Category Archives: Compassion

Metta for the World’s Children

My dear friend Lijiun of Smile Always recently wrote a piece (Helping Hand) about a visit to an impoverished orphanage which really moved me.  It brought back to my mind moments in which I have been witness to children suffering in the most extreme poverty.  Sadly, there are too many to log, but here are a few:

  • A group of boys–still children– bathing themselves in the filthy water reservoirs in the center of a set of railroad tracks in Delhi’s railroad station in the dark of night.  (I didn’t capture a photo, but this one of migrant workers bathing themselves in the same train station, by Kaylee Everly, may give you some idea):

  • Our tour-guide at Sarnath, one of the holiest of Buddhist sites, becoming violently angry at a very small child of “Untouchable” caste who approached us.  Again, I don’t have a photo, but Seija, who reports a similar experience, posted a very moving photo of the kind of living environs that are sadly fairly typical of the poorest who live among two of the holiest sites in India– Varanasi and Sarnath:

  • Children wandering barefoot through one of the poverty-stricken Favelas of San Paulo (photo and article about Brazil’s housing problems by Jonathan Inge Bianchi)

  • Children in the urban neighborhoods of the U.S.–my own neighbors–not having enough to eat and struggling to survive in under-performing, desperately under-resourced schools. For these children, dilapidation, urban decay, poor nutrition and health, and violence are virtually every day experiences.  A few years ago in one such neighborhood, I had three beautiful girls as neighbors; they became my dear friends.  I watched their mother struggle with addiction, poverty, and prostitution and her children suffer things children should never have to:

My own very limited experiences are merely a taste of the global epidemic.  Hundreds of millions of children live today in urban slums.

According to the 2012 Executive Summary of UNICEF on the World’s Urban Children (p. 8):

The causes of violence are many and complex, but prominent among them are poverty and inequality.  High rates of violence and crime often arise where provision of public services, schools, and recreational areas is inadequate.  A study of 24 of the world’s 50 wealthiest countries confirmed that more unequal societies are more likely to experience high rates of crime, violence and imprisonment.

Even the United Nations recognized global poverty as one of the most critical security challenges of the 21st century, by way of a resolution that came out of its 8th plenary meeting, convened Sept. 8, 2000:

19. We resolve further:

• To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water.

• To ensure that, by the same date, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education.

• By the same date, to have reduced maternal mortality by three quarters, and under-five child mortality by two thirds, of their current rates.

• To have, by then, halted, and begun to reverse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases that afflict humanity.

• To provide special assistance to children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

• By 2020, to have achieved a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers as proposed in the “Cities Without Slums” initiative.

Abject poverty seems to be a unique condition of the human race, but it affects all living things on the planet.  Animals suffer as a result of human poverty: organizations like “Poverty’s Pets” demonstrate the need for organizations to rescue abused, neglected, and abandoned animals in low-income, under-served communities; and, just one case study by the World Society for the Protection of Animals on poaching in Kenya makes quite clear the connection between human poverty and the suffering of animals.

The desertification of vast stretches of the globe as a result of human activity is making matters much worse, both in terms of ecological diversity and the increase of instances of human poverty and famine (see Henry Noel Le Houerou, “Man-Made Deserts: Desertization Processes and Threats”).

The world’s oceans and fresh-water systems are also affected.  According to the United Nations Development Program:

Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP, and an estimated 63% of global ‘ecosystems services’ are provided by marine and coastal systems. As much as 40% of the world oceans are considered as ‘heavily affected’ by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, loss of coastal habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses, and by aquatic invasive species. As for freshwater, the root causes of much of the overutilization and degradation of marine ecosystems stem primarily from failures in governance of the relevant sectors (fisheries, tourism, shipping, agriculture, etc.) – inadequate policies and legislation, poor enforcement, weak institutions, and insufficient participation of civil society….While there are regional/local and long-term concerns with the absolute availability of water resources, the water and sanitation crisis is primarily a crisis of poverty, political will, inequality and power – in short, of profound failures in water governance.

Taking better care of the world’s ecosystems is one way to fight poverty, but powerful, multi-national, corporate interests are often at odds with ecosystem management.  The animal-based agricultural industry offers but one example (see Carl Boggs’ article about this very issue in the academic journal, Fast Capitalism 2.2).   Agricultural, biotechnology is another industry that contributes to ecosystem deterioration. Companies like Monsanto, for example, produce some of the most toxic chemicals that pollute the environment (from PCB’s to Agent Orange).  Mansanto specifically has a well-documented history of suing local farmers whose non-Mansanto-seed-crops are naturally cross-fertilized. And, Mansanto’s “Terminator Technology” has been harnessed to produce seeds that have been bio-engineered to produce fruit which contains non-reproductive seeds.  It has been estimated widely that this technology by Mansanto, which uses its influence among developing nations’ governments to force farmers to use its seeds, will bring about famine and starvation on a world-wide basis.  Recently, however, the National Biodiversity Authority of India retaliated by suing Monsanto over its genetically modified eggplant seeds.

