Twinkle: Light in the Darkness
Kim Crossman sends this along…
Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants to feel love. But we all go through dark times – illness, loss, all kinds of mental and physical suffering. The first teaching the Buddha gave after he achieved enlightenment, on the 4 Noble Truths, answers this question of suffering.
The 1st Noble Truth is that we experience suffering, characterized as 3 types:
- The physical & mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
- Stress/ anxiety because things are changing.
- Lack of satisfaction, a pervasive sense that things are not quite right.
The other Noble Truths address the cause and the path to liberation from suffering:
2nd: This is caused by resistance to reality and clinging to a false sense of self for security.
3rd: Letting go of this resistance is the path that ends suffering.
4th: We can use everything we do in life to help us to realize this.
As a Buddhist for many years, I have heard these teachings on suffering, studied and contemplated them, and practiced meditation to help me be more present to what is.
And yet in life, things can get very dark sometimes. For the past year, I have been experiencing depression and anxiety due to some tragic family circumstances. Despite years of meditation practice, and strong connections to people at work and at the Shambhala Center, most of this time I have felt lost in the darkness, ashamed and alone in my grief and confusion. Fortunately, things got worse, when I was scheduled for major surgery in November.
I say “fortunately”, because I find physical suffering and the fear that comes with it to be easier to work with. I have less internalized stigma or trauma around it, so it feels simpler. It is inescapable, as this first type of suffering related to illness, aging, death is so obviously shared by all humanity. So I didn’t avoid it, and began making plans to accommodate an uncertain and probably painful recovery period. I shared the news about my upcoming surgery with a few friends here at the Shambhala Center and within a few weeks, Community Care was swinging into action.
Community Care is a (sometimes hidden) gem of our Center’s community, and operates within the Societal Health and Wellbeing area. Community members volunteer within this area, regularly or occasionally, responding to individual needs for help. Willa Rabinowitz coordinates Community Care currently, and she began by helping me to define my needs – what days/ times would I like support? What would this entail? She created a schedule, and people signed up for shifts to care for me at times that my husband Chris needed to work during the first two weeks of acute recovery.
These sweet people came each day. They made tea or a meal, fetched meds, changed my sheets. Sometimes I was hurting, and felt awkward having guests at my home in this state. I was vulnerable. On the day after I got home from the hospital, someone brushed my hair. More than anything, I was happy to be engaged in conversations that matter with friends, distracted from the pain and absorbed in the mutual attention.
While being cared for, I saw how simple this is, and naturally felt inspired to help others in the same way in the future. As a member of the Center, I had been on the receiving end of these requests for support in the past, and wondered, why hadn’t I helped? In conversations with my caregivers on this topic, I discovered a fear of intimacy, and underlying that, the core delusion: that I have nothing to offer, that I am not good enough.
In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron says “The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking in someone else’s eyes.”
This light in the darkness, these shared experiences of love, of vulnerability, intimacy and gratitude, are what I am calling “twinkle”. Relating honestly and directly with suffering opens the door to the possibility of care. This dark sky of suffering provides a wealth of opportunities for people to twinkle, for human heart connection. Sly Stone was right: “Everybody is a star, I can feel it when you shine on me.”
The words patient and compassion both come from the Latin root patior, which means “I am suffering”. A patient is literally one who suffers, and compassion is sharing the suffering of others. The twinkle I am describing is the felt experience of shared compassion, and while it offers the suffering a way to navigate through the darkness, those who provide compassionate care are healed by it too.
Pema says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Or put another way, by one of my caregivers Amy: “Helping each other and being helped – this is enlightened society.”