“Joyful participation in the sorrows of life.”
This Buddhist teaching is a powerful antidote to the spiritual desolation that has plagued me of late. So much in my life is up for review. I’m approaching the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death (my father died two years ago), when I left my job as a journalist to pursue seminary study. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve loved the learning, but I can’t say it’s brought me closer to God. On the contrary, I feel alienated from my faith. The attempt to grasp the nature of God through reason alone is bound to fail, despite our long Western history of striving. The spiritual practices that have kept me grounded in a more intuitive approach have more or less fallen by the wayside. I could force myself to pick them back up but that feels artificial to me at this time. I’m wandering in a land of not knowing and I sense the need to allow myself to be there: Real faith, if it comes again, will come through letting go of what I’ve known before.
This brings me back to joyful participation in the sorrows of life, the Buddha’s prescription for meaningful living. I need a prescription to follow right now. The sorrows of life are all around us, there is no denying. In my current experience, there is this: A hospice patient dying in a nursing home, a friend facing a debilitating disease, a three-year-old nephew diagnosed with brain cancer, a teenage friend attempting suicide. All these particulars clamor for attention against the backdrop of global suffering caused by war, famine, poverty, environmental disaster, and disease.
And there is this: The flash of a red cardinal against the lingering patches of snow. My dog’s wagging excitement as I take her for a walk. Breath moving in and out of my body. The warmth of the late winter sun on my face. And this: The sweetness of the dying hospice patient’s smile. The strength with which my friend faces the diagnosis of her disease. Extended family rallying to support my nephew’s surgery. Friends and family coming together to help my teenage friend heal.
Some of the most tender moments I’ve experienced were at my Mom’s bedside during those last hard months. The dreams I had right after she died were suffused with joy. There’s something that makes life worth living, whether we know what it is or not. Sometimes it’s glimpsed the most deeply in the midst of our pain. Other times, it’s here for the taking, it we will only see.