A Practice That Thrives in Difficulty – An Essay

The following is based on a Traditional Tibetan Buddhist teaching for transforming suffering into the path to freedom and peace.

‘When the world and its contents are filled with evil, transform this into the path of awakening’ 

from the Seven Points of Mind Training, by Geshe Chekawa, 12th Century, Tibet

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love…’– From the Prayer of Saint Francis


The idea throughout the Tibetan Thought Training teachings is that when things are really painful, these very conditions can motivate us to change things. They can be the fuel that drives us on, making those conditions into a source of constructive action. The teachings call this ‘transforming poison into medicine’.When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the news I find this idea to be especially helpful. Even just the thought that there is a way to be strengthened by the perception of suffering, instead of being stopped cold by it is inspiring, and useful to think on.

There’s no denying that these are needful times. For all our wealth and technology, education and diversity, there is still war, a tremendous amount of injustice, poverty and violence in our world. We’re often in a state of shock, and traumatized by events, but instead of just reacting endlessly, at some point we are going to want to speak of healing, and of finding a deeper resolution to the continuing threats to both ourselves and our children.

Now, there are basically three ways people respond to suffering and what’s tragic: one, they can be overwhelmed by it, or, they can turn away from it and ignore it, and third, they can use that experience to bring something positive out of it.Clearly in these times, in this culture, most people choose one of the first two ways of dealing with what’s difficult. When people are overwhelmed, they look for ways to numb out. They self-medicate, drink, use sex, shopping, tv and other mindless entertainments. Or else they live in denial with what is too difficult for them to hold. Isn’t this so?

When I first learned about the Thought Training teachings in the early 1990’s I thought it was exactly what I needed to hear, living as I was then in San Francisco, and seeing so much that I felt I couldn’t do anything about at the time, such as homelessness, but that I also felt I had to somehow include in my thoughts and meditations, and way of living.

One of the main texts in this tradition is called The Seven Points for Training the Mind, and what drew me most to this set of teachings is the idea that it says we can actually use that suffering we know to eventually bring some greater benefit to our lives, and into the lives of those we love. One of its key phrases is ‘When the world and its contents are filled with evil, transform these conditions into the path of awakening’.

There are two direct, pragmatic methods offered in Thought Training. The first makes use of compassion, and the second Wisdom, as it’s understood in Buddhism. As for compassion here, there is a practice called ‘tonglen’ or ‘taking and giving’ where a person relates whatever they are seeing or experiencing to others having the same or similar problems. They consider this one problem as representative of what others are going through, and then offer prayers, or a visualization that others be free of this pain or difficulty. So, for example, if a person is fatigued, or is lonely and afraid, they can think of others having this same experience now, and breathing in and out, send forth the wish that, by this practice, by this meditation and prayer, all of us be free from this pain and sorrow.

I think something like tonglen happens when there is an event such as a shooting in the national attention for a time. Writers and public figures begin to think and speak of it as representative of all of our gun violence – and of the dangers that we live with in this country, where over 10,000 people a year are killed by deranged people with access to weapons.

Part of the reason we relate one single event to the larger issue is because we tap into a greater purpose, and we get more energy than if we were just dealing with one tragedy alone. Look, for example, at gun violence here.We call to mind again Columbine, the movie theatre in Aroura, and others, and now Sandy Hook elementary school. We ask, how much more do we need to suffer before we uproot the causes of gun violence? How many more grieving parents do there need to be?

We all dream of a just world, and when we can touch that greater motivation then this suffering comes to us as an empowerment to work. We can learn to direct our fully human responses of despair, and anger, and outrage, and compassion into useful channels. Of course, from this point forward, it’s all a matter of skill.

We don’t have to look far to see that we live in a superficial, materialistic culture. It is also hyper-violent, in its history, in the media, in its militarism, and in its neglect of the poor. How can we hold all this, if we are of a mind to, without being overwhelmed by it? If we just go along with how most people who watch the news absorb whatever is being served up, we won’t get very far, and this is why I mention being skillful at this point.

It’s not natural that we should be exposed to so much misery. A human being can accommodate only so much trauma, before needing to recover fully. The news, as it is, is out of balance, and this is where we need to exercise not only our best motivation but also our full intelligence to find a balance that works for us. Many people miss this step, but his is so important, for all our sakes.

Turn off the tv and the computer. Listen to some music, or go for a walk. Take breaks and retreat time to restore and fill yourself with the needed strength. Learn to nourish yourself with the arts and with inspiring stories.Connect with Traditions and teachers and healers of this planet, then return to the difficult work that needs to be done.

When we use thought training wisely, the result is that we know the connection between what is healthy, normal, uplifting, inspiring and nourishing, and all that needs our attention and care. We find with thought training that nothing we do is separate – and that the best way to be of service is to care for ourselves wisely and then act to bring help wherever it is needed.

It should go without saying, but a lot so people get stuck here, and so I’ll say it plainly: there is nothing selfish about caring for ourselves well. This is just doing what is needed to bring well being to others. Thought Training is then a whole person making art. It enables us to integrate all areas of living into a meaningful whole.

