What touches me most about Buddhism is its overt relationship to suffering and how to work with it. When I first started on this path I had the determination to overcome suffering and change the world. What engaged Buddhist wouldn’t want that? Luckily over time the practice of meditation wears down all of our concepts about good and bad, what we want or don’t want, and how we think the world and people should be. It seems that in reality the only thing that softens one’s relationship to suffering, in oneself and in others, is openness. And that is what meditation has to teach us.
Sometimes I marvel at how precisely and thoroughly some people can talk to others about their suffering, and how quick they are called to help. I often feel lacking in this type of compassion because in my heart I am not sure of the best way to relieve another person’s suffering. I don’t necessarily feel this lack when relating to my closest friends, or with those who share the same beliefs and practices, or to those who consider themselves Buddhist. But what about the rest of the suffering people out there? How do we as Buddhists express our compassion and relieve suffering among those who don’t speak our language?
This question arises most when I visit my family of origin. Over the past two weeks I have been contemplating this while spending time with my parents, siblings, aunt, cousins, niece, nephew, and daughter. Needless to say, like in any family, there are deeply ingrained patterns and ways of relating, old wounds and misunderstandings. One by one I listen to the stories of each family member’s current life experiences; their joys and sorrows. Or I notice how other family members are disengaged, unable to reach out, or stuck in their own ideas. Sometimes judgment fills the air, but no one in the room seems to know how to see beyond their personal point of view to find common ground. And even more saddening still is to see those family members who feel they have failed in some way; that nothing they do is good enough to take away the pain of those they “love” the most. I often wonder what my place is in such situations and what my responsibility is to these relationships? This is especially poignant since I feel so fortunate to have met the dharma.
Love in the truest sense of the word is unconditional. And even though we feel bound to those in our family of origin, and there’s no question that we “love” them, want them to be happy and free from suffering, there usually remains an ego-based, conditional type of love. Most of us have a hard time stepping outside the established parameters of these types of relationships and most often the same types of interactions perpetually take place. This kind of suffering touches the core of my being as I watch my family members struggle with the solidity of ego and its hold on them.
I am not exempt from ego clinging by any means, but I do have the practice of meditation, which helps me find clarity about how I participate in certain relationship dynamics, and I do my best to utilize the support that comes from developing a dharmic view. I have the ability to be present; to listen and observe their suffering without the same kind of solidity and emotionality I once had, and I am more able and willing to experience their suffering as an inevitable part of samsara. I have developed the aspiration that my presence be beneficial, and most importantly, I now know that the strength I derive from being a practitioner is the only thing I have to fall back on. I don’t know if that helps my family or not, but in my heart I pray that the openness I am cultivating through meditation will eventually have an effect on those closest to me, and penetrate and soften the hearts of those who have been with me the longest.