Many of us who are engaged with the world experience discouragement regularly. If you’re concerned about the environment, social justice and equity, prison reform, the welfare of immigrants, or the welfare of people and the planet in general, it’s very easy to lose heart. But even though there are many situations that seem unfixable, I feel it’s important not to lose heart. The question then becomes: How? How do we not let ourselves spiral downward into a mindset of increasing hopelessness and negativity? Or, if we’re already finding ourselves going downhill, how do we pull ourselves up?
One encouraging thing I hear over and over, from people working in all kinds of fields, is that they see a lot of basic goodness in people. My friend Jarvis Masters has been on death row in California since 1985. Many of his friends and neighbors have murdered people. But he said to me once, “I’ve never met anybody where I didn’t see their basic goodness. When you really talk to these guys, there’s so much regret and heartbreak and sad family history. You begin to see people’s tenderness in terms of basic goodness.”
The reason we often start to go downhill with losing heart is that we allow ourselves to get hooked by our emotions. When we get hooked—when we get really angry, resentful, fearful, or selfish—we start to go a little unconscious. We lose our payu— our awareness of what we’re doing with our body, speech, and mind. In this state, it’s all too easy to let ourselves spiral downward. The first step in pulling yourself up is to notice and acknowledge when you’re going unconscious. Without doing that, nothing can get better for you. How could you change anything if you’re not aware of what’s going on?
When we are losing heart because of our own struggles in life, one of the best antidotes is to put things in a bigger context. Sometimes this just happens naturally. For example, I was working with a student who’s a wonderful person, but he was completely stuck in certain areas of his life. He had a habit of turning inward on himself that resulted in his feeling like a victim. He was always saying, “Why me?” I tried to give him good advice for years, he went to therapy and did many brave things to work with his issues, but nothing worked. Despite his obvious basic goodness and strength, nothing was getting through to him.
Then he found out he had incurable cancer. Overnight, his habitual pattern was remedied. Soon after, I was in a car with him and someone was walking slowly through the crosswalk after the light had changed. He started to get angry, which was his habit in those situations, but then he abruptly stopped and said, “I don’t have time to get pissed off at someone for walking across the street too slowly.” He also had some very stuck relationships, particularly with his mother. They couldn’t stop doing the same dance. But after his cancer diagnosis, he was on the phone with her and when she said something that would normally trigger him, he said, “Mom, I’m probably going to die soon, and I don’t have time to do this to you anymore.” It all changed overnight. His years of meditation and therapy had helped set the stage, but it was only when he put things in a bigger context that he could actually break free from his habits.
Finding out we don’t have much time left can help enlarge our perspective, but not everyone suddenly gets a bad cancer report. We don’t have to depend on a dramatic or life-threatening event to wake us up. Again, I think of my friend Jarvis, who sees things from a big perspective because he’s spent so much time developing his compassion. Once he was in the prison yard and a guard started taunting him, trying to goad him into fighting back. But Jarvis didn’t take the bait. Then his friends said, “How can you take that from him? How can you be so calm? Is it your Buddhism that does that?”And he said,“No, it’s not my Buddhism. I’ve gotten letters from the kids of the guards, who tell me that when they have a hard day they come home and take it out on their family. I didn’t want this man to go home and beat his kids.” So compassion can enlarge our view as well. You think about the wider consequences of getting hooked and you don’t let yourself act in a way that brings pain to other people.
Related: On Hardship & Hope
As someone once pointed out to me, when you become conscious, the first thing you discover is why you stayed unconscious all those years. Being conscious means you really have to feel what you feel, which is frequently very vulnerable and raw. My friend with cancer was willing to go to that vulnerable place because he didn’t want to waste time on pettiness, when everything seemed trivial in the face of what was coming. Jarvis let himself be vulnerable to someone who had power over him because he knew what the consequences might be for the guard’s family. By putting things in a bigger context, they were able to enter a whole realm of practice—learning to stay with the rawness or vulnerability of being human.
Adapted from Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World, by Pema Chödrön © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications and the Pema Chödrön Foundation.
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