Thanks to modern technology, we regularly see photographs and videos of terrible events happening around the world. On television, the internet, and social media, each day we witness disasters, violence, cruelty, injustice, even murder. As a global society and as individuals, access to this information is necessary and important. Collectively, it helps us make informed policy decisions, address injustice, and raise awareness of people and places that might otherwise go unnoticed. Individually, it helps us connect with the suffering and the joy happening in places far away, to people we’ve never met and perhaps never will meet, to remind us of our shared humanity and how our actions can create positive—and negative—changes for all beings.
Sometimes, viewing all this struggle and pain can be overwhelming, making us feel helpless and discouraged. One person can’t possibly solve all the terrible things happening in the world, so why even worry about it? That’s how my student, Briana, felt last month when she told me, with frustration and anger, “Kim, there’s nothing I can do to fix these problems—in Afghanistan, in New Orleans—so I’m just going to make a donation and forget about it!”
I understood her frustration and discouragement. Many times I’ve felt the same way. Witnessing so much pain and sorrow so frequently, it’s hard not to feel frustrated, angry, and impotent. But even though we don’t have the power to end all suffering right now, wisdom shows us that we don’t need to fall into despair or indifference. Although it might not seem like it, there is always something we can do, and that is to skillfully pay attention.
Skillful attention is not the same as watching the news or reading social media. It’s choosing to direct our mindfulness and compassion to other living beings, and to make a real connection to their experience with our minds and hearts. When we truly direct our attention to anyone who is fearful, sick, or distressed, we can allow ourselves to feel their pain and struggle, and recognize that just like us, they want to be happy and free from suffering. With skillful attention, we understand our shared humanity and the poignant truth that all of our lives are precious and vulnerable. With this wisdom, our natural empathy and compassion arises and we’re able to deeply connect with everyone’s struggles and suffering—including our own.
With skillful attention we also recognize that all our lives are deeply and inextricably connected, so all of our actions—our thoughts, speech, and behaviors—matter. Though we may not be able to prevent all suffering—from war and racism to poverty—right now, we can take actions to create conditions so that this suffering is alleviated in the future. Practicing skillful attention allows us to take the long view, knowing that the outcome of our actions will have effects even after we die.
If you’re feeling hopeless and disheartened by the state of the world, I encourage you to use your skillful attention to make a real connection to all living beings. Find a quiet spot, get still, stop talking, and put your hand on your heart. Take a few breaths, then imagine someone you love, and say silently, “May you be free from danger, violence, and hatred. May your actions bring benefit and do no harm.” After a few minutes, think of yourself, and say silently, “May I be free from danger, violence, and hatred. May my actions bring benefit and do no harm.” Take your time. Then, when you’re ready, include your loved one and yourself with everyone suffering. You can include the group or person in the news that you’ve been worrying about, and say silently, ”May we be free from danger, violence, and hatred. May our actions bring benefit and do no harm.” Repeat as necessary.
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