What to do when we respond to the suffering of others with feeling powerless and guilty?

A student writes:

The apramanas practice can bring overwhelming feelings of being responsible and yet the powerlessness, of guilt, shame and other unhelpful responses. Starting from where we find ourselves right now, how could we orientate our thoughts to avoid such a self-centred reaction?

Lama Shenpen Responds:

This is such an important question for so many people. I think the problem arises from approaching the whole thing from a Western cultural point of view. We value a sense of social responsibility and abhor hypocrisy and self-deception.

We tend to believe in just this one life we are in now and that we have to solve the world’s problems and create a just and egalitarian society – since this is a democracy and we have freedom of speech we are all responsible for bringing this about.

It is all very noble but is it realistic?  This is not to say that all these ideals are not worth fighting for but it’s a question of where to focus our energy.  None of us can accomplish all this single-handedly and to do it as a society would require the right circumstances to come about all at the same time – it may happen one day but that won’t solve the problem of unhappiness and suffering unless we can solve the problem within our own hearts and minds – our clinging on to a false version of reality that cuts us off from our True Self each other and the world in general.

This takes a lot of thinking about.  We probably need convincing that there is more to all this than just the problems of this life. This is where the Vaster Vision becomes so important.  The idea of an Enlightened Society is all very well but that level of co-operation from enough people is going to be tough and might never happen. In the meantime what can happen is that we all manage to draw nearer to understanding the cause of suffering and the root cause of suffering.  This is where I find myself going when I feel the sense of overwhelm at all the suffering in the world.

As I often say – my Tibetan friends think in terms of the sufferings of the six realms of samsara and from that perspective the human realm has nothing to compare with the sufferings of the hells and hungry ghosts – it gives me a perspective on suffering that is at the same time so vast that it defies imagination and yet so practical it leaves me feeling empowered rather than overwhelmed – it adds fuel to my Bodhichitta motivations and galvanises my pranidhanas [aspirational/wishing prayers] and meditation practice.

It even makes my every little action to try to relieve the sufferings of others feel more meaningful in light of the bigger picture.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

Read more student’s questions about practising the Apramanas and on Love and Compassion HERE.

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