Recently I heard this story: A woman’s son is killed. The killer is convicted and sent to prison for a 10-25 year sentence. The distraught mother visits the man in prison trying to make sense of how he could do such a thing. After numerous visits, the woman’s heart softens to the man. She eventually adopts him. Upon release from prison, he lives with his new mother.

As I reflect on the impact of my journey to Rwanda, a huge question emerges: how does a person live with an open, loving, heart that includes the rampant violence and suffering all around us? How does one live with a heart that has been broken open?

Opening the newspaper this morning I see: 31 killed by a car bomb in Bagdad. Unlike in the past, before turning the page, I reflect that each of them was a father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter. Being in Rwanda creates this sense of intimacy, recognition that each of these victims are real people, like you and me. How did I filter that out before? How do I let that in now? 31people do not constitute genocide, but they are 31 individuals with pain and joy and dreams. Can one experience this and still turn the page? How can we live as empathetic people without turning away from this reality? This is a deep question living in me right now.

When overwhelmed, humans have three stereotypical reactions: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our biology leans toward self-protection and protecting our identified social group. The impulse to fight, unless tempered by a sense of inter-connection will result in some kind of violence that perpetuates what we are fighting against. Fleeing or running away from the world by turning a blind eye to the violence around us creates an implicit sense of disconnectedness and isolation, a strategy with painful results. Freezing in shock hurts the frozen one and offers no beneficial action to the world. Sitting here with the morning newspaper I think, what is “right relationship” to all this? Or how does one open to the reality of 31 people dead and still enjoy the gift of the tulips sitting in front of me blossoming in the sunlight?

Safety and Freedom

I see that it is only because of my privilege as a physically, economically, and socially secure human being that I can even contemplate these questions. One must be free from survival needs, especially immediate threats to life, to have the freedom to ask these questions. This is the second profound learning that comes to me from Rwanda: before freedom can be experienced either individually or in social groups, one must feel safe. Safety precedes freedom! This is so simple, yet it is important that we remember this.

In the U.S. we can see that the attacks on September 11 created enough fear for our collective safety that we were very willing to curtail many of our basic freedoms. The fear based reactions to this traumatic event still lives in many people and in our leadership. We can see how it influences behavior today. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Still, there needs to be enough safety to move toward freedom. Traumatized individuals will often bond with anyone who offers a feeling of safety, even those who have hurt them. Hostages often become aligned with the kidnappers who have been feeding and caring for them.

In Rwanda, the sometimes-fascist, violent government of President Paul Kagame creates enough sense of safety for most people that some degree of normalcy can return to social interactions. I feel a need to say that this is politically complex. Some astute people believe that this government is the source of current genocide in Congo and resent the fact that the world has accepted Kagame’s sophisticated propaganda. Still, the fact that most Rwandans feel safer with this strong leader seems to create enough security for daily functioning. I believe a sense of safety is a requirement for life to unfold, even as this tight-fisted control creates limitations on freedom of speech and self-expression. Each of us individually and collectively works with this dynamic relationship between ‘playing it safe’ and ‘speaking/enacting our truth’.

Presencing: In and With

Bearing witness to the great suffering within and around us is essential for human life to blossom. Bearing witness or what I call “presencing” is like the radiant sun and a healing balm. The only other option that I can see is a closed, defended heart. For me “presencing” has two interconnected aspects. First is the sense that we are not turning away, we are turning toward, we are entering into the situation. Rather than running from the places of sorrow, we embrace them, we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow. Embracing does not mean that we like or want these feelings, rather that we welcome them with a warm heart as we might meet a good friend who is in pain. I call this being “in” the feelings or “in” the situation. Second, presencing means being “with” the sorrow not only “in” the sorrow. “With” implies enough distance that one can offer the challenging situation the light of our presence. In classical spiritual language this is called cultivating a witness or the capacity for witnessing. “Challenging situation” refers to both the external situations that we encounter and the internal feelings/voices that one experiences. If one is lost inside the suffering, it becomes too difficult to take care of that situation. We need some space- too much space, we become disconnected- too little, we become lost in it. In a paradoxical positioning, to be “one” with something we need to be both “in” and “with” it.

When being present with anything, finding the most helpful and accurate spatial relationship- not too close, not too far-is most important. In my experience, this sense of right relationship is a dynamic, ever-changing, living process. Sometimes we need more distance; sometimes we need to be right in the middle of the situation. Ultimately, and again paradoxically, we might find that being ONE with something has a simultaneous sense of in and with. One finds oneself in a large field of awareness that is simultaneously much vaster than the immediate situation, yet right inside it also. This difficult to describe experience creates a deep sense of intimacy.

