191 – Contemplating the Future: The Middle Way Between Dread and Hope
198 - Renunciation as an Act of Love

Sometimes there is no avoiding painful situations, whether the difficulty is arising in our own life or from witnessing suffering in the world around us. How can we respond to troubling conditions with generosity and compassion, but also without being overwhelmed? I discuss the Zen approach of being with the reality of situations – neither avoiding the pain, nor identifying with it.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Witnessing or Experiencing Painful Situations
The Practice of Bearing Witness
Bearing Witness to the Suffering in Ukraine
The Extremes of Avoidance and Identification when Facing Painful Situations
The Middle Way: Neither Avoidance not Identification


Witnessing or Experiencing Painful Situations

Like many people in the world, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be with the reality of painful situations lately. It’s difficult to witness the Russian invasion of Ukraine – to stay informed, but not get sucked into what has come to be called “doom scrolling,” where you read or listen to dire reports one after the other, held captive by a sense of urgency and horror.

Every major news source is, naturally, focusing heavily on the war. The front page of an online newspaper that usually contains 30 headlines on 25 different topics now offers about 30 headlines on the war alone. Pictures and stories of the suffering in Ukraine are heartbreaking, and fears of the escalation of violence – with the specter of nuclear warfare ever-present – are well-founded. It can be easy to get obsessed with moment-by-moment reports about the war, and to think about it a lot. And, frankly, that kind of obsession feels somewhat appropriate, given what the Ukrainian people are going through and the severity of the conflict.

At the same time, putting ourselves through a daily emotional wringer by dwelling on the war can get exhausting and, for most of us, doesn’t have much of an ongoing impact on our actions because there is so little we can do to help at the moment. One approach to coping with the situation is to avoid the news and focus on other things. Sometimes this is necessary, of course, but as an overall strategy it doesn’t give us much of an opportunity to practice wisdom or compassion. Fortunately, there is a way to face the reality of painful situations in a centered and balanced way, so we can keep our hearts and minds open but maintain some perspective and remain strong.

We can practice this approach – neither avoiding the pain, nor identifying with it – when witnessing something like a war from afar. Then, when we face painful situations in our own life, we will benefit from what we have learned – especially when facing conditions we can’t escape simply by avoiding the news.


The Practice of Bearing Witness

To begin our exploration of being with painful situations, I’m going to lead you through a short practice of Bearing Witness to the suffering in the Ukraine. I’ve discussed Bearing Witness at length in other episodes, including 127 – Bearing Witness: Exposing Ourselves to the Suffering in the World, 137 – Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice when the World is (Literally) on Fire, and 160 – Bearing Witness without Burning Out. The practice involves deliberately and mindfully exposing yourself to suffering in some way, for the purpose of witnessing what is happening, and letting yourself be touched by it. Bearing Witness is a useful step when we’re dealing with painful situations, because before we can learn to be with the reality of what’s happening, we have to turn and face it.

The idea with Bearing Witness is that you set boundaries around the practice, making it something conscious you are doing for a set period of time. Letting yourself feel empathy and compassion when facing suffering requires effort, energy, and attention. You’ll need to balance Bearing Witness with Taking Care of your life and responsibilities, and, if the opportunity presents itself, with Taking Action that might help alleviate some of the suffering you witness. However, during the practice of Bearing Witness itself, you set aside any questions of how you can or should respond in terms of action. You also set aside any attempts to blame or problem solve, which are just mental actions that can similarly distract us from simply facing and absorbing the reality of what’s happening.

If you’re able to be seated, or be in a quiet place, during this short practice, you might want to do that. As I speak, just let the words wash over you. Let them touch you, if you can, and don’t worry about what kind of emotional response you should or should not be having. You may or may not find this particular verbal exercise effective for Bearing Witness, so keep in mind that the practice can take many forms, including silent reflection, thoughtful reading of the news, talking to people involved or affected, reading informative books or articles, watching relevant movies or documentaries, journaling, art, or music.

For example, I play the accordion and recently learned a Polish/Ukrainian tune, Hej Sokoly, a love song celebrating the beauty of Ukraine. When I play it, it helps me feel emotionally and physically connected to the people of Ukraine and everyone affected by the war. I don’t mean to suggest that my playing benefits those who are suffering or that it constitutes Taking Action, but it is an effective way of Bearing Witness – and whether opening my heart and mind in this way ends up being beneficial in the long run is impossible to quantify.


