Seven Things to Do when Samsara Gets You Down

It is only natural to feel shock, sadness, and dismay at the terrorist attacks of September 11, and the events which have followed. Still, it is a little surprising that, as spiritual seekers, we were caught so off guard. After all, have not our greatest teachers been telling us all along that life lived in ignorance of our True Nature is inevitably full of suffering, a vale of tears, a land of exile? What happened on September 11, then, was simply an unusually violent reflection of our fallen condition, which (lest we forget) has produced worse horrors—Bosnia, Rwanda, two world wars, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust, to name but a few of the most recent examples. Welcome to samsara!

What is more surprising, however, is that even now, four months later, so many seekers are still ringing their hands, wondering what to do. Have not these same teachers taught us that all our suffering is rooted in the delusion of self, which gives rise to those afflicted emotions—greed, envy, hatred, and pride—that play out on the stage of history in cycles of oppression, terror, retribution, and war? And have not they also taught us that the only real way to end this suffering is to undertake those spiritual disciplines and practices (self-inquiry, meditation, morality, and devotion) which can dispel our delusion and allow the Selfless Love and Compassion of our True Nature to manifest. What we can do, then, is to roll up our sleeves and start putting these teachings into practice. For example, you can...

1. BEGIN WITH YOURSELF, as the prophet Muhammad said. This is an excellent time to take stock of your life. How much of it do you actually devote to spiritual practices and how much to the pursuit of worldly pleasures? If you are not already practicing on a regular basis, start today. If you are already engaged in practices, renew your commitment to them.

2. DO NO HARM. The great rabbi Hillel was once asked if he could teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot. He replied, What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. The way to "learn" this is to keep those precepts of self-restraint found in all the Great Traditions—not to lie, cheat, steal, commit sexual misdeeds, or otherwise cause harm. If you have no tradition to spell these precepts out for you, make a set of your own.

3. PRACTICE CHARITY. Practicing charity is the first paramita (perfection) of Buddhism, a mitzvah (commandment) in Judaism, one of the seven cardinal virtues of Christianity, and the third pillar of Islam. The reason for this is that, while many people talk about love and compassion, few actually do anything to manifest it. Practicing charity allows you to put your money where your mouth is. If you are not already donating to charitable organizations, choose one or two and begin to do so now. If you are wondering how much to give, take Mother Teresa's advice and give until it hurts.

4. TREAT ALL BEINGS WITH KINDNESS AND COMPASSION. While practicing charity is a good way to begin manifesting love and compassion, what is really required is a fundamental transformation in our outlook on life. Instead of letting others serve you, learn how to serve others, is how Lalleshwari put it. Jesus went even further, saying, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully abuse you and persecute you. This may sound like an impossible ideal, but unless you try it, you will never know. The best thing to do is to start with what is easiest. Find concrete ways to be more helpful to family and friends. Then, make it a point to show kindness and consideration to the strangers in your life—the rude store clerks and harried waitresses. Finally, pick a specific individual you feel animosity toward and experiment with ways to love that person.

5. WORK FOR PEACE BY UPHOLDING JUSTICE. Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers, but there can be no peace without justice. Moreover, upholding justice sometimes requires the use of force—a fact which causes anguish and perplexity for many modern seekers. How can peace ever be won by violent means? This is a valid question, which deserves far more space than we can afford here. For now, suffice it to say that few teachers have ever enjoined absolute pacifism on their followers. The Dalai Lama, for instance, once compared the use of force to very potent medicine which must be applied only as a last resort and only in the proper doses—otherwise, instead of curing an illness, it will make it worse. But whether you are an absolute pacifist or not, the real challenge is to try to right wrongs before force becomes necessary. So, instead of sitting around bemoaning the world's evils, get involved, speak out, write letters, join causes. Make sure, however, that your actions are motivated by compassion not anger, love not outrage. Always seek to persuade rather than vilify, sow harmony rather than discord, unite rather than divide.

6. PRACTICE DETACHMENT FROM THE FRUITS OF YOUR ACTIONS. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna: The wise man surrenders the fruits of his actions and attains perfect peace. The fool acts out of desire; he is attached to the results; his acts imprison him. Planning for the future is essential to the conduct of human life. But if we cling to images of how we want things to turn out, then, when events take a different course, we not only suffer frustration and disappointment, we become distracted from the present reality. Practicing detachment from such images opens our hearts and minds to what is actually occuring so that we can respond appropriately. This is what it means to surrender your own will to the will of the Divine.

7. BE GRATEFUL FOR EVERYTHING—sorrow as well as joy, misfortune as well as good fortune, death as well as life. Indeed, adversity is our best teacher, for nothing brings our hidden attachments and self-centered conditioning more quickly into the light of awareness where they can be seen and surrendered once and for all. Moreover, no matter how painful it may seem, this process of Awakening is, itself, part and parcel of the Great Perfection or Divine Play. So do not turn away from this world, with all its apparent imperfections, searching for something better. Only by facing things as they are can you ever Realize the Truth that the Kingdom of God is already here, and everywhere you look you see nothing but Allah's Face. Welcome to Nirvana! 

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Winter-Spring 2002. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.