writing on suffering and awakening

Truth and reconcilation

My last post shared some thoughts on how to heal the racial divide in America. I want to follow up with a few more. 

Yesterday, my partner showed me a beautiful Oprah interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher. It’s brief and worth watching. During their discussion, he shares how deep listening and communication can end all conflict between people. His message is that if we see someone who is suffering, we can ease their suffering by acknowledging it, and then asking them to share their pain while we listen with an open mind and heart. 

I think this is a simple, practical and powerful approach.

I tend to get defensive when I come across someone in pain. I want to protect myself—to keep their pain from affecting me. My ego can get all wrapped up in this.

For example, if I hear a black person talking about how angry they are with white people or how much they’ve been hurt by racism, my instinct is to push away whatever they’re saying. Don’t put that on me, I think to myself. I haven’t done anything to hurt you. I’m not responsible for racism. I take the whole thing very personally, and feel like I have to defend myself from feeling bad or guilty. I get caught up in the story of black versus white and all the history. This never feels good.

In other words, I end up suffering too, despite my best efforts to avoid it. My suffering and their suffering just end up bouncing back and forth, with each amplifying the other.

But let’s take that same situation, and make it much simplier. In that moment, all that’s really going on is that I’m witnessing another person saying they’re in pain. If I can keep it simple and stay present, as one human being to another, I can acknowledge and listen to their pain without beating myself up. Feelings of all kinds, including guilt, may arise, but I don’t have to take them seriously. 

Indeed, it hurts both of us if I do. Getting hung up on who’s right and who’s wrong, on guilt and innocence and justice, just leads to more conflict. It might feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t make peace. 

What is much more useful is to see both of us as innocent—to forgive ourselves and our fellows, and then do what we can to help. 

When someone is expressing pain or anger of any kind, what they’re really saying is that they feel unloved. I think that’s a feeling everyone can relate to. So by giving them space to share their pain and listening with presence and intention, what we’re doing is showing them love. We’re showing them they’re not alone, and by doing so, we’re helping to heal their wound. It’s really that simple. We’ll still feel pain as our hearts open to them, but it’s the pain of healing, not pointless suffering.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, this approach can be applied to any situation or conflict. White and black, Palestinian and Israeli, Montague and Capulet. If we give each other a little space and attention, we can come together and make a better world.

Ian Cooper