Bearing Witness to the Suffering in Ukraine

To begin Bearing Witness, then, let us imagine ourselves in the same place as the Ukrainian people (if you are reading this, pause after each sentence, close your eyes, and try to imagine the situation being described):

Our country is being invaded by a global superpower with nuclear weapons, a country from which we long struggled to achieve independence. Our democracy, like all democracies, is imperfect, but it is ours, and this is our country.

Our lives are being destroyed… Just a couple of weeks ago, we were going about our lives – working, spending time with our families, going grocery shopping, meeting friends for coffee. Children were studying, we were playing with our pets and listening to music and taking walks when the weather was nice.

Then we were invaded. Each of us has had to scramble to comprehend this was really happening to us. The threat of this has loomed over us for a long time, but the sound of air raid sirens and falling bombs has brought the reality home.

Each of us has struggled not to panic as we face decisions: Abandon our homes and everything we have, leaving everything behind knowing it could be destroyed, or end up inside a conquering nation that tells its press what to say and imprisons dissidents. Or flee, ending up as refugees, wandering with little or nothing to our names, through other nations who feel ambivalent or resentful about our presence. Do we stay and fight, facing the possibility of a drawn-out, miserable armed conflict? Women and children can flee, but men under 60 cannot, so we face our families being torn apart, saying goodbye to our husbands, sons, brothers, and wondering whether they will be killed or maimed in the fighting.

It is difficult to believe this is happening to us. We hope beyond hope that other nations in the world will come to our aid, because the likelihood we can repel Russia definitively seems so small. But we know other countries want to avoid getting involved, want to avoid serious disruptions to their own economies and political positions. We feel alone and in despair, even when we remain defiant.

Let us also imagine ourselves in the place of the Russian soldiers in Ukraine:

Many of us were unclear that we were going to be asked to conduct an invasion. We wonder what we are doing here but must follow orders. We were told that the Ukrainians would celebrate our arrival and view us as liberators, but instead they ambush and fight us. To refuse orders, to simply return home, is not an option for us. And so we, too, also experience fear, injury and death.

Turn the light within yourself, now, and be mindful of what you are experiencing. Take a few deep breaths.

Just notice whatever may have arisen for you while Bearing Witness, or may still be arising: Sadness, heartbreak, grief, overwhelm, despair… perhaps your mind flinching from truly imagining yourself in the place of the people of Ukraine…

Or perhaps anger, outrage, blame, agitation… mentally reaching for what you can do, what should be done… trying to make sense of this, of what went wrong, what things in the world need to be corrected so this kind of thing doesn’t happen…

Maybe you try to Bear Witness to this situation but there is too much going on in your own life right now to spare the attention and energy.

Just notice all of this.


The Extremes of Avoidance and Identification when Facing Painful Situations

Whether the source of the pain is inside or out, our way of being, our living, is compromised as long as we try to avoid it or push it away. We may not notice this fact until we start practicing, until we learn to be mindful of our own body-mind. Then we may notice tightness, aversion, blunted senses, and constrained compassion. We may feel cognitive dissonance, which is stress and discomfort we experience when our actions are out of accord with what we believe to be true; in the case of avoidance, we’re aware of the pain at some level but we’re acting as if it doesn’t exist. We may also experience a vague sense of guilt for avoiding the suffering of others, or find ourselves taking a defensive posture when the difficult topic comes up.

It’s fortunate that modern psychology has made a good case against using avoidance, denial, or suppression as long-term strategies. Usually, whatever we’re trying to avoid doesn’t go away, and whatever painful feelings or troubling thoughts that arise in association remain unprocessed and undealt with. Avoidance is like covering a wound but never letting it heal. Of course, just because we know avoidance isn’t great for our long-term health and happiness doesn’t mean we don’t readily default to this approach. Turning to face a painful situation can be troubling, confusing, frustrating, overwhelming, and exhausting, among other things.

The other extreme of avoidance is identification with a painful situation. We may be utterly well-meaning as we turn to face the reality of what’s going on, but after Bearing Witness we add an additional level of self-referential complication to whole affair. A terrible, tragic event becomes a terrible tragic event I am witnessing. Painful feelings become painful feelings I am having. Terrible injustice in the world becomes terrible injustice in my world. A sense of grief or sadness at the lack of an easy solution becomes I should have the answers or at least know who is to blame or it’s not my responsibility.

