The events of the last week in New Zealand have made me feel intensely sad and angry. I have spent much time over the last two years volunteering with Syrian refugees. So to hear that Syrians who have fled a warzone in a quest for basic survival have lost their lives to a terrorist has deeply shocked me.
As I wrote in my last blog, research by the University of Glasgow suggests that there may be four basic emotions. Anger and fear are our immediate emotions, the “fight or flight” response. And in time we can and should learn that these are only emotions for immediacy. They are not emotions to be held onto for long periods of time. They help us decide our course of action but they should not be our course of action alone. We should not be ashamed of these instincts – there is no use in becoming angry and being angry! But we must learn to let them go when the moment has passed.
In the Buddhist text the Sallatha Sutta, Buddha describes how was cause ourselves more pain by reacting to an initial pain;
“When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”
The two longer term emotions are sadness and happiness. Research by Joseph P Forgas suggests that mild, temporary sadness is of benefit to us. It can motivate us to start and complete tasks, improving our perseverance. It can improve memory and recall. It can improve our judgement, making us more attentive and – most importantly – more compassionate.
I’m currently reading the Book of Joy, conversations between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The most consistent message throughout is that compassion and a feeling of oneness with fellow human beings is key to finding a lasting happiness in the mind. Sadness at an event involving strangers on the other side of the world has made me feel more connected to all humans. The Dalai Lama suggests that if we focus our grief on ourselves we are more likely to lead down the road of despair – we shoot ourselves with the second arrow. If we focus our grief outward – towards the person we have lost, or the friends or strangers who have lost loved ones – we can reclaim hope through this empathy.
Grief does not exist without love. Sadness for the plight of fellow humans does not exist without connection with those fellow humans. And it is through that connection and compassion that we can find peace in the knowledge that we are fundamentally all the same. And that thought – for me – is easing the pain.
This doesn’t come easy and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up – shoot the second arrow – when we fall back towards anger or fear. We can learn these things when our lives are less tumultuous. As my yoga teacher says, if you can learn new ways of being when the situation is easy, you can then learn to do them when things are difficult. But as Archbishop Tutu also points out, “You learn when something happens that tests you.”
He goes on to say something quite beautiful. “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”
Sallatha Sutta – https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn36/sn36.006.than.html
Four Ways Sadness May Be Good For You – Joseph P Forgas – https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_ways_sadness_may_be_good_for_you