How Not to Lose Heart

Tonight, I’ll continue a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. Her seventh chapter is titled “How Not to Lose Heart.” As we deal with ongoing concerns about the global pandemic, climate change, social justice, and political strife, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

When we are triggered emotionally, we tend to forget our common human condition, that we all experience suffering and seek happiness. If we are cut off from our compassion, we are in danger of losing heart. Then we no longer feel connected with other people, and we lack confidence in our capacity to help improve the world that we share.

One way to avoid losing heart is to recall the essential goodness in every human being. Pema’s friend Jarvis Masters has been on death row since 1985, and most of his fellow prisoners have murdered people. Yet Jarvis says, “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 their tenderness, their basic goodness.”

During crisis situations, people often reveal their good-hearted nature. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey inundated so many neighborhoods, I was struck by how many Houstonians reached out to help one another. At the George Brown Convention Center, where 10,000 evacuees took shelter, numerous volunteers contributed food, water, clothing, transportation, and counseling in various languages.

The challenge is to keep our hearts open for the long haul. Over three years later, some of those hurricane victims are still struggling to make ends meet and are living in temporary or damaged housing. They are among the most vulnerable to diseases and to extreme temperatures like the Big Freeze. Organizations like the Houston Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity remind us that our community has ongoing pressing needs. It’s easy to go numb in the face of so much suffering.

When we feel tempted to withdraw, Pema suggests broadening our perspective. After many years of practicing compassion, Jarvis Masters brings a big perspective to interactions with prison guards. One day out in the yard, a guard started taunting him and trying to provoke him. But Jarvis didn’t react; he stood quietly, dignified in his vulnerability, until the guard turned and walked away. A fellow prisoner asked, “How can you take that from him? How can you be so calm?”

Jarvis explained that he had received letters from abused children of guards who vented their frustrations at home after hard workdays. He said, “I didn’t want this man to go home and beat his kids.” Instead of taking the guard’s provocations personally, Jarvis sees a bigger picture. Because he considers the wider consequences of belligerent interactions, he consciously refrains from speaking or acting ways that harm others. He brings harmony to a prison culture that is characterized by polarization.

Pema says that the first step to defuse polarizing issues that divide “us” and “them” is to look at how we embody polarization within ourselves. With inner investigation, I recognize my tendency to judge those who disagree with my views. For instance, when people declare that meditating is a waste of time, I consider their attitude foolish. Even if I don’t voice any objections, my critical thoughts affect our relationship.

After facing my own habits, the next step is to aspire not to add more polarization to the world. In Pema’s words, “Like many tiny drops filling a bucket with water, it takes a lot of people like me holding a grudge against others to create a polarized society. I really don’t want to be one of those drops.”

What we do as individuals matters. If we close our hearts towards others and act defensively, we contribute those elements to the world, which already suffers enough from such tendencies. Pema points to an alternative path that benefits society—to feel our vulnerability, stand with confidence when we want to collapse and refrain from lashing out when we’re provoked. That way, we can join the ranks of people who offer help in times of hardship and who remember humanity’s basic goodness.

In her chapter titled, Beyond the Comfort Zone,” Pema notes that one of the barriers to compassionate action is staying where we feel comfortable. It is tempting to hang out with what’s safe and familiar, especially when we feel scared, lonely or angry. She reminds us about the traditional Buddhist refuges known as the Three Jewels, which provide a sense of protection during frightening or uncomfortable times. The Buddha refers to our historical role model of an enlightened human being and to the potential for each one of us to awaken. The Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha and other sages, and the Sangha is the community of practitioners who support one another on the path to awakening.

Most of us seek more mundane refuges instead. One day, Pema asked her students where they take refuge in difficult times. Most of them admitted that they took refuge in overeating or watching Netflix or indulging in other kinds of distractions. I confess that while sheltering in place during the pandemic, Mark and I have been watching Netflix films more than usual. As Pema says, there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking comfort, but if we stay in that limited zone, we won’t grow.

*Take a moment to close your eyes and reflect upon where you’ve been taking refuge recently.

Pema likens our comfort zone to living in a gated community. One of my friends is very security conscious and has a home in a beautifully landscaped gated community in Mexico. On my visits there, the entry is blocked until a guard searches my car, confiscates my driver’s license for the duration of my stay, and phones my friend to make sure that she is expecting me. Ironically, the more that she tries to wall off danger, the more threatened she feels. One night a robber climbed over the fence behind her garden and stole valuables from the ground floor of her house while she was sleeping upstairs. Although she had the fence rebuilt so that it is higher and fortified, she doesn’t have peace of mind.

Pema describes her own practice of stretching beyond what’s comfortable. One of her goals was to overcome a resistance to giving generously. When she noticed how attached she was to her favorite pen, she decided to give it away. In the process, Pema allowed herself to feel discomfort and insecurity arising and passing away. Afterwards, she practiced giving away other small things, gradually expanding her range of generosity. Interestingly, the more willing she was to move out of her comfort zone, the more comfortable she felt in her life. Now she can relax in situations that formerly provoked anxiety.

Her practice reminds me that when I first heard about dana offerings at the end of meditation retreats, I worried about what amount to give the teachers. The more I evaluated the right payment for priceless teachings, the more stuck I felt. What helped me was to connect with feeling grateful towards all who help me stay on the dharma path. From a place of deep gratitude, my generosity flows naturally. The more we follow a path of awakening, the more we are drawn to challenges that allow us to learn and grow.

*Take another moment to turn inward and imagine how you might move beyond your comfort zone.

A 14th century Tibetan poet Thogme Zangpo wrote The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Boddhisattva to inspire practitioners to wake up for the benefit of all sentient beings. According to one verse, happiness “disappears in a moment like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.” If we seek comfort by clinging to things that are always changing, we suffer. Out of fear of the unknown, we retreat into self-absorption. When we stop resisting the reality of impermanence, we enter what Trungpa Rinpoche called the wide-open, groundless space of our basic goodness—the fresh air of our deepest sanity.

How will we use the brief time that we have on earth? One choice is to increase and strengthen our conditioned habits in a futile quest for lasting comfort and pleasure. Pema points to another choice: to leave the status quo, step out into groundlessness, and take refuge in the Three Jewels. In her words, “Status quo is not very helpful for spiritual growth, for using the short interval between birth and death. On the other hand, expanding our ability to feel comfortable in our own skin and in the world, so that we can be there as much as possible for other people, is a very worthy way to spend a human life.”

I’ll close with a poem by Daniel Ladinsky:

 Can Any Beauty Match This?

When the sun within speaks,

When love reaches out its hand

And places it upon another,

Any power the stars and planets might have upon us,

Any fears you can muster become so rightfully insignificant.

What one heart can do for another heart—

Is there any beauty in the world that can match this?

Brotherhood, sisterhood, humanity

Become the joy and the emancipation.