Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All The Heart Can Hold

It is in times of personal and collective crisis that we find out whether or not our spiritual insights, practises and beliefs really do enable us to open our hearts and stay present with what is. Some moments are better than others, but if we can compassionately observe ourselves and our fellow human beings, we really do learn something about the stunning capacity of the human heart.

For me, the news of the disaster in Japan (and the current efforts to avoid a breakdown of nuclear reactors that could spread radioactivity throughout the area and, of course, eventually the planet) has coincided with a crisis on the personal front. My father has advanced Alzheimer’s, and my mother, who has been his care-giver at home, has just been diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s also. Of course, my challenge re: finding and arranging appropriate care for my parents given my health challenges, their wishes and the means available, is very small in comparison to the scope of the suffering in Japan. And yet, on some level, our experience of loss and uncertainty whether individual or communal has common elements.

In the face of personal or collective difficulties that threaten life, the human mind reaches for explanations and asks, Why did this happen? (which is sometimes just a polite way of asking, Who is to blame?) I have seen it on the internet this week: some claim the quakes are human created, either accidentally caused or deliberately orchestrated; others see them as a punishment or warning from the Earth herself, an argument reminiscent of the belief in the moral retribution of a wrathful of God; still others posit theories about the contributing effects of human choices that create climate change and resonant frequencies on and in the earth. I’m not going to evalate any of these explanations here (although yes, I do think building nuclear reactors on or close to fault lines is not one of our smartest moves,) and I am not suggesting that we should not look for the chain of cause and effect for all kinds of things. (Clearly I support research into the causes of illnesses like Alzheimer’s.) But I am struck by how quickly most of us seek an explanation where none may be available.

Being with what is without closing our hearts to the loss, the grief, the uncertainty, the confusion, the fear (in ourselves or others more directly affected- eg- those searching for loved ones in Japan) is hard. And proposing an explanation- however probable or improbable- is an effort to make it easier. But for the most part, wanting speedy explanations is an attempt to move away from being with what is. I understand the impulse. We can only do what we can do. And, given my day, my health, my circumstances, my fortitude of this moment, I may or may not be able to continuously sustain an open-hearted prayer, an inner stillness that lets me be with what is happening. I may need a skilful distraction, hopefully one that connects me to awareness of the joy and beauty of life (like watching the children in the playground playing) before I can go back to holding those who are suffering in my heart’s awareness, whether it is my parents or the people in Japan, before I can do what needs to be done- place a call to the social worker or speak patiently to my mother in her confusion, or contact a relief agency to make a contribution toward aid efforts in Japan.

We have to replenish our own reserves to be of assistance in a sustainable way. But I think we need to be careful not to offer or reach for or accept pat explanations (political or spiritual) in place of real compassion. I am thinking here of reading posts like, “All is well and all is as it should be.”

All is well? For whom? For the mother who is desperately searching for her child beneath a pile of rubble? For the father who has watched his family drown and be swept away? For the men who are making repairs on a reactor knowing their exposure to radiation will shorten their lives, willingly taking the risk in the hopes of protecting their communities? Yes, of course, if you believe as I do on some essential level that our well-being is connected to something larger within and around us, there is always a kind of “wellness." But this provides little comfort to those whose lives have been torn asunder, and offering such a statement in the midst of dire circumstances does not seem to honour the real pain and suffering that some are experiencing.

Similarly saying that things are as they “should” be (for my parents or the situation in Japan) seems to be an attempt to move away from awareness of our common vulnerabilities and sorrows. Hinting at some moral imperative or pre-determined plan or purpose, the word "should" claims to know what is, for us mere mortals, unknowable. And I understand why we reach for such things. Not knowing is difficult particularly when the stakes are high. But- things are as they should be? How about- things are as they are. Can I be with this?

And here is where we get to practise what is needed and discover something truly amazing about how we are made. We are built for compassion. Yes, I know we are capable of insensitivity, cruelty and greed, susceptible to fear and bad choices. But we are built for compassion in a way that the mind barely grasps. How do I know this? Because I experience it in myself and in others. I am seeing it in the many stories of mutual assistance amongst those most directly effected in Japan. I hear it in the voice of the skilled health-care providers who are helping me with my parents. We really do have the capacity to be with situations and information that is heart-breakingly painful, that is about loss and destruction and suffering. We can hold the world in our hearts, we can follow the impulse to help, and we can do this without comforting platitudes or explanations, without knowing why something happened or how it will unfold.

