Personal and Collective Suffering

In our meditation practice we often emphasize exploring our inner, personal experience. Through our practice we begin to open to the personal suffering that each of us experiences based on the conditioned patterns of our lives. Yet as our exploration of our personal suffering deepens, a question can naturally arise: “How can this practice help me deal with the broader suffering of the world?” 

Can we use this same practice to meet and explore suffering that is happening on a larger scale?  With racism, war, famine, global warming, religious persecution?   There is, of course, a lot of personal suffering in conjunction with these events, but there is also what we could call a collective suffering, which is broader than the suffering of a single individual.  Can our practice help us to transform such collective suffering?

I would like to offer some reflections about how our practice might support transformation around one issue that has been prominent in the news recently, that of racism.  For many people of color in our country, the suffering of racism is a daily experience.  For many white people in our country, the suffering of racism may seem abstract, not relevant to their personal experience, invisible or easy to ignore.   And becoming aware of what we typically don’t see is one of the functions of mindfulness. 

In meditation practice, as we explore personal suffering our eyes start to open to the depths of ignorance and delusion that perpetuate that suffering.  For example, before I started mindfulness practice, I considered myself so capable and healthy, I never expected to find a thread of self-hatred in my mind. After I began meditating I started to see this pattern of self-hatred, and it surprised me how much ignorance and delusion had obscured it in the past.  

As we open to and begin to be aware of parts of ourselves that we have ignored or repressed, we might think that mindfulness practice is making things worse!  But opening to experience that has been repressed paves the way toward transformation.  Our first response might be confusion, anger or fear: we don’t like it, and we don’t want to experience it.  We might even think that mindfulness is causing the problem.  Yet if we stick with the exploration, we see instead that we are opening to something that has been operating subconsciously.  Now that we are aware of it,  delusion can no longer run the show, and the wisdom that grows through awareness helps to heal and transform what has been repressed.

Analogously, in our collective community we can also explore separation, ignorance, and repression. One aspect of the collective suffering around racism is a separation into us and them.  For some, this separation creates a distance that allows them to feel what is happening to “those other people” is not important for themselves, a sense that “it is their problem, not mine.”   For example, those not living in Ferguson might feel the events there don’t have a direct impact on their lives.  Such separation and distance allow people to ignore the issues of others, keeping those issues at a comfortable remove.

In exploring collective suffering, I think the first thing we need to recognize is that some people in our communities feel or express the suffering more clearly than others.  When there are divisions into us and them, one group is usually more dominant: having more power and privilege than the other group.  For those in a dominant group, the advantages of their position are often invisible.  For example, many white people would not be afraid if approached by a police officer while filling up their car at a gas station. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even notice the lack of fear. On the other hand, an African-American may feel unsafe in the same situation, given the recent shootings of African-Americans at gas stations. The lack of fear that white people may have in such a situation can be considered an invisible advantage.  Many such invisible advantages and disadvantages delineate the racial divide, creating stark differences in the experience between people.  Those in an advantaged group often don’t actively feel the collective suffering, while those without power or privilege feel the full brunt of the suffering of oppression.

Much as the ignorance of unawareness fuels repression of parts of our own psyche , the dynamic of racial separation and oppression is also fueled by ignorance.  Those who are not experiencing the collective suffering are in what we might call a state of collective ignorance.  This ignorance is a form of delusion, which is all the more powerful because it is shared ignorance: people tend to spend time with others who share their world view, creating the illusion that this world view is reality, rather than cultural construction.

As we turn towards the racial divides that exist in our communities, those associated with the dominant group may think that noticing the divisions somehow creates them.  Similar to the process of recognizing the repression and division in our own psyches, at first we may wonder why it is helpful to be aware of the collective divides.  One result of becoming aware of the divisions is that those with power and privilege start to feel the suffering of the separation.  Awareness of the separation does not create this suffering.  Rather it reveals suffering that is already present in the community as a whole.

Recognizing the suffering of the racial divide can give rise to many reactions.  We may experience confusion, anger, shame, or denial.  Instead of retreating back into the ignorance of separation, right here we can use our practice to explore those reactions. There is something for each of us to work with, personally.   So the collective and the personal integrate and inform each other.

As more people open to the suffering of the racial divide, there seems be an interesting dynamic at work.  When more people in our communities hold this collective suffering, the suffering tends to decrease for those who had felt it most strongly.  Staying open to that suffering is a challenge for those of us who have had the privilege of ignorance.  Yet staying open to suffering is exactly what mindfulness practice asks of us.  Our work begins right there; to allow the wisdom that comes with opening to suffering to help inform a wise response, rather than reacting out of our habitual and delusional modes. 

Arthur C. Clarke, in the novel Childhood’s End, offers a relevant parable. He tells the story of an intelligent extraterrestrial race that have come to planet Earth to evaluate the evolution of human consciousness.  They find humanity has a capacity for an evolved consciousness, but that it needs a little help.  So they create the conditions for any pain that is inflicted on another to be felt equally by all who witness it.   This has an immediate impact:  stopping violent, oppressive actions, simply because the suffering is felt by everyone. 

To transform the mentality of us and them, we have to open to the suffering of others.  When we truly feel their suffering with open-heartedness, and not pity, shame, confusion or anger, change must and will follow.