International pharmaceutical companies are some of the worst corporate offenders in the international arena of health of the world’s impoverished: from using the poor in the world’s developing nations as human subjects for drug-testing to paying off generic drug-makers who would sell generic drugs to under-resourced nations experiencing epidemics, the cases are numerous and well-documented.  See, for example, Johnson, Toni. (2011). ” The Debate over Generic Drug-Trade,” Council on Foreign Relations.; Holms, Soren (2006). “Pharmacogenetics, Race, and Global Injustice,” Developing World Bioethics 8.2: 82-88; and Wollensack, Amy F. (2007). Closing the Constant Garden: The Regulation and Responsibility of U.S. Pharmaceutical Companies Doing Research on Human Subjects in Developing Nations.  6 Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 747.

Think-tanks like Share the World’s Resources, a non-governmental advisory organization to the U.N., warn of an unprecedented crisis of poverty looming as a result of the economic crisis and advocate “for natural resources such as oil and water to be sustainably managed in the interests of the global public, and for essential goods and services (including staple food, adequate shelter and primary healthcare) to be made universally accessible.”

The causes of and potential solutions to global poverty are anything but simple.  Indeed, I personally often feel overwhelmed by it all. What can one person do to alleviate so much suffering?

While I don’t have an answer to that question, it seems to me that Mindfulness is a good starting place.

One may be mindful of the blessings that surround one and the small contributions that one can make toward a healthier, happier community.

A healthier, happier community begins with a healthier, happier self.  A healthier, happier self begins with a healthier, happier mind.

The Buddha counseled, “Do Good, Do No Harm.”  Being mindful can bring about more actions of doing good.  Being mindful of the suffering involved in food that one eats, for example, can bring about small, but important changes of habit–Buying local and organic, for example, and not buying stuff with a laundry list of chemicals in the ingredients.  Reducing the amount and kind of chemicals that one uses in the household. Trying homeopathic remedies where appropriate.  When one does these things, one opts out of at least some of the harmful practices of globalization that contribute directly to the suffering of others.

Being Mindful offers profound changes within that manifest in the world around one.  Today, I offer Metta in dedication to the peace and prosperity of children everywhere.
Perhaps you will consider joining me?

Afghani child–photo by Lawrence McGuire


Filed under Compassion, Consciousness

Radical Acceptance

This post was written by a guest-contributer, Aleksandra Jankowska.

I know that when there is something wrong, I like to fix it.  This doesn’t only apply to the socks that need mending or the toaster that inconsistently burns my toast.  I have been raised in a culture and in a family in which feeling sad, angry or any of the other uncomfortable feelings we as humans often experience was avoided.  Happiness was defined by the absence of pain or, at least, the perception of absence of pain.  So, I became a “fixer.”  Whenever a friend struggled with a relationship issue or experienced sadness, I felt a compulsion to try to fix their pain. As an adult, I have worked diligently on healing some of the old wounds that were created in my childhood.  I have also worked with others to assist them in their own healing.  In the process, I’ve learned that maybe, just maybe, the “fixer” approach has not been the best way to achieve resolution.  The way to express my compassion to others has been to attempt to decrease their pain.  I now realize that not only is this impossible, it is also not helpful.

I recently read a book that has further helped me in letting go of the “fixer” moniker– Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha by Tara Brach.  One of the things that truly resonated with me about the concept of radical acceptance can be summed up with the word allowing.  So often do we either avoid and judge our feelings and experiences or strive to make them different.  This avoidance and craving for the absence of a feeling leads to suffering.  Radical acceptance provides an allowing of the sensation of pain, and this opening offered by radical acceptance can then create a shift or a change toward healing.  I have discovered that the moment one stops fighting the impulse to fix an issue by letting go enough to allow the experience to occur, the experience of suffering has the freedom to shift and growth has the room to blossom.  This allowing makes it possible for us to be in the present moment and connected to the Source.

