Monday, December 19, 2005

Hopelessness and Impotence

As everyone begins to make their end-of-year lists, one of the news stories that keeps turning up is Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane itself was bad enough, but the seemingly intentional neglect of the poorest people displaced by the storm is criminal. Insurance companies are refusing to pay because much of the damage was caused by the flood resulting from the breached levees, not the actual hurricane. The government isn't doing anything to help. The New Orleans city council has given citizens of the poorest area, the Ninth Ward, one year to rebuild or forfeit their property, which will then be sold to developers who want to build condos and retail centers amid what will become public park land when it is cleared of the debris that used to be people's lives.

Then there are the stories about our government--perhaps the most corrupt government in our history. With the Republicans controlling the Congress, Bush is exempt from any responsibility no matter what he does, including spying on his own citizens in violation of federal law. He has systematically destroyed the environment, created the largest deficit in history, ruined our relationship with almost every major country on the planet, widened the gap between the rich and the poor in this country, given tax break after tax break to the richest ten percent of the population, lied us into a war that may never end, removed science from all decision-making in the federal government, and consolidated unprecedented power in the executive branch in violation of Constitutional intentions.

I could go on and on for hours. There is so much horrifying news every day. There are so many injustices perpetrated against the weakest and most defenseless among us. Compassion seems to be a missing quality in the world today.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming. I feel hopeless and impotent to do anything to make a real difference about any of the terrible things I see happening in the world around me. It hurts. The more I pursue the Shambhala path, the more open my heart becomes, and the more painful it becomes to be conscious of all that is happening in the world.

I used to just get angry at all the injustice I see. When I can get angry and rant and avoid what I am really feeling, I feel more in control. But that's the problem--an open heart is not about control. The heart of the warrior is not defended by anger and outrage--it is touched by pain and suffering.

Buddhism teaches that life is dukkha, and Shambhala teaches that our life is our path. Pema Chodron teaches us to walk into the fire--into our pain and suffering--rather than to flee through our defense mechanisms. We must work with our lives as the primary focus of our practice. To do this, we must not reject suffering and pain--we must embrace it and befriend it.

Knowing this and doing this are two different things.

Through meditation I am learning to hold my feelings without being freaked out and needing to escape, but I am also learning how to maintain a little more equanimity at the same time. For most of my life I have been a master of escape--first with drugs and alcohol, later with anger and rage, and of late with intellect and rationality. Walking into the fire is a new path for me.

How do you handle hopelessness and frustration? What allows you to care deeply about things without being overwhelmed by the challenge? I would really like to hear from readers. If any of you want to write a more extensive response, I'd like to put it up as a guest post--drop me a note through the comments.
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