Duke Ellington: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues”

We all have days when we feel like pouting – when we feel angry, irritable, upset, depressed, hurt, lonely, or any number of unpleasant feelings. And when we feel that way, it seems only natural to want to avoid our pain. So we come up with all sorts of ways to try and throw it off – we blame others for our misfortune; wish for a better job, more money, a different partner or what have you; and tell ourselves all sorts of “stories” of how it used to be or could be if only things were different. But really, these approaches aren’t helpful at all. We’re either making things worse by spreading our bad mood around, or at best shoving our problems under the proverbial rug and not really dealing with them.

Duke Ellington had a much better approach. He faced his pain squarely, right in the eyes, and got to understand his humanity so well that he could use it to touch other people’s hearts. This takes tremendous courage – to sit with our pain, really feel it, be with it, and open ourselves up to our inner softness and vulnerability. It’s a radical notion. To befriend our own pain sounds quite counterintuitive. But in fact, it can be the key to unlocking our capacity to connect with others through our shared experience of this fallible human life.

Even if we don’t have the talent of Duke Ellington, it’s still something that we all could do more of. Rather than spending all that energy avoiding our suffering, we could try to befriend it openly. It’s when we find the courage to let down our guard – those brick walls we build around our hearts to keep out the pain – that we find ourselves more able to open up to the beauty in life. It draws out our compassionate hearts, which can’t help but reach out to others and see the loveliness and lovable in midst of all the suffering in our world.

Meditation can help us to find our way into our compassionate hearts. Developing our capacity for mindfulness helps us to be more aware of our emotions and how we respond to them day by day. The Metta Bhavana, which is a practice for cultivating loving-kindness, helps us to nourish our hearts and allow our natural ability to love grow and flourish. The most constructive thing we can do for our messed up world out there is to work on our own worlds within ourselves.

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