We discover this capacity within ourselves by practising it, by grounding ourselves in the details of life, in our bodies, in the earth beneath us, in our communities of care, in doing what needs to be done to take care of those who need our help. We discover it by following our breath and praying however we pray- whether that is in a structured form from some tradition or simply in a willingness to focus on our hearts, feel what arises and hold those who are suffering with each breath. We do it by offering what material aid we are able to offer and choosing to be with those who are suffering in our awareness, sending our love and a silent, “You are not alone.” We do it by allowing a larger Heart to hold us- the Heart of community, of the Mystery, God, Life itself- when we are too tired and discouraged to do it alone.

There are of course no deals to be made. Will our prayers make everything work out as we want? Will it restore my parents’ memories or the homes and lives in Japan? It is impossible, on some level, not to want this, not to think the power of our prayers must be evidenced by results we want. But our perspective is limited, our noses are very close to the ground of being human. Yes, I do think prayer has an impact, but the how and why of that remains a mystery also. I pray in my way without knowing why something has happened, without reassurance that my prayers will result in life as I want it, but with a willingness to be with what is. And I discover the infinite capacity of the Heart that lives within me to bear what is, to be compassionate, to feel both joy and sorrow simultaneously, to laugh and cry, to see beauty amidst loss, to discover again and again the gift of being an embodied soul- a fully human being.


  1. to understand the breath and its intelligence... who is the one that holds suffering and happiness? does it belong to anyone? to share in life as it presents itself - a nuclear explosion,an embrace, a birth, a sickness, and to remain innocent like the spring leaf just sprouting from a winter branch.

  2. Oriah,
    I read this on the way to work and after I was finished I started crying(right in the middle of NYC train transferring!). At first i just assumed it was a breakdown due to all the things going on in the world right now,all the heartbreaking issues and real human situations going on (close to you and the world around),but when I looked at it closer I realized it wasnt a cry of despair, sadness, rage, but rather a happier, more hopeful cry.A cry of connection and understanding!
    I realize now that it was because I understood what you were saying so incredibly well and I felt so connected to your words and you even,like there was no separation.I felt so well the balance you are portraying and reaching for and how difficult it really is. But what I am getting at mainly is that I felt relief in that sharing of the balance with another, i felt whole!, and that the balance i myself strive for is not a waste at all.
    I will continue on my quest to live and incorporate all- because I really cant live any other way.
    Thank you so much for the beautiful moment i felt with you and that you inspired in me,amidst all the chaos.


  3. Oriah. Thank you so much for having the courage and the heart of finding the right words in the midst of a human catastrophe where most of us are at a loss for words, where we are being left speechless and overwhelmed in the face of so much devastation and suffering that is going on in this world!

    I completely agree with Victoria: Your words are connecting, they're grounding and have opened up my aching heart where I'd rather have shut down and turned away from what is in horror and grief...

    Once again, I am finding a preciously strange kind of peace and comfort in what you write - the kind of feeling home and safe in a totally unpredictable world which can only arise from the kind of truthfulness as it is reflected in your words.

    Thank you. Ever so much. For pointing out that indeed there IS real pain and suffering in this world and that we simply cannot know why. Brushing it all off in that typical New Age "All is well and all things happen for a reason" kind of way would be very enticing at times. Only that it doesn't honor the reality we all share as human beings on this planet.

    The one thing that I have always admired most about your writing is the way you honor two very crucial features that define our lives as human beings - two features which can make us feel highly insecure, but which also bear the capacity of opening up our hearts and showing us the way to compassion and love: being fragile and being vulnerable.

    These days, though of course not having been hit by the horrible incidents in Japan directly, I feel very fragile and very vulnerable. And it is only due to such authentic, compassionate and truthful people like you that I haven't given up hope on mankind completely...


  4. Thank you for your strength and your gift for giving voice to the wisdom we seek,the longings we feel, and the love that exists. It does bring us peace and belonging (connection).

  5. To hold my heart open in compassion in the midst of what is, without flying into rage or sinking into despair. To stand in the middle of crisis and remain present and centred while my world appears to break down around me - what a beautiful sentiment Oriah. Thank you for reminding me where to stand.

  6. Thank you for your wisdom. I heard once that prayer does not always change the things you are praying about or for, but changes the one praying in order they might either accept the situation if unchangeable or have the strength and wisdom to change it. Kinda sounds a little like St. Francis of Assisi I guess.