By habitual avoidance of suffering, one pushes away the very experience that connects one to Source.  Through avoidance or the pushing away of experience, one can become disconnected and, therefore, unable to connect to the tenderness that can so often have so much to teach us. The pain (whether shame, guilt, sadness or another uncomfortable experience or sensation) creates an opening.  If one can soften into that pain, movement happens, and with movement, change occurs.  I have since learned that sometimes simply being a witness or assisting in holding the space for the person to experience their pain is a lot more healing than attempting to “take the pain away.” Attempting to “take the pain away” not only undermines the individual’s ability to grow and change using their inner source of strength, but it also deprives them of the opportunity to experience their own healing.  It is like taking the seed out of the ground with the hope that it will grow faster.  The seed needs to crack and open and push through the soil to become a full-fledged blossom.  I now strive to allow—to allow for my own feelings, sensations, experiences to occur. And, when I have the honor to witness someone’s inner struggle, I strive to allow them to do the same, because it is through their own movement through suffering that healing and change have the opportunity to  awaken– if we only let them. One of the helpful and practical prayers that the book has offered me is the simple prayer of “May this suffering awaken compassion.”  May this heart-felt intention allow me to allow others to heal, may it allow for an opening and an awakening.

This post was written by guest-contributer, Aleksandra Jankowska.


Filed under Compassion, Consciousness, Whatchamacalit

Sitting in the Middle of Squirm

Sitting in zazen is an action whose purpose is Being comfortable in the middle of actionlessness.   Zazen trains the mind to sit with discomfort and hold the pause button on it long enough to notice it and dissolve it.

It is not easy to sit with uncomfortable feelings. They make us squirm. They make us want to do something–to struggle against them– to speak or to act in a way that may provide a momentary release of them, but rarely a permanent solution to them. Reacting to uncomfortable feelings without identifying what they are  may make a situation worse.

For example, someone driving dangerously, weaving in and out of traffic, cuts you off while you are traveling at 70 miles an hour.  A physical “fight or flight” response probably occurs in your body before your mind even fully registers what has happened.  When it does, you may feel anger, dismay or even rage.  At this point, you could react by driving equally dangerously to get that person back; you could curse up a storm to either no audience or the wrong audience; you could weave in and out of your lane as you crane your neck in their direction to lock their gaze long enough to flip them the bird; or, you could notice that you are angry, have compassion for yourself for being angry, wish the other driver freedom from whatever madness has descended upon him, and let it go.  When you do this, you release yourself and others all around you from the consequences of suffering from  rage.  Moreover, you make the world a better place by changing the energetic value of rage into compassion.  Your compassion towards yourself radiates out to another. Other people on the road are saved from your madness, and then their madness in reaction to yours, and so on…

The practice of zazen is not just for mystics and monks. All of us experience discomfort and restlessness in our day-to-day lives. Sitting with squirmy feelings can be uncomfortable. Silence can be rather unnerving. In a moment of intentional quietude, all manner of mental disturbances may parade across the mind.  Zazen trains us to notice them as they arise, smile at them in compassion, consciously let them go, and redirect attention back to Just Being in the breath Now.

If more people practiced zazen, perhaps there would be fewer @#$% on the road!


Filed under Compassion, Consciousness, Meditation, Zazen, Zen Buddhism

Tibetan Children’s Village

“We do not perceive the Chinese as our enemies. They are our brothers and our sisters. They are our teachers. They teach us patience.  This is our teaching from the time we are young. This is what we teach these children.”  –Jigme, administrator and guide at the Tibetan Children’s Village, McCleod Ganj, India.

The journey from Delhi to the Tibetan settlement of McCleod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh is not an easy one as travel-faring goes.  A twelve-hour overnight train (and anyone who has had the fortitude to brave one of India’s overnight trains knows it’s not for the faint of heart…) drops you off at a depot some three and a half hours’ drive away from your destination, and that road is a challenging ride by most standards through monsoon-washed, treacherous roads that twist and climb around the first peaks of the Himalayas to the small settlement of Dharamsala and, finally, McCleod Ganj.

I was only there for a few days, but just being there changed me in some way.  Waking to mist drowning the mountains, the echoes of bronze gongs inviting people to meditation, following old goat-paths under webs of Tibetan prayer-flags, the aroma of incense mingling with mouldering earth, the clarity and warmth of Thentuk (vegetable dumpling soup), the smile-from-the-bottom-of-his-shoes owner of a quaint Espresso café who greeted me every morning, and other sensory inputs too numerous to name linger with me like resonances from a sweet, sweet dream.

My favorite memory, though, is of a soft-spoken, infinitely kind and intelligent man who took great pains to lead my sister and me through the Tibetan Children’s Village, a center for the children of refugees.  Compassion was in his eyes, his smile, his posture, his laugh.  The compassion that he extended to the children around him who had suffered tremendously he extended to the very people who had caused that suffering.

I want to thank you, Jigme, for your words. They changed me.

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Filed under Compassion, Whatchamacalit