We have this challenge right now: As we practice in these dangerous times, how can we be at peace? How can we become a source of compassion, and let our lives be a clear expression of wisdom? I find that so many of the traditional teachings are suddenly hitting home in fresh ways, as if they were designed for this particular moment in history. When we chant the evening gatha—the traditional verse that closes the day of training—it seems as if the ancient teachers had gathered that very day to write these words:
Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken!
Take heed—do not squander your life.
When I’m working with students who feel trapped in their anger, fear, or hopelessness, instead of trying to talk them out of what they’re experiencing, I often simply point out that they’ve arrived at the stark reality of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. There are three more Noble Truths, and that’s where we can lean in, aware that our experience is the necessary first step toward coming to peace.
We’re all prisoners of life and death. The question is: What kind of prisoners do we want to be? We have beautiful examples of people who have literally been prisoners, yet who found reasons to be loving, compassionate, strong, and at ease with the reality of their lives. Not that they didn’t feel grief and anguish, but they were able to access something else as well—the human spirit. Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Gerda Lerner—these are just a few examples. You can look at many others who have faced “inescapable” trauma of all kinds. Over and over in human history, people have accessed this well of strength and peace.
To me, one of the great lies is that fear is the only natural response. Without denying our fear, we can keep going deeper. We can stay in basic attention and explore: Who am I? What’s the possibility here? This takes diligence, so that we don’t slip into letting others define our reality and falsely limit the possibilities that are always present. That diligence is the practice of responsibility that the evening gatha implies. Too often we get hung up on the exhortation “Do not squander your life” and interpret it as a scolding, as if we were naughty children caught wasting time. I see the teaching “Be responsible” more as an expression of absolute trust in the possibility of awakening. The message is “Hey, you! You can do it. You can respond. You’re capable of the perfect living and dying of this moment.”
I’ve been asked if I think the world is getting worse. That, to me, isn’t the point. However the world is—whether there are swirling forces of confusion or immense waves of clarity around us—we’re still responsible. When we turn diligence into an intellectual process, we end up feeling exhausted by the intensity of the obligation. But if we just respond the way the eyelid responds to a dry eye, then the work of peace naturally arises out of our innate wisdom and compassion.
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