Difficulties occur in life. Challenges arise for all of us. The beauty of it all is that these struggles are something which, if attended to, can deeply connect us. Think for a moment about whatever may currently be bringing some difficulty in your life. Perhaps these challenges are manifesting in any or all of the physical, relational, survival or emotional realms. Your experience is perhaps not very easy, but I do have good news for you!
You aren’t alone.
Some of us have moments in time when everything may seem to be on track, but that is a pretty rare occurrence for most everyone. The universality of this “affliction” hit me while driving recently on Highway 1 in beautiful Northern California where I live. I began a Metta practice during the drive as I often do, a very simple practice of wishing well upon others. For each driver passing in the opposite direction, I would utter “may you be peaceful and happy.” Sometimes I’d switch it up and offer my own vehicular version: “may peace travel with you.” With each benediction, my right hand would thumb through another prayer bead on my mala. As I did this practice, I was struck with the realization that each person I passed had their own struggles. I may not have known who they were or what their specific struggle may have been, but it became clear to me that everyone has struggles. Everyone. No one escapes.
The difficulties which some have may be obvious such as living without food or shelter. Others struggle with illness, physical challenges, or fear of aging or death. Many suffer from some form of mental illness, others from a sense of worthlessness, shame, guilt or isolation. Many grapple with the residue from past abuses inflicted upon them. Yet more among us may be grieving the death of a loved one or the end of an important relationship. Some may be feeling the stress of limited financial resources, limited work opportunities, challenges in the workplace environment, or simply feeling a lack of purpose/meaning/direction in their lives. Others have challenges in their relational lives with friends, family or lovers. Most everyone has one flavor or another of self-recrimination in regretting past action or inaction. Some struggles are the most primal of all: fearing for the life and safety of themselves and their loved ones. I could attempt to cover all forms of possible struggle, but the bottom line is that each of us has some flavor(s) of difficulty. No one is immune.
This may seem like a downer to some of you, but to me, it’s more like a welcome into the glorious community of humans. I’ve had my own challenges in recent months with periods of mourning, fear and self-doubt. Those whom I love in my life have challenges. My brother continues to have an unfair load of both physical and mental health issues. My father and his wife have recently had their challenges. A call the other day from a good friend I haven’t seen much of over recent times mentioned that he has “had a rough few months.” Other friends suffering with self-doubt and physical pain. Another with cancer. A friend texting a couple of days ago from the darkness of night was in need of a kind and compassionate presence. Another is grieving the death of his spouse. It doesn’t matter where I look, I see the Dukkha, the pervasive challenges of life that the Buddha saw.
I see beauty too. No shortage of it. It’s everywhere I look really. This may sound strange to some of you, but grief and challenge has consistently brought me into some of the deepest appreciation of life that I know. Difficulties, if we are present with and open to our experience, can elicit the greatest opportunities for self-awareness, growth and yes, even joy. The tribulations we have gone through also connect us directly to our own love and our ability to be compassionately present for others. As Kahlil Gibran once wrote:
“Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”
I am reminded here of one of the most lovely men I ever had the chance to know. His name was Igor and for a few years I was proud to call him a friend of mine. He was living without a home near where I had my company in San Francisco many years ago. He actually did have a home of sorts, but it was small and impermanent, intricately constructed of cardboard boxes which he ritualistically folded up daily, bundled with string and secured between two newspaper vending machines for storage. One bustling financial district morning, as we were sitting on a step sharing a muffin and some tea, I asked him what it was like for him to ask for money from the people on that street every day?” I expected his response to have a flavor of self-pity as undoubtedly mine would have. What he said surprised me then and remains with me to this day. He told me that he feels sorry for them. This man with effectively no material resources, isolated socially, and with significant health problems (serious pulmonary disease) which precluded his ability to work, felt compassion for those who in comparison to him had so much more. “They’re all running around so fast,” he said. “They seem so worried.” There is no doubt in my mind that his own difficulties borne of health, financial and basic survival woes enabled him to have an easier access to his appreciation and compassion, even for the more financially and physically abled people walking past him daily. I remember you, Igor, and thank you for being my teacher.
Our minds, evolved over millennia to be on guard for predators, are unfortunately much better tuned to recognize the differences between us than they are at attuning to our similarities. Perceived differences between us are the underlying basis for division and the mind naturally sees them. In a way, I guess what I’m suggesting here is making an extra effort towards seeing the common thread of our humanity. Developing an awareness of our commonalities has the power to bring us together.
Take another moment if you would and look at the next person you see. Perhaps it’s the person right in front of you, or maybe the next one who passes by your window. Take a good open-hearted gander. You may not know specifically what ails them. You may not even know their name, but they, like you, are carrying their own invisible cross. Their struggles may be profound or perhaps more minor, but they are assuredly there. As a practice, I encourage you to try silently offering to them “may you be peaceful and happy.
In this age of political, nationalistic, racial and religious divisiveness, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye tuned to our commonalities, our shared humanity. Even those who we may find most loathsome can be nestled into a tender place in our hearts if we can compassionately hold the existence of their inner suffering up to the light. All ill-spirited behavior has an underlying negative condition or experience which sets that behavior into motion. We may not like another’s behavior, but we can perhaps illuminate it with a compassionate light and at least come to better understand it.
With this recognition, we come to see that we are all connected, and that no one, neither you nor me nor anyone else, can escape the challenges that life presents. The best that any of us can do is to learn to navigate our lives with awareness, grace and appreciation. Welcome to the human family.
And perhaps most importantly, welcome to our shared humanness.