159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony
161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death

For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out. Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, so Bearing Witness also means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.

 

 

Quicklinks to Episode Outline:
Revisited: Three Ingredients for a Noble Life
The Phenomenon of Burning Out when Bearing Witness
When It’s Time to Take Care or Take Action
Skillfulness When Bearing Witness
Things to Consider When Bearing Witness
Why We Bear Witness
What About Our Hopes and Desires for Ourselves and All Beings?

Revisited: Three Ingredients for a Noble Life

Sometimes hear… “I don’t read/watch the news anymore because it just makes me so upset/anxious/depressed/overwhelmed/etc.” For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out.

Revisit three ingredients for a sustainable life of generosity, a noble life lived in accord with our own ideals, a bodhisattva life: Bearing Witness, Taking Care, Taking Action (See Episode 126-128 – Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1 (Introduction), Part 2 (Bearing Witness), and Part 3 (Taking Action).

Bearing Witness: Exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion, momentarily setting aside the question of whether we can do anything to stop the suffering or not…

Taking Care: Engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that nourish and sustain us…

Taking Action: Participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, working for positive change in the world…

Creating a sustainable, vital, generous bodhisattva practice means including all three ingredients. Dynamic process: Keep cooking, adjusting ingredients based on circumstances, what we have available…

Most of us: Understand taking care, but don’t do as much Bearing Witness or Taking Action as we need to in order to be free from cognitive dissonance (acting out of accord with your own belief about what is true or good). …

May be provocative, but I think all practicing Zen Buddhists, unless they are absolutely overwhelmed at the moment with responsibilities in the Taking Care realm – like health issues, or responsibilities for taking care of other people – should spend at least 2 hours a week Taking Action.

If we don’t do as much Bearing Witness or Taking Action as we need to in order to be free from cognitive dissonance, it’s often because we don’t know how to go about – how to find time, or find ways to add these ingredients to our lives in a meaningful and sustainable way. If you feel like you can’t find any meaningful way to Take Action? I’m happy to talk to you about that. And I intend to address in future episodes…

The Phenomenon of Burning Out when Bearing Witness

Today, though, talking about Bearing Witness – how to do this without burning out?

How do we burn out? (While witnessing greed, hate, delusion, and the suffering they cause)

News: Doom-surfing, news addiction, news is all sensational and negative and short term

Feeds anxiety, anger, fear, or it’s emotionally exhausting opening up empathetically to what’s happening…

Other forms of witnessing through media/books/etc: Read and read, or watch and watch… never actually Take Action, begin to feel no real change is possible or likely, at least not within any realm you participate in…

Witnessing in real life (family and friends): Painful to watch our loved ones suffer and be unable to do anything about it…

Witnessing in real life (other people in our community): Can be very discouraging, feel like issues are insurmountable, one’s actions are so small and inconsequential, keep trying to hold back a flood with your hands…

Facing our own suffering: Can have similar responses – depression, anxiety, overwhelm

Negative responses when we feel burned out? Cocooning, intoxication, distractions, numbing out, denial, attachment to opinions/black & white thinking, negativity, pessimism

What are the underlying reasons for our burnout? What desires/aversions are behind each burnout reaction? What hopes and fears are challenged or aroused as we Bear Witness?

  • Aversion to pain
  • Desire for those we care about to be happy
  • Wanting to believe the world is just and compassionate place
  • Wanting to believe human beings are good at their core
  • Wanting to see good triumph over evil
  • Wanting to feel like we have the power to make a positive difference in the world

These are all pretty fundamental human desires, and it’s troubling to have those desires challenged as we Bear Witness.

When It’s Time to Take Care or Take Action

Exhausted, upset, not thinking clearly, indulging in doom-surfing? Take Care: Take a break, rest, sit zazen, do something else, exercise, take joy in simple things. What do you do? Garden? Read a mystery?

