I know how to bear witness to individual suffering. Tell me your story, and I most often can hold compassionate space for it. I was a volunteer rape crisis counselor several years ago, and we were trained in non-reactive, compassionate listening. You give people power when you let them have their reactions without adding your own.
But I feel powerless -- defeated -- by stories of large-scale suffering.
My friend Josh Pawelek talked recently about bearing witness at the county jails in Arizona where those accused of being illegal immigrants are held -- in tents where the temperatures reach 140 degrees during the day, with severely limited access to water, and little ability to move around. Josh, who is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, which my family attends, described attending a General Assembly in Arizona of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The participants heard from those affected by Arizona's strict anti-immigration laws and stood outside one of the jail camps.
On the final day, a man stood outside of the meeting place with a sign asking: UUs, what have you done? Their presence had not changed any of the conditions in Arizona, he said silently.
Bearing witness is a practice of patience. There is no immediate gratification. But there is an increase in awareness, in connections among groups with similar aspirations, in energy seeking an answer to the situation.
When I hear the words "bearing witness," I think of the Zen Peacemakers. The founder, Bernie Glassman, has run Bearing Witness retreats at Auschwitz for 17 years, where the participants meditate, chant the names of the dead, and conduct services in various religious traditions.
Another friend of mine described being in New York City at the time of the Stonewall riots and the birth of the gay rights movement. Although he's a not a person who seeks the spotlight, he marched, uncomfortably, in the first small gay pride parades -- only a small number of people marched and mostly tourists watched, he said. But if brave people had not marched in those first small parades, there wouldn't be huge celebrations today.
Awareness can lead to acceptance. Seeing what is wrong can lead to change. Maybe it can't be made right -- because who can agree on what right is? -- but suffering can be eased. Change doesn't happen unless you lay the groundwork for change.
The answer for me is to be aware of the mass suffering, not to ignore it on the grounds that it's too much for me to take in and I can't have an effect. It's disheartening to me that situations like the desert prisons exist, like the systemic rape of boys at Penn State, and are allowed to exist. How do people let this happen? Why do they treat people this way?
All beings want to be happy. And if they see someone else as a threat to their happiness or safety, they see a threat -- not a person.
It reminds me to watch for ways I d ehumanize peoplein my own life. The loud phonetalker is a human. The pair who stop to chat in the grocery store aisle are people, longing to connect. The cashier is making a living.
What we're bearing witness to, all the time, is the humanity of others.
It's really pretty simple: The more people you know, the more stories of suffering you hold in your heart. The more heartbreak you can hold in your heart and still function, the more you know what awakening is about. What a beautiful pain to know and love people. Sashtri Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence ProjectMay I be a protector of those without one -
a guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge a boat and a ship for all
who wish to cross the water!
May I be an island for those who seek one
and a lamp for those desiring light!
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
and a servant to those in need.
May I be a wishing jewel a magic vase
a great mantra and potent medicine,
May I be a wish-fulfilling tree and
a cow of plenty for the world!
Just like the great elements such as earth
enduring as space itself,
May I always support the life
of boundless untold beings!
And until they pass beyond pain may I also be
the source of life for all the realms of varied
beings that reach unto the ends of space!
Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva