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facing my inability to make others’ pain go away

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All day long I’ve kept a low profile. When no-one showed up for morning meditation, I sat just long enough for the incense to burn (about half an hour) before going back to bed, fully clothed, to sleep for an hour. Found an email from someone in another city who I’ve been accompanying towards death; his platelet count is down, fear is up — nothing I can do about it. A co-worker shared pain about marital tension– wish I could make it go away. 

As they day unfolds I give a name to this mind state: sadness. Naming things is the minds way of trying to pin down that which defies articulation. It’s problematic in that it leads to mind-games: if “sad,” then “sad about what?” or “why sad?” and off goes the mind looking for causes and explanations. How about “just sad” and admit that I don’t know why. But sad is the word that came up to describe a weight on the chest, a crowding my heart space, and a light pressure below and behind my eyes. 

To kickstart the exploration, I check the etymology of the word: from Latin for sufficient and Sanskrit for insatiable to mean “heavy” and “weary” to “unhappy;” also, according to the dictionary, “steadfast,” “serious,” and “grave.” Do any of these words ring a bell? Weary and grave, yes; unhappy less so.

Lying on the floor, I focus on heaviness in the chest and teariness behind the eyes: away from thinking mind. Relying on the body’s ability to know, I dive into the pool of not-knowing. Throat restricted, limbs heavy, tears. Still no explanation per se, but a gradual lifting of heaviness and loneliness — as the body (the soul?) is finally being heard and cared for.

So it is when I’m with someone who’s “tired of dying” or another whose heart is aching and I realize that there’s nothing I can to do to ameliorate their pain … except to offer whole-hearted attending and non-judging listening.


7 responses »

  1. Beautifully thought out, wonderfully expressed experience of pain/sadness.

    Our presence it usually all that is required.

    I am Love, Jeff

  2. I hear you. To witness suffering and to feel like our hands are tied. The weight of it is wearisome indeed. I guess the “whole-hearted attending” you mention is what I’m trying to learn with my father’s seemingly endless painful slow decline. A way of waiting with someone for the end to come. Thank you…

  3. i’m sure we all have experienced this helpless feeling of wanting to help someone, but knowing we cannot…
    i find when i am the person going through some ‘heart-based stress’, a shocking incident or any other problems, i usually reach out to those around me and talk about what i’m going through; for them they, may wish they could help me but cannot; for me, i find that this is my way of sorting it out, coming to terms within myself of whatever i am currently facing…
    often the issue may be long gone with me, but the other person may unfortunately still carrying some of it for me…

    • Peter,
      a wonderful explanation of your sadness experience and attention to your physical symptoms. I recognize those symptoms and often spend too much energy trying to understand the cause. I am surprised at times when they present themselves apparently “out of the blue”.
      big hug from here.


  4. For me too it is so difficult to not feel impotent and frustrated when I cannot help another with their suffering, pain, sadness. But if I look at my own pain, often all I need is for someone just to be there…to be aware that this is what I am going through – a witness I suppose? For someone to be able to hold that reality. Not to fix it, make it go away, sort it out for me…just to recognise and acknowledge that I am suffering.

    I am aware, as I read this post, that it is the Dalai Lama’s 75th birthday today (6th July here in England) and I have been thinking of him and what an amazing inspiration he is. He is undoubtedly someone who knows about this! What deep strength he has to maintain his beliefs and his compassion in the face of the vast pain, sadness and suffering of those in his homeland.

    I have just signed an e-birthday card for him and sent a message to honour him. If anyone else would like to do this here is the link – hoping you don’t mind me putting this on here Peter!

    “The spiritual leader of Tibet has spent over 50 years in exile, and he continues to preach peace and compassion. Let’s share with him how much the world values him and is inspired by his life. Click here to sign the global birthday tribute to the Dalai Lama:”

  5. Hi Peter,
    Please accept my sincere wish that you soon feel better.

    with palms together,
    Chong Go

  6. Dear Peter.
    Your presence is enough.
    I have witnessed it so often
    And know it for myself.
    Thank you


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