As part of bodhisattva practice, Taking Care is something we do for a while, and then we Bear Witness or Take Action again. It’s not enough to conclude Bearing Witness is upsetting or depressing so you’ll just Take Care instead. This is hiding out in a heaven realm, or focusing on you and yours and ignoring your bodhisattva vows, or hiding your head in the sand.

Taking Care is something we do in service, so we can Bear Witness and Take Action. It’s not a permanent refuge from the suffering of the world. (Of course, we’re also included in the equation, always seeking to benefit self and other at the same time…)

At other times, we need to put aside Bearing Witness in order to Take Action. Yes, the ills of the world are infinite, but I’m going roll up my sleeves and do this.

This can be grounding and empowering; helps us focus on Active Hope (being active for what we hope for in the world, not focusing on what we feel hopeful about in the sense that we think a particular outcome is likely)

Ideal when crafting a noble life out of the three ingredients: You know, for yourself, that you’re doing everything you can. None of us has infinite energy, time, resources, abilities… technically there’s always something more we can do, and this stresses some of us out quite a bit.

However, with mindfulness, experience, and self-honesty, we reach – at least at times – a rewarding balance of ingredients, which we know we’re including as much Bearing Witness and Taking Action in our practice as we can sustainably manage. We’re going our part. [My example of choosing something to do and feeling less despair when faced with the reality of climate disruption]

Greta Thunberg: “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

Skillfulness When Bearing Witness

Aside from refocusing our practice, for a time, on Taking Care or Taking Action –

Skillfulness when practicing Bearing Witness in and of itself

What can we do when Bearing Witness – when we’re in the process of exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world in all its forms out of compassion – to make the process more… ______

??? Actually, what do we want? What would “good” Bearing Witness practice be like? It’s probably going to be painful and troubling at times, that’s the nature of it. If we are blessed with a sense of empathy, Bearing Witness can hurt, even be overwhelming. [Story of Avalokiteshvara]

So “good” Bearing Witness practice is rarely going to be pleasurable or fun, although it might be interesting or rewarding in a certain sense.

I guess we’re looking for Bearing Witness to be sustainable and constructive: Informing us and awakening our compassion and sense of urgency, but not overwhelming us and sending us into despair. Just the right level of disturbing.

Things to Consider When Bearing Witness

Practice mindfulness of Bearing Witness – paying close attention, particularly to cause and effect…

How are we witnessing? What is the state of our body-heart-mind as we do our Bearing Witness practice? Are we tired, procrastinating, or trying to distract ourselves from personal issues? Are we obsessed, or strangely drawn to watching or hearing about scenes of destruction, violence and mayhem? …

What about the source of our images or information? Involve true and balanced sources of information? Sensationalizing? Demonizing? What is the agenda of the people behind the source? Does it offer perspective, nuance? Perhaps positive suggestions as well as troubling facts? …

Are we setting aside compulsion to fix things, for the moment?

Can we notice the positive emotional/relational effects of Bearing Witness? Expansion of empathy, compassion; centeredness and empowerment that comes from facing the truth. How do we feel when we’re aware of suffering at some level but trying to deny or avoid it? What does this do to our relationship with others? What is the effect in our heart-mind? …

Can we notice the positive spiritual effects of Bearing Witness? Deepening our sense of interdependence, break down sense of separation between self and other. Awareness of impermanence, gratitude for our good fortune. The need to cultivate “don’t know” mind…

Why We Bear Witness

Helps to remember why we’re Bearing Witness – to identify the activity as bodhisattva practice in an of itself, recognizing it takes energy and effort, but we’re doing it for important reasons:

Obvious benefits to others: Arouse compassion and sense of responsibility, stay informed so we can be responsible citizens, learn about how we might be culpable for some of the suffering, discover ways we might be able to respond…

Less obvious benefits to others: They are not alone in their suffering, act of generosity however small, acknowledges interdependence, anyone who knows about the act of witnessing perceives the world as a more caring place…

Benefits to self: My favorite line from Dogen (Bodaisatta Shishobo), “Foolish people think that if they help others first, their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness, benefiting self and others together.”[1]

How do you feel when you avoid Bearing Witness because doing so is overwhelming, depressing, upsetting? Cut off…

Tibetan Vajrayana practice of Tonglen is the opposite of/an antidote to this disconnection – not trying hold the pain but taking it in, transforming it, sending it back out as positivity or throwing it into emptiness.

