Over the past few years, as despair across the globe seems to deepen, many have told me that these troubling times have, ironically enough, inspired them to discover newfound reservoirs of goodwill. Moving forward in times of great difficulty, after all, calls for drawing on one’s buried resources. Perhaps adversity reminds us to pay attention to the immediacy of love or the necessity of living a meaningful life. When we meditate or reflect on what in Pali are called the four brahmaviharas (boundless states) of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, we can get back in touch with the depths of wisdom and love within each of us. We can choose to pursue these not only for our own sake, but also for the benefit of those in more desperate circumstances than our own.
These four mental states—lovingkindness, a profound sense of connection to ourselves and others; compassion, the trembling of the heart in response to seeing pain; sympathetic joy, joy in the happiness of others; and equanimity, the balance born of wisdom—can also benefit us in our aspiration to create a better world. Practices that cultivate these states foster a connection to our own inherent capacity for wisdom and love. They put us in contact with a world beyond the moment-to-moment fixations of our mind.
One of the results of meditation practice is the transformation of self-preoccupation into inclusive, open, connected awareness. We can easily go from morning until night engrossed in worries: “What do they think of me? Does he like me? Am I winning?” This habitual state of disconnection leaves us feeling uncertain, afraid, and often exhausted. Practices of ethics, meditation, generosity, and service shift this anxious tendency toward broader engagement and eventually become, in and of themselves, the manifestations of a liberated mind.
Service, which fosters concern with others more than with ourselves, is certainly a form of spiritual or contemplative endeavor. In addition to the way it changes a community or society, philanthropic work can be most liberating for the person practicing it. Seeing service in the context of ritual, one wonders how contemplative disciplines such as meditation might enhance the intention behind that work, so the endeavor can continue regardless of personal frustration or disappointment.
The reflections that follow come from four engaged global service leaders focused on manifesting the boundless states in their work. These are their stories and the stories of those that inspired them to make service their life’s vocation. Modeling genuine love, wisdom, and compassion, each one of them inspires me, as I remember that each one of us can collectively, step by step, create a more enlightened, joyful, and openhearted world.
Lovingkindness: A Ripple of Benevolence
By Pierre Ferrari, CEO and President, Heifer International
Working to end poverty is a grindingly hard task. Without a stabilizing practice, it can easily wear down the spirit. Too often, I see our society of “helpers” pervasively afflicted with low self-esteem and self-contempt. In our work all over the world with extremely poor subsistence farmers, we find these same afflictions to a heartbreaking extent, due to poverty and endless, inescapable suffering. Their hopelessness is their greatest barrier to self-love and happiness.
Fifth-century Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa’s explanation of the practice of lovingkindness entails generating each state of mind one at a time, first directed at oneself, and then extended to family, friends, strangers, enemies, and so forth, until the feeling reaches all beings. In the same way, Heifer’s engagement seeks to expand both the aspiration and action of lovingkindness. Our values-based training, “The 12 Cornerstones,” is one engaged expression of this expansion of lovingkindness: in this months-long process, we work to move communities from hopelessness to hopefulness by shifting their minds to a belief in themselves, before training them in practicalities like animal husbandry and agro-ecology. Two of the twelve cornerstones, “Sharing and Caring” and “Passing On the Gift” (POG), are secular embodiments of lovingkindness and are at the heart of a process of transformation out of suffering and into happiness. Witnessing this transformation is an endless source of energy and inspiration to us at Heifer, our donors, and the communities with which we work.
A few years ago, I found myself in southern Guatemala, attending a large POG ceremony in which hundreds of female animals were being given from one family to another in order to extend the opportunity of livestock ownership. To my surprise and delight, the community approached me and asked me to accept a goat to pass on to another community in a place totally foreign to them. Intuitively, they understood that this act of lovingkindness was the key to their own happiness. This helped me to see how deeply we all naturally understand the global connectedness of our suffering and search for happiness.
As the Buddhist teacher B. Alan Wallace states, the practice of lovingkindness is like “a ripple of benevolence, based upon a simple realization that all sentient beings are fundamentally like ourselves, with a wish to be free of suffering.” Now, at every POG ceremony I attend, I offer a goat to the community in the name of another and they respond immediately with their own gift of lovingkindness, passing it on to the next community. This deepens my practice and serves as a remedy to the hopelessness I sometimes feel in the face of so much suffering.
Approaching the main entrance of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, one immediately notices a granite wall engraved with a radical vision: “The attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” Within this building—and an affiliated network of medical centers, public health agencies, and clinics—an estimated 59 million global health workers labor to improve the wellbeing of all people, no matter their circumstances. To borrow a phrase from the late street performance artist Steve Ben Israel, global health represents a “mass uprising of compassion.”
Those who work in global health rarely use such emotional language to describe themselves, but a compassionate impulse often underlies their decision to enter the field. So what is the source of this impulse—one that seeks to improve the health of people far away, often separated by geography, culture, religion, and nationality?
I have spoken about this question with hundreds of global health workers, students, and leaders. For many of them, a formative experience or a particular human encounter stirred their heart and set the course of their life’s work. For former US Surgeon General David Satcher, it was the compassion he received from a physician who cared for him when, at five years of age, he nearly died from whooping cough. For Brazilian physician Gerusa Dreyer, a pioneer in the treatment of elephantiasis, it was the plea of a mother whose daughter suffered from that stigmatizing and disfiguring condition. For Jacky Louis-Charles, a physical therapist in Haiti, it was the realization that he had the skills to alleviate the suffering of a man with advanced elephantiasis, from whom he had run in fear as a young boy.
