Dukkha - "the Buddhist concept of suffering, a Pali term roughly corresponding to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.” ~Wikipedia
I got on a train to come to New Orleans on that same day that Haiti was devastated by a terrible earthquake. The news came to me in broken bits as I traveled, passing through the landscapes of small American towns, sleeping and awake, checking the Internet on my iPhone in those places where I could get reception. World events seem surreal while moving through time like this, ungrounded and alone. Still the death toll seemed unimaginable, and reminded me of the destruction that nature had inflicted on New Orleans five years ago.
My journey to this strange city I now inhabit was brought on by a personal disaster, one that rocked my inner world and has caused me to feel the deaths of many of my hopes and dreams. I had spent the previous nine months or so of my life in a state of bliss, in love with a woman who I thought I would grow much older with, who embodied so much of what I had been seeking in a relationship. Then one morning I woke up and she had torn herself from my life, for reasons that did not make sense to me. I pleaded and begged her to change her mind but she would not even respond to me at all, leaving my heart devastated and all the plans I had made of moving to New Orleans to be with her in ruins. In the absence of her ability to communicate with me I decided to come here anyway, because I felt the city calling, because I needed an adventure, because I had some small hope she would change her mind.
Upon arriving here I bought an unlimited month of yoga at the Swan River Yoga Studio in order to keep my practice going and to ground myself. New Orleans is where she lives and where we spent some of the best moments of our relationship, so I knew that I would have memories haunting me that I would have to deal with. I knew the yoga would help. In the first class I attended the teacher began by speaking of Haiti, and how disasters of such magnitude are humbling to us. How they make our own troubles seem smaller, and how they give us pause to be thankful for what we have. I had thought of this myself of course, but the mind is so adept at keeping our own drama in the forefront and the greater dramas at bay that it was good to be reminded by someone else.
It is difficult to internalize the suffering of people in other countries who we have little physical connection to. The news is constantly full of stories of death and tragedy, and we necessarily numb ourselves to them in order to be present in our own lives. Yet in our own suffering we can understand the suffering of others. If I did not feel the loss of this relationship so poignantly it would be harder for me to imagine any loss.
One of the reasons I decided to come to New Orleans was because of the loss suffered here. I knew there were many people still recovering from Katrina, and that there was lots of volunteer work to be done still. I had a realization that by helping with this rebuilding I could also help rebuild my own heart. We are all connected in this way, through our ability to hurt so deeply and to long for transcendence.
As I planned my move I connected with Burners Without Borders, an organization related to the Burning Man festival and its concept of a gift economy. At Burning Man there is no exchange of money, people survive in the harsh desert climate by giving and sharing. This opens people’s hearts and builds community. In the aftermath of Katrina the Burners Without Borders formed to help out along the Gulf Coast, applying lessons learned at the festival to devastated communities in need. Since then the organization has spread throughout the world and is involved in many projects. There is still one woman here, an amazing soul named Summer, who is organizing volunteers to help in the Lower Ninth Ward. She is working with a community organization called Lower Ninth Ward Village. I have connected with them and will be volunteering as much as I can while I am here. While I have barely begun, I already feel a sense of being part of something larger than myself. I can already see that this will help to heal me.
We all wish to stem the flow of suffering in our own lives. Some of us deal with it by trying to shut the world out with anger, drugs, television, or feigned indifference. Some turn to organized religion, hoping that there is an afterlife reward for humbling oneself to the proper deity. I believe the true spiritual path calls us to be present in this moment, to experience the sadness of life and to transform it into action. Human civilization’s greatest flaw is our hoarding tendency, our inability to share resources and compassion. We walk around daily looking for compliments or understanding from others, yet are reluctant to give it. We need to overcome our fears of others and the cultural baggage that gives us excuses to turn away from those in need, in order to make ourselves whole and fully human.
If our greatest flaw is greed, then our greatest evolvement is compassion. With the tragedies in Haiti still being revealed, there are fund raising efforts going on everywhere. It is helpful to give money, it makes us feel good about ourselves. Money is very impersonal though, it builds no connection between the giver and receiver. It is easily redirected into the pockets of the greedy. Since most of us can not go to Haiti to volunteer it is still better than doing nothing. If you want to donate I would recommend researching the organizations you are giving to, and trying to ensure your money goes to an honorable organization. Two that I recommend are Food For Life Global (A vegetarian/vegan food relief program) and Doctors Without Borders.
Beyond that I encourage you to help Haiti from within your own community. The beauty of practicing compassion is that it is a renewable energy source. Helping others plants seeds of gratitude that grow compassion in the hearts we have helped. You can start by reaching out to your friends and neighbors, and once you have the strength of community you can organize people into action. Collect clothing or other goods to send to Haiti instead of money. Use your creative energy to imagine ways to help that middlemen will not be able to diminish. Or join with others who have already begun.
We need to move away from the crumbling paradigm of governments and corporations and towards reliance on the people around us. It all starts with each of us, learning to be giving. All the accumulation of material goods and wealth is just building walls around us. It is freeing to take all the things you don’t use and give them away. To give whenever you can, as much as you can. Wether it be time or service, art or love, food or hugs. Build your community, support your neighbors. When the empires fall we will need our communities in order to survive.
The next time you step in dukkha, realize that it is the same dukkha we are all stepping in. Honor your heart and spend a moment with your own sadness. Then breathe in the air that we all share, the air that has been cycled through the lungs of all of the animals and the plants and the oceans. Take a vow to find a way to make the world a better place, to reduce the suffering around you. You are a stone cast into the pond of being, and your actions will ripple out into the world around you. As we build empathy and compassion our own sorrows will diminish, because our lives will serve a greater purpose. It is the true path to liberation.