The urgent call to wisdom

After the empowerment of compassion, the second essential application of the Thought Training teachings is wisdom. In Buddhism and in other religions, compassion and emotion alone are not enough. We need wisdom to see into the root causes of suffering, and to bring relief. We can say then that developing wisdom to share with others is the ultimate expression of compassion.

Part of what I, and others like me are never satisfied with when it comes to how the media usually treats complex issues is that it’s almost all emotion, with little or no deeper, dispassionate thought, about causes, or possibilities for change. If the tragic tells us anything, it’s that we urgently need greater understanding of ourselves and others, and that we need to pass along this knowledge to our children. For our grief to be fruitful, it’s got to result in more than just our continued suffering. We have to make something positive come from all this.

Where do we start? Do these perennial problems even have solutions? Yes, and they are perennial solutions that need to be actively applied. What is it that all religions and philosophies teach, if not this: that we are more than we know ourselves to be, and that others and this world are more than we know them to be. They tell us that freedom from suffering is possible, and they all teach us the preciousness of life. If our traditions are functional, they offer methods for awakening this knowledge, and grounding it in our lives.

In the Buddhist sense, wisdom means not grasping at concepts as being what’s actually here. When we undertake the training in clear seeing, we become able to enter into the fullness of life, not bound by our ideas. In the Seven Point mind training teaching, there is the line, that ‘emptiness is the supreme protection’, and this the meaning of emptiness in this context, that we’re not caught in limited views of how things exist. A world of possibilities opens.

Albert Einstein said something very true that applies here. He said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’We need to see more in order to deal with things more deeply, and we need to have that sense of greater resources that letting up from contracted thinking and feeling allows. This is exactly what the practice of the Buddhist Wisdom teachings, and the Wisdom teachings of all Traditions are for.

All our Traditions insist that until we know ourselves and others in our true light, there’s simply no end to our problems, but with this knowledge, the New Jerusalem, heaven on earth, is always within our reach.

Just look at what our lives together now are when greed, mistrust, fear and aggression are in full swing: it’s an endless, oppressive cycle or exploitation and retribution. There’s a powerful need for a fresh perspective, something other than what’s taught in soulless materialist philosophy, or in business school, or upheld by the corporate propagandists in the media.

What will we do with all our culture’s aggression, with its self-centeredness, indulgence and waste in our world full of human needs; with all the immaturity, corrupt values, vulgarity, cruelty and neglect? Will we be overwhelmed and turn away? Will we blow a fuse trying to hold it all? It should be writ large that these are notonly choices for well intended people. If we train ourselves, we can use these very conditions to make this world a more righteous place.

In these times especially, it’s truly hard to accomplish any degree of wisdom, but that is only reason to have even more compassion, and even more dedication. It takes so many of the right conditions coming together; it takes integrity, and it takes a great deal of work. It’s for this very this reason that we must help each other, to this end, to the end of suffering and the fulfillment of our lives here.

With the coming together of wisdom and compassion in this way, Thought Training becomes a complete practice.In fact, we can say it’s a practice that thrives in difficulty. This is a path for the courageous, and dedicated, and skillful.

Once we see the great need for this and future generations for a spiritual perspective, with its sense of the preciousness of all life, then our vows can only get stronger and more clear. There is no obstacle to such a practice. With commitment and with insight into the awakening of mind and heart that is needed in some form by everyone, and with the dynamic taught in Thought Training working, then whatever circumstances there are, easy or difficult, over time, there is only progress.

Whenever there’s a terrible event such as a school shooting, for a short time we see more clearly than ever the great need to think about, and talk about the present day threat to ourselves and to our children.

We have an opportunity within reach for just this short time while the stories are still vivid in our mind, to gather increased energy and commitment to look more deeply and work to change our present day culture of violence.

We can use this event to change our tremendous ignorance about and neglect of the mentally ill in America, so that, even with the presence of firearms, fewer and fewer would even think of using them. However hard it is to hold, we are empowered for as long as we have the fresh knowledge of what’s at stake here. When this feeling begins to fade, we’ll again be back in the mode of ignoring the threats to our families, such that future tragedies will be inevitable.

When the world and its contents are filled with evil, this is exactly the time to change these very conditions, into the path of awakening, and into a world we can all be safe in.

The Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on Loving Kindness says:

Even as a mother loves
and protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings…

From what I can tell, the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and others, all aim at helping us to awaken our conscience, and then to be as inclusive as we can in our thoughts and responsiveness to those around us. There’s a deep logic at work there.

Again and again we can see the consequence of selfishness, or, of what only seems, to misguided people, like the self interest of leaving anyone out, of cutting them off from our society, and our care.

We may feel that the scope of the work that is needed to change the culture of violence is beyond us, but what we can do, personally and in small and larger groups, is to aim, more and more, to go in that direction. The results of not doing so are too many, and are terrible to know.It becomes clear, at last, in caring for each other, and for even the least among us, that it is our own life and our own children we are protecting.

From A Practice That Thrives in Difficulty