Facing Samsara, making a difference


Climate change. The economic downturn. Terrorism. And now there’s Haiti. A client and I were conversing recently about the mess our world is in. She was feeling overwhelmed. How do we, as individuals, respond in the face of such huge problems? I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim to know the answers. But I thought you might be interested in hearing what she and I discussed.

When we look at the mess our world is in, it can seem hopeless.

But let’s think back for a moment to another era that also was pretty bleak. During the early 1900’s, there were tons of intractable problems, too. I’m no history expert, but a lot seemed to do with forces of modernization getting out of hand. Urbanization, overcrowding, and industrialization were feeding into an unsettled political climate around communism, fascism, and democracy. Then the two World Wars followed. I’m sure people back then felt just as overwhelmed and helpless about their world as we feel about ours. Maybe more!

There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do.

And yet, see what’s happened since. Not that everything has turned rosy, but the world has moved on. Those issues got settled through means we never could have predicted. Everything’s changed. There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do. They always self-correct or at least just move on. It’s possible the entire earth will blow up or become uninhabitable from the damage we’re doing to it. This is also part of the rebalancing. The world will move on somehow. And I’m just a speck of dust in that giant process.

…I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. … I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go.

That doesn’t mean I get passive and do nothing, of course. Because I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. The power of the many of us put together is great. I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go. What’s beyond my control, I let go of and trust that greater forces than me will work it out.

The Buddha observed that samsara (a way of living in the world that causes suffering) will always be with us. That’s because humans have such a strong tendency to cling to our desires, push away what we don’t like, and act out of general ignorance. It’s when we project those attitudes out to our world that we create suffering for ourselves and others, endlessly. We cannot FIX samsara – at least not until we can change the attitudes of every living being on the planet!

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us.

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us. We can’t change the world, but we can each do our own part. That’s the only thing we have control over – changing ourselves. That’s the only responsible thing I can do.

There’s a Buddhist parable that applies well here. When the world seems too rough for us — strewn with sharp rocks and thorns – we could try to soften it by wrapping the entire earth so we can walk on it. But wouldn’t it be much wiser to put shoes on our own feet? With shoes, we’re in a much better position to help others, and to do so quickly.

In case you might be thinking that putting shoes on our own feet is selfish, here’s something to consider. I recently came across a study that showed that if I’m happy, I have a measurable effect on the happiness of those around me. For example, a friend living less than a half mile away has a 42% chance of being happy because of it. The effects were still there even out to three degrees of separation. Multiply that out to the countless people I encounter every day, and all the people THEY encounter, and the effects can be huge! I assume this is true for other states of mind, too. If I’m in a bad mood, I must have a similar negative effect. So my own thoughts and actions as an individual really do have an effect on the world. (I wrote about this in my blog here.)

The big challenge for those of us who are committed to serving others is how to stay sensitive to their suffering without falling victim to it ourselves. For me, when I get caught up in someone else’s suffering, or feel overwhelmed, it’s because it brings up my own feelings of fear and insecurity. The more secure I feel in myself, I’m less likely I am to get sucked in. So once again, this suggests that there’s real inner work to be done on ourselves.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop reaching out to help those we can. But let’s take care to do it mindfully. Let’s make sure we put shoes on our own feet first — take good care of ourselves physically and mentally so we’re standing on firm ground. I’m an optimist. When we take our stand in the world that way as positive individuals, we do make a difference.


3 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks Sunada. This is one of the areas I have found very confusing since I first started learning more about Buddhism. On one hand, ultimate reality involves no dualism, everything & everyone are one, all that goes on appears to the mind because it is of the mind (there are better ways of putting it, forgive my clumsy expression). But, in order to cultivate equanimity, in order to not feel overwhelmed & discouraged by things that happen around us, we need to discover & honour our own inner & outer boundaries, for example to reject abusive or codependent behaviour, or to be able to be “there” for others without getting burnt out. We are all one, yet true compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity (as well as personal safety and wellbeing) require a certain level of separateness. At least while we’re here in Samsara! I’d love to know your comments. There’s probably no easy solution or perfect balance (though I’d LOVE there to be! ;-D)

    • Hi Frey, nice to hear from you again.

      You’re right, there are no easy solutions. But I think we can also make things more difficult for ourselves than they need to be. If we think about all this as one giant concept and look for a one-size-fits-all solution to it, then we’ll end up talking ourselves into endless confusing circles. I think the Buddha’s approach was to look at each situation on its own terms. There are times when we’re feeling quite strong, capable, and self-confident, and so we reach out and help others in a selfless way. But there are other situations where we’re perhaps not so confident, or touching on an issue that is particularly sensitive to us. At times like that, we need to acknowledge our own limits and back off as needed. For us to step forward when we’re not capable would be an act of foolishness. It’s what Chogyam Trungpa calls “idiot compassion” — when our foolish (and ultimately self-centered) desire to help is greater than our ability to offer it.

      So I guess that’s the only thing I can say. Drop all the concepts of right vs wrong, compassionate vs selfish, self vs other etc, etc. I think concepts just get in the way. Instead treat each case individually, and mindfully respond based on what’s the reality of each situation. How do we best help alleviate the suffering in this situation? On balance, what would do the most amount of good, and the least amount of harm? And I’d ask this not just of myself, but of everybody involved. (Sometimes the best thing for me to do is to back off and let others take care of it.) If we’re really in touch with ourselves and the reality of the situation, I think we’ll know what the most appropriate response is.

  • Thanks Sunada. I love the term, “idiot compassion”. I like its no nonsense-ness and its humour, which reminds me to lighten up and be in the situation, rather than try to work out perfect solutions in my head! This is not a test, and there is no right answer! Sounds obvious, but it’s actually something I really don’t “get” yet on a deeper level.
    Guilt and fear interfere with my ability to operate in the moment, and with exercising true compassion. They are both such pointless emotions but so pervasive & deeply ingrained. I guess awareness & acceptance of these feelings (rather than resisting them or trying to avoid them) is helpful.


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