writing on suffering and awakening

It’s just his karma, right?

When I see the man sitting in front of Whole Foods, holding a cup out for change, my first instinct is to look away. Why? I don’t want to see his suffering. Hunched over and not making eye contact, he’s still frightening, both because I would rather ignore my guilty urge to do something to help, and because somewhere inside me, I know that it could be me sitting there.

Sometimes, I might try to comfort myself by reminding myself that he’s just living out his karma. His present circumstances are the result of his past actions, maybe even in other lives that he no longer remembers. He’s just experiencing the consequences of some of his more harmful behavior, I tell myself. That's all. No big deal, right? All part of the journey.

But if I’m only looking at it that way, I’m not seeing the whole picture. I may well be right that he’s just living out his karma. But if I’m using that as an excuse to try and ignore his suffering, I’m missing the bigger point. Since there’s no separate self, there’s no separate karma, either. There’s no separate suffering. He and I are interconnected—inter-being, as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it—which makes his karma and my karma one and the same. It’s all just me. It’s all just him. It’s all just you.

I can get a glimpse of this by noticing my feelings when I see him. The discomfort I feel when confronted with his circumstances—that a reminder of our common suffering. I might not want to come into contact with folks who remind me of how painful or difficult the universe can appear, but when I do, I can’t help but react. On some level, I’m affected by what he’s going through, even though I don’t want to be. His suffering and mine are linked.

What can I do? Give him some money, or at least a nod in acknowledgment of our human brotherhood. I like to think there’s room in the system for grace, too, but even grace might need someone to do the legwork.

Or I can ignore him, and feel uncomfortable about that and wonder if he’s going to eat tonight while I cook dinner and tell myself I’ve lived a decent life and deserve my fridge with food in it. Whatever choice I make, I’ll get another chance tomorrow. Neither of us is going anywhere, and I’m not going to run out of opportunities to help others anytime soon (nor stop asking for help, for that matter).

Bodhisattvas pledge to continue to take a human birth until all beings are free. That sounds exhaustingly righteous, but really, it’s more a practical act than a noble one. What other options are there, when there’s really only one of us suffering?

Ian Cooper