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Spiritual Activism

Open to Suffering: Feeling Fear
By Carla Goldstein, Director, co-founder Omega Women's Leadership Center

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8. Open to Suffering

We open our hearts to suffering rather than isolate ourselves from it so that we can cultivate self-understanding, empathy with others, and benefit from the wisdom that we gain from seeing reality as it is.

When I was a kid scary TV shows sent me racing to change the channel. The eerie music and sense of dread terrified me. To this day I go for the safety of chick flicks, romance, and comedy – the feel good movies. The real world is scary enough; fantasy danger does not float my boat!

TV shows aside, struggling with my fear has been a lifetime challenge, as I suspect it is for most humans. Until about a decade ago, the way I coped with the world’s lurking dangers was to create an illusionary safety zone. I had an “over there” mentality. Danger was across the street, on the other side of the country, on a different continent, anywhere but in my own midst. Suffering was for someone else to bear and someone else to cause.

It is human nature to avoid things that are unpleasant or painful. Avoidance tactics take a more solid and habituated shape over time, acting cumulatively like a hardened shell – protecting not only from pain, but also from the wide range of human emotions -- including joy! The shell can also block our view and keep us from seeing things clearly.

If one isn’t dedicated to seeing things as they truly are, including the good, bad, and the mysterious, illusion and faulty premises can rule the day. It takes a commitment and practice to opening up to the full reality of how suffering presents in this world, and what our role and responsibilities are in relationship to suffering.

Paradoxically, though not uncommon, my own suffering through painful situations like losing my loved ones, grappling with a life-threatening illness, and living close to ground zero during 9/11, increased my capacity to open up to the suffering of others. Grieving rather than avoiding grief became a gateway to my own compassion. My suffering gave me a fearlessness that took me by surprise, and allowed me to look more closely into the face of suffering – my own, and everyone else’s.

My growing capacity to see into suffering has allowed me to come face to face with how I take part in creating my own suffering and other people’s suffering – directly and indirectly, and has prompted me into a new kind of activism. On the personal level, I am working on creating new habits of thought, and taking greater self-care. In thinking about my care of others, I am examining all the ways my behavior or my inaction impacts others and contributes to suffering.

I am consuming less, making more conscious purchases, changing the ratio of my spending and giving more away, not judging others as much, and being far more mindful about what I say about anyone or any group. I travelled to Rwanda this spring to be witness to the wake of genocide, and opened myself to the pain and grief of all holocausts (see link about this trip). All of these actions have opened up a deep feeling of connectedness to all that is, since I am no longer averting my eyes to the suffering in the world to avoid my own pain.

To my surprise, I have begun to be drawn towards suffering in a new way. My desire to be an effective activist is leading me further down the root of suffering. I want to become more knowledgable about its source. More and more, I am feeling my own fear and using my empathy muscle to feel the fear others. This practice is converting aversion into seeing, seeing into compassion, and compassion into more skillful action in the world.

At a recent Omega Institute program, Pema Chodron, one of the most masterful Buddhist teachers of our time, shared that in the Tibetan tradition when people are about to die they try to open to as much suffering as possible to bring with them so as to reduce the suffering of others.

Pema shared with us that we can help alleviate the suffering of others, and open or own capacities to experience a sense of joy and connection by practicing something called Tonglen, a form of meditation. For a wonderful explanation of Tonglen and practice tools see http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/tonglen1.php.

Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External Affairs and Director of The Women’s Institute at Omega. Carla is an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women's rights, poverty, public health and social justice. She has contributed to over 100 city, state and federal laws. Carla has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related to women’s empowerment and activism. Prior to joining the Omega Institute, Carla was the VP for Public Affair sat Planned Parenthood of New York City where she directed the agency's advocacy and strategic communications work. She also served as the founding director of the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. For eight years Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College, where she taught, “Law and Social Justice,” a course designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,” a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative ways that align with their values and lives.

Join Carla Goldstein at Omega's first Women & Power Retreat, July 8-10, 2011. The weekend retreat features a daylong experiential session with author and life coach Martha Beck, and keynote talks from Elizabeth Lesser, Sapphire, and Mallika Dutt, and offers a chance for women to slow down, go within, and learn to access our inner strength and full aliveness. Click here for more information

Founded in 1977, Omega is the nation's largest holistic learning center whose mission is provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit, providing hope and healing for individuals and society. Every year more than 20,000 people attend workshops, retreats, and conferences on its 195-acre campus in the countryside of Rhinebeck, New York, and at other sites around the country.

The Women’s Institute, a dynamic new component of Omega, is dedicated to empowering women around the world. It has grown out of the momentum created by the annual Women and Power conferences that Omega Institute has presented in partnership with V-Day since 2002. It seeks to sustain throughout the year the community and inspiration generated at the conferences. Women’s deep wisdom is essential to the creation of a more sustainable and loving culture in every facet of life, from the personal to the political. The Women’s Institute provides opportunities for women and men to inspire and strengthen their visions and authentic voices through unique learning and community building experiences.

For more information, visit www.eomega.org.



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