Rather than turn away from suffering, all three of these global health luminaries had the courage to remain in its midst. By doing so, they experienced the depths of human connection and bore witness to the power of compassion.
A special challenge for global health professionals is to make sure we do not lose sight of the individual human faces behind the health statistics that so inform our work. Attending to both the faces and the numbers—the individual and the collective—is necessary. Without being fully present to the people who suffer, our compassion can wither; without access to accurate data, our global health programs can become ineffective. How do we hold them both?
Offering a dharmic solution to this challenge, the 13th-century Zen master Dogen says, “the Buddha way, is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one.” Especially relevant in our age of globalization, his words remind us that the awakened way, the compassionate way, demands that we leap clear of dichotomies and instead see the faces in the numbers. In doing so, we embrace the deep interconnectedness of all beings and remain free to respond to suffering with compassion.
Sympathetic Joy: The Transformational Power of Giving
By Ellen Agler, CEO, The END Fund
Sympathetic joy is a heartfelt gratification that accompanies the awareness of another’s wellbeing. It’s a joy entirely devoid of expectations. Instead, it carries one of life’s greatest pleasures: celebrating the happiness of others.
A common misconception holds that working in humanitarian aid and global health does not involve much joy, as the work puts participants on the front line, face-to-face with extreme suffering, abject poverty, and brutal human rights violations. Where is the joy in that? Over my two decades in the field, however, I have found that happiness for the joy of others is precisely what keeps so many of us inspired by and deeply connected to this work.
On a recent trip to Mali, I traveled to a dry and dusty village outside the capital city, Bamako. It is a place where blinding trachoma, a neglected tropical disease, is endemic. In its advanced stages, trachoma is a terribly painful disease, causing the eyelashes to turn inward and scratch the cornea. Each blink is said to feel like sand scraping across your eye. The condition, if untreated, leads to irreversible blindness. With over 100 million people across the globe in need of treatment, the worst case scenario is horrifying. Fortunately, the disease can be cured by a simple, inexpensive surgery performed by an ophthalmic nurse. That day, I watched a nurse—sitting on a mat on the floor—operate on Nieba, a woman with advanced trachoma. When I met Nieba before the surgery, she was reserved and nervous. She spoke of her unceasing pain and worried that, if ultimately rendered blind, she would not be able to take care of her grandchildren or tend to her garden.
The surgery lasted just 15 minutes. When her operation was complete, Nieba stood, felt the patch over her eye, and then did something entirely unexpected: she broke out in dance and song! She twirled and twirled, then gave huge hugs to the nurse and coordinators. She even beckoned her family members to present live chickens as tokens of her appreciation. An incredible, luminous smile splayed across her face. I felt such happiness for her and her family, as well as deep gratitude for the opportunity to share in a moment that would forever transform her life.
Since the END Fund’s founding in 2012, joy has become a cornerstone of our work. I have seen donors, board members, program partners, and beneficiaries experience the joy of helping to save or improve a life. We formalized “Joy and the Transformational Power of Giving” as a keystone value, thereby intentionally designing the organization to enhance the joy of both givers and recipients alike. The ripple effects of sympathetic joy can start with one person, spread to a family, and eventually influence hundreds of others. In our case, we have seen the actions inspired by this sympathetic joy manifest as treatment for millions of people living with neglected tropical diseases, helping them enjoy happier, healthier, more prosperous lives.
A few years ago, some friends and I visited Malawai, where a simple mosquito bite can bring severe illness and even death for the many who contract malaria. Walking through a medical tent affiliated with a nonprofit called the World Food Program, we noticed an infected child who had just arrived. Teetering on the edge of starvation and sweating from the disease, the child fell gravely ill and, within a day, was dead. Intense frustration, anger, and melancholy arose in all of us, for we knew how easily this tragedy could have been avoided. A simple bed net would have significantly decreased the child’s chances of getting infected in the first place; and a widely used drug, artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), could have alleviated the symptoms, even in the disease’s late stages. Unfortunately, neither remedy was available.
One member of our group, the philanthropist Ray Chambers, refused to indulge this sense of outrage. He didn’t pound the table, blame the local government, or curse the ineffectual global response. Instead he took a breath, determined how best he could help, and quietly began his effort to end unnecessary deaths from this disease.
Chambers, formerly a financier on Wall Street, united multiple parties—from corporations to nonprofits to individuals—behind his ambitious goal. In doing so, he assembled a diverse set of allies who brought their unique skill sets to bear on this problem. While mindful of their task’s dire urgency, he and his fellow advocates embodied calm persistence as they sought cooperation from various institutions, both large and small. He and his team remained steadfast amidst the strong egos, labyrinthine bureaucracies, and never-ending politics that accompany international public health work. All the while they retained their ability to listen, for instance, when locals suggested they seek support from Nigeria’s faith-based community in order to convince villagers to use the nets, which can be hot and uncomfortable.
Over a ten-year period, Chambers and his team helped lead an effort that lowered malaria-related deaths in sub-Saharan Africa from 900,000 per year to less than 300,000 per year. And that death rate continues to fall to this day. On an issue like malaria, which causes such an unfathomable degree of unnecessary death, advocates risk falling prey to emotional poles: frustrated finger-pointing on the one hand and self-righteous purity on the other. By eschewing this moralism for an even-handed approach, Chambers and his partners balance their ambitious goal with steadying humility. “It’s more important to love than to be right,” says Chambers. “I do what I can and then step away.”