. "The seeing leads to the wise doing", is a better formulation. Ultimately, we need to get up and save all sentient beings. But the sitting down and the seeing makes sure we don’t make things worse.


I have in no way answered these weighty questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts on them. Please put a comment in the space below if you have anything that might illuminate these difficult themes.



* Freedoms refer to the fact that our lives are free from:


1. psychosis or extreme mental illness

2. the influence of corrupting family or companions

3. false views or practices

4. extreme laziness

5. a flood of obstacles

6. being enslaved by another

7. following the Dharma for ulterior motives

8. following the Dharma for profit or renown

9. strong attachment to body and wealth

10. a coarse and mean temperament

11. a lack of appreciation of the suffering of lower realms

12. a lack of faith in liberation

13. a delight in evil deeds

14. “as much inclined to practice Dharma as a dog is to eat grass”

15. violates the vows made to serve others and follow the Buddha

16. breaks sacred commitments to teachers and companions


The riches refer to the positive situation we find ourselves in:


1. You have been born into a human body

2. you were born into a time and place where the Dharma is available

3. Since you can see and hear, you can understand the teachings

4. You have ‘entered the door’ of the Dharma and are well-guided

5. You have confidence in the three jewels

6. In the immensity of time without Buddhas, you live in an age where the Buddha’s teachings exist

7. The Buddha didn’t keep his teaching to himself but taught them widely

8. The Buddha’s teaching has not declined but still endures.

9. There are still many good teachers and practitioners in the world.

10. People are inspired to support and follow those who practice the Dharma




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6 Comments


Anne Kingston
Anne Kingston
Sep 24, 2023

Thank you for 'intend with a good heart', that phrase has stuck with me during a tough decision about whether to go ahead with a Moroccan trip 2 days after the earthquake. So glad we were able to go and give support and solidarity to a country that relies heavily on tourism. In addition we were able to donate funds, clothing and blood to help those difficult first days. To bear witness to the humbling positivity and joy of life the Moroccans showed in such sad times filled my own heart with hope for all human suffering.

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Ignacio Cantu
Ignacio Cantu
Apr 20, 2023

Thanks, Alistair, for your post, and here is what I think: yes, we can -and should- meditate while the world is burning. I began meditating in the Buddhist tradition for more that 30 years, and one of the things that first struck me is that if I learn to calm my mind and stay in equanimity, then my response to whatever is happening inside me, in close proximity or on the other side of the world is seen in a different way. First, a calm mind banishes hatred, especially towards those that my fabricated mind has deemed "the bad guys" and to those situations that my mind responds as ""this shouldn't be happening!". Then, in equanimity, there is an acceptance…


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Bianca Aga
Bianca Aga
Apr 19, 2023

'Great oaks from little acorns grow'. 🌳


This blog Alistair is very thought provoking and caused me to read up on what the Buddha said about the Degenerate Age, which really helped me 🙏🏻 to understand a problem I have. To solve it? 🌱 A bit like a story I heard about some villagers who lived high up in some mountains, built a railway track long before a train could get there and long past most of their lifetimes.


In 1993 a sapling was taken from the 3,000+ year old Fortingall Yew tree and planted on Holy Island 🌳

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Sylvia Alana
Sylvia Alana
Apr 19, 2023

🙏🏻Namaste Alistair🙏🏻🕊perfect explanation 🕊

Re- There’s a line in the Bodhisattva Vow -

“Suffering beings are innumerable, I vow to save them all” - which highlights this.

It is impossible to save all suffering beings, but nonetheless,

I aspire to do it, because that’s all I can do. Intend with a good heart.

And part of that involves reflecting on my good fortune and using the window of health, safety and comfort to incline my mind to love. And, perhaps more importantly at first, to root out any of the proxy expressions of love that just “make the noise” of loving instead of actually doing it

🕉️ Sylvia 🧘🏼‍♀️

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I really needed to read this today. And thank you for all the time, attention and thoughtfulness that you put into your writing.


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