Citizen Action Monitor

The activist’s paradox: To answer the call to act to relieve human suffering without drowning in the suffering

No 595 Posted by fw October 20, 2012

“As my awareness gets rooted in deeper and deeper understanding, my life just automatically becomes one of any act to relieve suffering because it is also me that is suffering. I’m just working to relieve suffering. An aware person is an instrument for the surcease of suffering. That’s the part you play, even though you’re not attached to whether the suffering ends or not. If you work full time to end suffering without an attachment to whether suffering ends, you work full time to make heaven on earth knowing full well that earth is just the way it’s supposed to be. And there’s a heaven and this is earth [and there is suffering on earth].”Ram Dass

Most individuals, groups or organizations involved in promoting social and economic change, justice for all, environmental action and more, rarely touch on the importance of the “heart and soul” work that activists should do on themselves to ensure “right action” and to prevent burnout.

In an effort to begin to address this reporting gap, this post is a slightly edited partial transcript of an address by Ram Dass at a retreat. (The date is not given but it was likely delivered in the 1970s or 80s, certainly before his stroke in 1997 which left him with expressive aphasia).

Ram Dass

Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert, April 6, 1931) is an American contemporary spiritual teacher and the author of the seminal 1971 book Be Here Now. He is known for his travels to India and his relationship with the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba. After returning to the United States, Ram Dass co-founded an international health organization based in Berkeley California that is committed to applying the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba toward ending world poverty.

To listen to the complete 71-minute audio recording of the address, click on the following linked title. The 10-minute segment on which the edited transcript is based starts at about the 35:30 minute point and ends at about 46:00 minutes.

Awakening to Life Through Truthful Relationships by Ram Dass

As my awareness gets rooted in deeper and deeper understanding, my life just automatically becomes one of any act to relieve suffering because it is also me that is suffering. I’m just working to relieve suffering. An aware person is an instrument for the surcease of suffering. That’s the part you play, even though you’re not attached to whether the suffering ends or not. If you work full time to end suffering without an attachment to whether suffering ends, you work full time to make heaven on earth knowing full well that earth is just the way it’s supposed to be. And there’s a heaven and this is earth [and there is suffering on earth].

You know most people’s hearts are open to their family, to their friends — and then there are the others. And when you look at not just your family and your friends but your friends’ families and your friends’ families’ families and on and on and everywhere you look you see that suffering. How can you bear it? If you pull back into your head, you’ve lost your humanity. If you stay in it you’re going to drown. So you get this balancing act. You’re in it but you’re also not in it. You’re in the world but not of the world. It’s just a very delicate place. And you can’t arrive at it with intellect. You’ve got to go through the whole thing. You’ve got to go through the horrible pain of seeing the suffering because there is such an incredible…

You look around and every human life here there is an incredible amount of suffering. How many retreats do you have to be in before you walk down the street and you know that behind every smiling face is more of the same stuff? And how do you bear it? How do you bear it? Most people bear it by closing their hearts. And then they feel closed down because… And that’s the problem…

Now how do you figure out, or how do you live with that plane of awareness and understanding in which we are aware of the pain of the human condition?

There was a time I was with Maharajji when Bangladesh was being created and there was tremendous turmoil, there were many people starving to death and I was maybe 200 miles away from it and I could hardly bear it, what was going on. And one day my heart was very heavy about this situation in Bangladesh and Maharajji looked at me and he said – I hadn’t said that I was concerned about that, I was just feeling it deeply – and he looked at me and he said “Ram Dass, don’t you see it’s all perfect?” And I remember how totally incomprehensible that was to me at that moment. Maharajji also kept saying, “Feed people. Serve people. Help people.”

I find it very much a balancing act to go over into the perfection [that the universe is unfolding just as it must] and then find that my heart is just a little hard from that place and then go the other way over into the human feelings from moment to moment into the incredible suffering and sharing the suffering and doing everything I can to end the suffering and getting lost in the injustice and the unfairness and the hurt and the pain and the loneliness and all of it. And just going back and forth in that place until those two spaces become absolutely clear.

Then the act of caring for somebody is done because you are a human being and that’s the part you play in the human stage. And you feel it with all of your heart. And you don’t close your heart to any of it. And at the same moment there’s a part of you that’s saying, “Okay, that’s alright.”

The paradox that we have to face if we are going to indeed absorb what is possible to absorb and be what is possible to be is that we have to simultaneously live with an appreciation of the law of the universe in which all of that is the way it is and we also have to feel that call to action and participate in relieving the suffering of the human condition because suffering stinks, whether it’s ours or anybody else’s.

And I find it very hard to find that balance. It is extremely easy to go one way or the other. But if I only get caught in my sadness and my pity and my anger, all I will do is create more of it. And if I only retreat into my emptiness and my clarity and my perfection, I have had no part in alleviating the suffering of the human condition. That’s the balancing act that you and I are about here.

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This entry was posted on October 20, 2012 by in activism as a spiritual path, counterpower of one, personal narratives and tagged , , .
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