By Deb Avery
Helen Keller once said, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”
When I feel the pain, injustice and suffering of the world on a deep, visceral level, I remember this quote and take comfort in the hope that it offers.
I feel deeply the pain of those around me; humans, animals, trees—the Earth itself. Following an eclectic (although mostly Buddhist) lifestyle, I am often misunderstood in my small community in the rural South. I am an empath, or HSP (Highly Sensitive Person). But to most of the people in my small town, I am simply, “that nice, but kinda crazy lady, that lives near the creek.”
I take it in stride. I’ve been called worse.
To me, I am simply open—openhearted, open minded and open to all the possibilities in life.
As a child I remember the confusing jumble of emotions and empathy flowing over and through me. In my mind, the animals were no different than myself. We were all living beings. I loved, they loved. I liked to play, they liked to play. I sensed their emotions and feelings, as I felt they did mine.
I still, to this day, have an intense bond with them—with all of nature.
However, these feelings of oneness, of sensing others suffering, can become overwhelming at times. The day the loggers came and massacred the oaks, sweet gum, pines and poplars on the property that backs up to mine, I could feel the pain and sorrow of the trees as the chainsaw cut unmercifully into their flesh. They severed them from the vital roots that had sustained them for so many years of growth, support and communication with the world around them.
I stood by helplessly and felt the knowing—the sharing of the horror—that the other trees and the whole woodland, felt.
The atmosphere was thick with suffering, fear, and despair. Today, several years after the massacre, even with new growth, it still looks like a graveyard with the bones of the once beautiful, living beings lying scattered, broken and abandoned.
This sense of feeling can make it difficult to sleep some nights when I can deeply sense the suffering of the animals in the meat industry—an industry where countless animals suffer everyday before being viciously tortured and killed. Because of our insatiable appetites for meat here in the US, the sheer numbers of animals killed daily does not allow time for humane slaughter, if there is such a thing in the first place. It has become a chamber of horrors for animals of every kind.
It is especially difficult for those of us who love animals as fellow beings on this Earth who have just as much right to be here as we ourselves.
But the empathy extends further still. Ever since I was a child. I have been able to walk into a room full of people and immediately feel the sorrow, pain, fears, hatred and every other range of emotion, of those in the room with me. It was very frightening as a child and easy to confuse their vibes with my own.
Through meditation and relaxation techniques, I have learned to filter out most of the emotional noise that surrounds me, but it is still possible to get lost in the flood of feelings that seem to hit from every direction when in a crowd.
Yet, if I am to be the truly awakened, compassionate and caring person that I strive to be, I cannot close my heart to others. I must teach myself to remain calm, caring and peaceful among all the chaos around me. I must learn to bear witness to all that is—joy and suffering—without letting it destroy my own equanimity.
This can be difficult at times, especially if I’m going through a difficult situation myself.
Depression is more common for those of us who feel so deeply. And I have stared over into the brink of the abyss. It saw my face, as I did its. I knew that if I wanted to keep my heart open, I had to find a way to keep from tipping over the edge into bitterness, fear and anger. I had to find a way to anchor myself. If I did not, I would fall into despair’s massive maw and be devoured.
I wish I could say that I had an ah-ha moment, or a tragic situation that changed how I viewed world suffering, but the simple fact is this; through meditation, compassion, and being in the present moment, I leaned to just be with what is. I learned over several years to stop trying not to feel so much.
I surrendered to the nature of my being.
What I found was that it’s not only okay to feel deeply, it is actually a gift. As I learned to sit with my feelings for longer and longer periods of time, I realized that it was I who was causing even more suffering for myself by trying to resist my way of being. Slowly, over a lot of time, meditation and patience, I grasped that I needed to accept that yes, there is suffering in the world, and no, I won’t always be able to do anything to change that.
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I mean, just accept that you can’t save every animal, forest, or person starving and in pain in the world. Actually it is that simple, but it takes a lot of practice to reach this place of total acceptance.
But there I sat. Then I sat some more.
Eventually I reach an understanding. If I could accept the suffering, it was possible to reach a place of peace with what is. It is in this place of peace that I learned to transform all the negative emotions associated with suffering and to replace them with love, hope and being with what is.
It was only at this point, sitting in meditation and being with what is, that I felt the bitterness, anger, and helplessness being transformed into loving kindness and healing energy. After that it was simply a matter of releasing this back out into the world.
This is how I learned that I can help every living being on this Earth who is suffering. I can do this by sending out loving, healing energy instead of anger, fear and negative emotions.
This practice of transformation helped me understand that feeling deeply is not a curse.
It is one of the best gifts I have ever received.
Editor: Dana Gornall