Last Updated: April 8th, 2019
Don’t be swept up by the river of popular notions and emotions.
“If a man going down into a river, swollen and swiftly flowing, is carried away by the current—how can he help others across?” – The Buddha
I am that man. Some days, at least. Absorbing the toxic words and actions around me in the news, on the roadways and in my own home, I swell with anger or fear so plumped that I could not pull myself out of the fast flowing river of popular roars and rants if there were a thousand outstretched helping hands lined up along the banks for miles.
Truly I, like everyone I ever met, want to alleviate suffering around me. And I know it begins with me. I have been a diligently endeavouring student, teacher and practitioner of Buddhist precepts, so I know the challenges. Actively drawing attention to inner disturbances apparently caused by outward perturbations is my daily practice. It’s easy to locate the source of rage and panic in a near-miss car accident due to another driver’s texting. It’s equally simple to connect the tension in my neck and shoulders to the unending hours of election coverage, too often downright hateful rants broadcast everywhere, bombarding the eyes, ears and skin of everyone exposed to the red radioactive anger and frustration waves.
Regardless of religious, spiritual, political or regional belief, each human wishes to alleviate suffering for self, particularly, and for others, hopefully. Each of us is called upon to do so at one time or another in life, whether it’s physical pain of an injury or illness, heartbreak or loss, or excruciating truth or beauty. Pain paints the world as both suffering and aesthetic.
Most of us do not realize—unless we focus our lenses to see—that we manage our lives in avoidance of pain. We take pains to avoid getting sick by taking vitamins, exercising and eating well or getting regular checkups with doctors. If not these, then we operate our vehicles so as to avoid accidents. These are basic life-preserving precautions that allow us to live suffer-free lives.
But the majority, I would imagine, do not understand the flip of the switch we all possess to alleviate suffering in a much larger, general condition than specific avoidant behaviours. Choosing not to allow the inflow of water or to let it pass through prevents the swollen suffering.
As to the more muted irritations and cares of daily living, for example, we can decide to bear seemingly unbearable burdens with care and gratitude rather than resentment and self-pity. In my own case as home caretaker to my aging father and mother, I had to stem my own suffering to alleviate another’s.
Do steer your course atop the flow.
My father, who has been relatively healthy for an 82-year-old diabetic with managed cholesterol, blood pressure and pacemaker, has recently succumbed to the perils of longevity in an ever-growing polluted environment, self and other inflicted. He smoked for over 30 years but quit for nearly that many years ago. Apparently, however, the damage remains long after the lungs clear. His doctor attributed the malignant tumour in his bladder possibly to his prior habit. In any event, the surgery was an outpatient procedure and the prognosis very optimistic. And the process was quick, smooth and timely. My father returned home with a catheter and pain meds.
The aftermath was not so successful, however. He contracted a painful urinary tract infection, which morphed into or combined with a blood infection possibly caused by the stent installed at the hospital. The blood infection was sourced as one of those antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which required a long-term antibiotic home therapy. And after two hospital stays, one of which my father threatened to walk out the door with IV intact if he wasn’t released, I, despite no formal training, became his nurse, administering medication through an intravenous line every eight hours.
In a 24-hour day, three injections that take an hour and a half each to administer left me with too little sleep for too many days. Prior to this two-week therapy regime, I had administered his four-week antibiotic therapy, a much saner schedule, however. By week five of playing nurse, tired and tethered to my home between working shifts at my jobs, I agonized and grew resentful even as my father regained his health, though the antibiotics drained him.
My father is not an easy patient. He has little faith in medicine and doctors. He resisted my efforts by complaining and criticizing everyone, including me. He was intermittently angry, depressed and antsy. He did not like being sick, dependent and housebound and often took it out on me. We bickered often. I found I could not be kind. My fatigue and resentment grew too big. I suffered.
Until I decided not to. Growing steadily unhappy and angry in the snipping and sniping with him, I knew I had to stop merely observing my anger and his. I had to do something more. I was certain I could change the entire timbre of our exchanges by looking elsewhere, not at my resistance to a distasteful chore and self-pity nor at his and my anger. I could focus on the good fortune I had to be the one to help him, to know him well, warts and all, before he leaves me for good one day. No one else hears his words, watches his days pass as I do. No one got to help him heal like I did. I am the lucky one—if I choose to embrace the enduring rather than the temporary reaction.
I had to. And when I did, I relieved us both—the patient and the healer—of unnecessary agony. We both became kinder. Because only by a conscious choice of curtailing the inflow of his suffering penetrating me, or the tasks themselves entering into me as imprisonment, could I be light enough to help him. Mindful of the source of my woes—my reflexive suck-age into the ongoing stream of misery—I was able to observe both our behaviours and change my reaction and thereby his.
Be the boat or use one to save yourself and others from drowning.
Buddhist principles found in the Nava Sutta or the boat simile quoted above impress the importance of knowing the dhamma (truth according to the Buddha’s teachings) or being led to its enlightenment by one who knows, who can best teach its tenets. Thus, one who does not know the dhamma gets swept up in the current of popular behaviours and thoughts, not necessarily the way of the dhamma, and cannot lead others. It takes going against the current or riding it safely with the help of a boat (teacher) or other navigation tool (holy writings) to negotiate the ways and perils of the river.
The draw of others’ anger, fear, frustration and hatred, especially en masse in street mobs, on social media, in traffic or in bullet-ridden nightclubs can be irresistible, downright seemingly insurmountable. With the right mind, diligently practicing presence and observant witness to both the separateness and oneness of us, we can watch ourselves react and choose not to fear, resent or hate but to appreciate. Though difficult, often feeling near impossible, it IS a choice. And in so choosing perhaps lead others to choose.
Right mindfulness is defined in the Dhamma as follows:
“And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and mindful—putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness… this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and distress, for the attainment of the right method, and for the realization of Unbinding…”
Though harder to be right minded when feeling out of one’s mind, that’s precisely the time to flip that pump switch, drain the swollen anger, fear, resentment, worry or hatred, else sink in the thunderous river.