If avoidance is holding our sense of self apart from painful situations, identifying with painful situations is pouring our sense of self into them. In the Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow, the Buddha describes what I’m calling “identification” as feeling things like pleasure and pain “as though joined with [them].”[i] He says (this translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.” [ii]

As I’ve mentioned before on the podcast, the Buddha’s observation also applies to emotional pain. We can do the very same thing with emotional or psychological pain – experiencing it in a raw and basic way, but then adding a self-referential layer of resistance, fear, anxiety, anger, etc. about the painful experience. We rapidly weave a narrative about the source of our pain and how it relates to us. “Why me?” “How am I going to cope?” “What if this gets worse?” “What can I do to protect myself?” When we identify with the pain, we generally make it worse. As the Buddha says, now we feel two pains, not just one. In addition, our narrative can end up fixing the pain in place and preventing relief when the situation that is troubling us changes for the better.

If you find yourself identifying with painful situations or feelings, it’s important not to then get caught up in self-criticism. We live from the perspective of the self, and we evolved a powerful sense of self-concern in order to survive. We also need to make decisions, so at some point it’s time to think about how our “self” can and should relate to a painful situation. Even as we’re doing this, however, it’s possible to avoid shooting ourselves with a second arrow.


The Middle Way: Neither Avoidance not Identification

The Buddhist Middle Way means not getting stuck in either side of a duality, not getting stuck in either side of two extremes. It’s a third way, a third option. In the case of dealing with painful situations, the middle way means allowing ourselves to experience the pain without identifying with it.

Each of us has to figure out for ourselves what this middle way feels like. It’s difficult to describe; words tend to fall short, because this is a subtle, subjective, very personal experience. The key is to be present and real while simply refraining from falling into either side of the duality. We allow reality to flow while neither pushing things away, nor grasping on to them. Our immediate experience of a painful situation is, pretty much by definition, painful. But there’s a kind of pain that’s okay. It’s the kind of pain that’s part of being alive, the kind of pain the reflects our connections with other beings. This kind of pain ebbs and flows. It can teach us, soften us, humble us, and motivate us. It’s very different from the pain of the second arrow, which is a clenching, stuck kind of pain.

In a sense, we don’t have to do anything in order to be with a painful situation. We’re just facing reality and giving ourselves time to absorb what’s happening along with our reactions to it. As we take some deep breaths, we allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. We notice what thoughts arise in our mind and let them pass without grasping on to them, judging them, or pushing them away. We set our intention on endurance of the pain and discomfort – endurance meaning to sustain without impairment or yielding, to bear without resistance, or to bear with patience and tolerance.[iii] This requires courage, but over time we can build a sense of confidence that we can weather pain and discomfort and survive.

If we can allow our body-mind to settle, relax, open up, and face the pain despite our fears about what it might to do us or mean to us, we may be able to touch our simplest, most fundamental and honest feelings. These are the feelings that lie underneath our fear, anger, anxiety, and reactivity: Compassion, empathy, humility, vulnerability, sadness, grief, goodwill, and generosity. From this undefended place sincere prayer may arise, whether you’re a theist or not. To use the example of the war in Ukraine, in the midst of our troubled and agitated reactions we connect with a sincere and simple wish: May the people of Ukraine have their country back soon, with a minimum of suffering, bloodshed, and destruction. May Russia experience strong international pressure and find a way to save face but also withdraw completely from Ukrainian territory. May all who are impacted by this war find peace and freedom from suffering quickly.

We enact the middle way of being with whenever we sit zazen. We sit upright, neither pushing things away nor grasping them. Shikantaza in particular is excellent practice for learning to be with, because we do not attempt to shut our minds off from what’s happening around or within us. If we are stressed or in pain, we sit with being stressed and in pain. We don’t try to change that or make it go away. At the same time, we don’t hold on to the stress or pain or create narratives about it. (At least, we try not to!)

The reality of this moment is just what it is. The Buddha never said this moment would never be painful. But there is a way to experience even pain without entirely losing our sense of perspective, without compounding the pain by tensing up around it. It’s not easy, but when we can do this, it greatly improves the quality of our life and allows us to keep our hearts and minds open to the suffering of others.



[i] “Sallatha Sutta: The Arrow” (SN 36.6), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html .

[ii] Ibid

[iii] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/endure


Picture Credit


Image by bookdragon from Pixabay



191 – Contemplating the Future: The Middle Way Between Dread and Hope
198 - Renunciation as an Act of Love