Bearing Witness to Blessings, Cultivating Gratitude

The Zen Peacemakers speak of bearing witness to both joy and suffering. It seems easy to forget the joy when overwhelmed by the suffering. In my practice, this means to experience the shower of blessings inherent in every moment and thereby cultivating the field of gratitude.

As I reflect on Rwanda, I am reminded of my first years as a Feldenkrais teacher. As a young practitioner, I felt overwhelmed by the suffering of the people who came for help. I am remembering the young quadriplegic man who following an automobile accident, lost all functioning below his neck. Next I recall the parents of a brilliant, beautiful, severely brain injured teenage girl who suddenly had a devastating stroke. There are many others. There was a part of me that just wanted to run away from all this, something went a little numb in my heart.

Quickly, I came to see that to live well with all this suffering I needed to grow my capacity for joy. The most direct and simplest path for me was through the experience of gratitude. I saw that gratitude is our spontaneous response when something wonderful occurs. When surprised by an unexpected gift, even a parking place in a crowded parking lot, “thank you” arises. When a potential disaster is averted, say an imminent automobile accident, even the most committed atheist is likely to utter ‘thank you’. I saw that I could experience a sense of gratitude just by giving my attention to the small gifts that seemed to always be present. I call these gifts “the shower of blessings”. When I give my whole-hearted attention to anything for even 5-10 seconds, a color, a sound, a breath or the smile on someone’s face, I experience a feeling of being touched by life. This is a blessing and gratitude naturally arises.

Working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta produced an identical lesson. She would always say: “if there is not joy in the action, there is no love”. Whether working with the brain-injured children in her center or navigating the suffering on the streets, blessings were always available when I learned to attend to the world in certain ways. To perceive a situation directly and not be lost in mental stories about the situation almost always allows the shower of blessings to emerge.

Something similar occurs now in integrating my responses to Rwanda. At first I could sense how my troubled heart could darken a bit, as I struggled to include the suffering into my sphere of caring. Yet, the joy, love, bright eyes and positive intentions of all the people I met enlivens my heart. I see this as one of the current challenges for awakening humanity: to open to the world’s pain and to keep experiencing the constant blessings that are showering at each moment.

Lessons from Rwanda: Growing your Sphere of Caring

In the Buddhist world, the Bodhisattva (great being) of compassion goes by various names: Avalokiteshvara, Kanzeon, Kannon. Avalokiteshvara is pictured as a Being with 10,000 ears and 10,000 arms: the former to hear the cries of suffering and the latter to take action to ease the pain. She is a model for current and future humanity whereby all of life is cared for and all people live together in brotherly and sisterly love.

In esoteric Christianity she is called the Mother of All Peoples or Sophia. One form that Sophia takes is that of Mother Earth, the great Being who carries and feeds us. She also bears witness to the suffering of all her children. Her tears are endless. Can we, ordinary people like you and me, grow this spirit of great compassion for all the beings in our world? This is the unfolding of Love as our basic condition, the ground state, as we enter our potential as truly human beings.

Learning to open my heart toward the unthinkable darkness that can inflict humanity is one important lesson for me from Rwanda. Recognizing this potential for darkness in myself seems vital. Seeing the beauty, joy and courage of my Rwandan friends amidst their life situation is another lesson. The human need for safety as the ground for freedom becomes tragically clear to me. Recognizing my own life in their suffering and joys invites a profound sense of closeness and inter-being.

Even as our biology veers us in the direction of self-protection, self-interest and narrow group identities, our task is to widen the sphere of caring to include ALL of life. To include the earth, animals, people of every culture, even those who out of ignorance violate others is our collective direction. I can imagine a world in which the intentional killing and violation of others is unthinkable. How many life times will it take for enough of us to experience unconditional love toward all? I have no idea… but what other direction could possibly be worthy of awakening humanity?

4 Responses

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  3. hi bernie–this whole issue of compassion in the midst of profound overstimulation by the media is a tough one. everyday, if one is tuned into the media even for an hour or two, one is aware of wars, murders, rapes, plane crashes, etc. along with the standard reporting of political unethicalities (to say the least), leaves most people, myself included, informationally overwhelmed. i do meditation somewhat regularly, and i try to not harden myself to the tragedies of the world, but in order to function, i find i must shut out a lot. i do not have the answer to this. best, jeff hirsch

  4. Well-written, thank you very much. A deep, insightful reflection on Rwanda, and not only on that. It is also about Zen Peacemakers and their path(s), the three tenets, about the challenge to attend a Bearing-Witness-Retreat and about the benefits, insights, transformation, this has to offer.

    Wide open eyes: An open wide heart.
    We listened to both.

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