Keeping the heart open, greater intimacy, ironically greater sense of peace because we’re not running from the truth.

Again: Valuable to frame Bearing Witness as one of the essential ingredients in our bodhisattva life, reminding us of its deeper purpose, of its nobility and worth

What About Our Hopes and Desires for Ourselves and All Beings?

What about those fundamental human desires we discussed earlier, which get challenged or aroused as we Bear Witness?

  • Aversion to pain
  • Desire for those we care about to be happy
  • Wanting to believe the world is just and compassionate place
  • Wanting to believe human beings are good at their core
  • Wanting to see good triumph over evil
  • Wanting to feel like we have the power to make a positive difference in the world

This is where Taking Care in the form of our spiritual practice comes in.

We aim to become familiar with a non-dualistic way of operating. Dualism/discrimination is useful in our daily lives, we don’t aim to abandon the ability to discriminate pain from pleasure, helpful from harmful, etc. BUT

There is a non-dualistic way to relate to the world, to our lives, as well. We can experience the world more directly and intimately, recognizing that life just is what it is. The only reason we feel tormented when we experience pain, or see our loved ones suffer, or perceive the world as a cold and unjust place, or see evil triumph over good, is because of our expectations things should have turned out otherwise.

We can, and should, work and hope for happiness and justice and the triumph of good over evil. Such intentions and activities are about the future, and our best bodhisattva response to the situation. But the torment based on expectations about how things should have turned out up until now is entirely unnecessary and destructive.

Do you understand what I’m saying here? This is very tricky. People always want to cling to one side of a duality or another. We conclude one of two things: 1) we should dwell in anger and anguish when we witness the suffering and injustice caused by greed, hate, and delusion, because that anger and anguish is what will compel us to respond or act ethically, or 2) we should give up our expectations and be untroubled by the world (and, therefore, not bother to Take Action to help alleviate suffering for self and others).

The bodhisattva way is dynamic path that refuses to be caught in either extreme, and this is very important to keep in mind while Bearing Witness. The myriad causes and conditions of the past have resulted in the current situation. It is a waste of time and energy to wring our hands about how we shouldn’t have found ourselves in a world full of things like racial oppression, gender violence, or ecological destruction. Our hearts may break as we Bear Witness, and righteous anger may spur us into Taking Action, but this is very different than being paralyzed, depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed because our expectations about how things should have turned out otherwise.

I didn’t have time before recording this episode to find a traditional Buddhist reference for you, but I was taught that a bodhisattva is able to function so energetically and skillfully because she “puts aside grief for the world.” This isn’t to say grief doesn’t have its place – and it can figure quite centrally, at times, in our Bearing Witness practice – but ultimately we don’t want to be too saddened and shocked by the state of a suffering being to help them. The bodhisattva is grounded in something deeper, more stable, and formless than a view of how good must always triumph over evil. I’ve also heard it said that the world is the bodhisattva’s “playground,” suggesting a lightheartedness in the midst of this incredibly serious work of saving all sentient beings!

How we might Bear Witness to the world’s suffering but still maintain the joyful effort, or virya, of a bodhisattva is a koan… our spiritual practice doesn’t give us pat answer or an easy solution to this, but it may help encourage us to know this is the ideal when we’re Bearing Witness, so we can aspire to keep our hearts open without burning out.

 


Endnote

[1] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. For an online translation see https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html

 

Picture Credit

href=”https://pixabay.com/users/balouriarajesh-6205857/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=5051770″>Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay

 

159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony
161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death
Share
Share