The Soft Heart that Soothes Suffering

Rainy_Autumn_ForestSaturday I spend time with a dear friend and colleague who is a beloved elder and healer. Over a fantastic lunch, with a mountain stream rushing along beside her home and a decidedly autumnal rain falling, we talked about our long friendship and the challenges we have faced. The discussion was, in turns, playful and serious, and deeply nourishing. We are both in our 60’s and have seen our share of challenges, personally, and in the lives of our families and clients; perhaps as a result we agreed suffering is inevitable, as is aging, which often brings its own suffering. We also agreed that it is a relief to soften one’s heart in the face of suffering; being present to pain is also an integral aspect of healing work, both for self and others. (Often, I find paying attention to my own pain is much more difficult than being with the pain of others.)

Over the course of the afternoon we arrived at the topic of Greed. A difficult thing about living for sixty plus years is one sees the ways Greed catches people and makes for suffering. Sometimes it seems to catch entire countries; people forget that at some point in our lives we all suffer and need the aid and kindness of others.

Greed takes many forms. One I find particularly troubling is the tendency of some popular authors to learn something about the healing traditions of Native cultures, write about them, create workshops using them, then trademark the knowledge.  Some of these folks even claim techniques they discovered in anthropological writing as their own. This is appropriation, as is the theft and patenting of traditional medicines; it’s just greed and suggests a deeper illness in a culture that allows it.

I used to believe that Greed arises from Fear, and sometimes it does. Then again, it seems to do fine on its own, finding many allies in its efforts to colonize our lives, and leaving much sorrow and suffering in its wake. Looking around our home we often say, “Sure have a lot of stuff”. Inevitably we give much away, only to find new things we “need”. I try to notice the various offers Greed makes in our lives, and I have to work pretty hard to limit its influence. Sometimes I do better than others.

It seems to me that Lack is, in Western cultures, almost as much of a problem as Greed. Folks often come in for aid because they live in poverty and are afraid. Too many young people live lives of desperation, overwhelmed by student loans and poor job prospects.; many elders face poverty.  In a society that over values the accumulation and consumption of goods, having too little is particularly painful and shaming. Still, Greed encourages us to take ever more, even though consuming too much harms others and threatens to make the planet unlivable for us.

Greed is a very strong force in our world, as is Hunger. How often they collaborate to eat our hopes and dreams, and our children. These evils must be confronted. They are hardly all-powerful; the practice of generosity, kindness, gratitude, and joy challenges their dominance while enriching our lives. These attributes are good to consider and to cultivate; they soften our hearts, helping us to be present to the needs of others and ourselves. Tellingly, having a soft, pliable heart is seen by many Indigenous people as a positive attribute, even as the term “soft-hearted” may be used as an insult in the dominant culture.

We are all going to face suffering; pain is unavoidable. Recognizing this, we have the opportunity to recognize our kinship with all living thing: we all suffer. If we are willing, we can walk together, offering mutual aid and kindness, and removing some of the isolation that so often accompanies pain. May we walk together while we may.


14 thoughts on “The Soft Heart that Soothes Suffering

  1. Well done. Reminds me Eric Fromm, “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.’

  2. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts. Greed at work is hard to watch. There are many degrees of it and we only see the extremes. We often define ourselves by our stuff. Especially in our culture. It’s a hard road.

  3. I completely resonate with this post today as I have encountered greed in it’s most distasteful form a few times this week. The kind of greed that has to take something away from somebody else so that they feel they can be the victor….sadly…no one wins at that game. I love how you end the post with love and compassion and a plea for connectedness! Thanks Michael! ❤

    1. Thanks, Lorrie, I try to remember that so often greed arises from emptiness,, from ache. It still leaves me scared, sad, and angry. That, of course, does not really help. These are dark times.

      1. I know Michael! When my mind starts to dissect It all, I go to fear! People are doing things they would never do before and it is so hard to comprehend. I think during these times it is even more important to keep our energy in love! Have a wonderful week Michael ❤

      2. Yes, fear is an ever present pest. It is also there to remind us there is danger – to keep us alive on this beautiful planet. And yes, there is a great madness loose in the world. Perhaps it has always been so, given the history of humans. So we do what we are able, and do our best to be openhearted, as my teachers all said. Be well.

  4. I find that when I go through my own suffering, it makes me feel more compassionate, softer and so much more vulnerable than when I am at the top of things. When I suffer, I yearn the most for connection and caring. But, sometimes, suffering can make us hard and bitter – I am thinking about an older relative of mine (actually many) who have become that way as a result of a lot of suffering during war times. I wonder what the difference is – when does suffering open us and when does it shut us down?

    1. So often harm convinces us to withdraw, shut down, or harden. I have done my share of that. I often wonder about how the ways others hold our suffering impact how we do. Suffering is both personal and shared, and as such has context. Yet it can be so challenging to be open to our personal suffering and the suffering of others

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