We often turn away from the suffering around us or in the news. But, following the Nepalese earthquake, what happens when we open up?

Thought for the Day 2/5/2015


Some years ago I was travelling in northern India when my group stopped at a roadside chai stop. After a few weeks in India I find I stop paying attention to the beggars who hover around more affluent people. I must admit they become a nuisance and I start to ignore them.

My friend bought an extra cup of chai for a woman I hadn’t even noticed, who was crouching at the edge of the sitting area. She was skeletal, dressed in rags and bowed gratefully as my friend gave her the drink.

We carried on chatting, but from the corner of my eye I noticed that the woman’s hands were shaking violently, and she was weeping as the chai spilled before she could drink it. I thought, ‘Oh, she needs a hand,’ so I crouched down beside her, took her cup and held it to her lips.

As she sipped the warm tea I fed her and she looked up with gratitude, my perspective shifted. I was no longer separate, set apart by the silent power of money. In that moment we were intimately connected: two human beings, one suffering and the other surprised to find himself helping.

The disconnection I can feel from beggars matches the distance I often feel from images of disasters, like this week’s earthquake in Nepal. After the initial shock they become a mildly troubling backdrop to normal life. I might give something; I might not. But I’ve never forgotten the woman at the chai stop because when I helped her drink my world expanded. I glimpsed, for a moment that my separateness was an illusion. It had grown alongside the illusions that education and relative affluence make me special; and that the things I look to for security can somehow hold off my own mortality and vulnerability.

This week Buddhists celebrate Buddha Day or Wesak, which marks the Buddha’s birth in Nepal, south of the main earthquake region, and his Enlightenment. His awareness of suffering sent him on a quest that culminated in spiritual awakening when he experienced a final shattering of illusions. He understood, at the deepest levels of his consciousness, how self-centeredness had cocooned him, as it cocoons every human being, and was the ultimate source of his inner distress. Its absence was an overwhelming liberation.

Natural disasters call to us with the vehemence of reality. They challenge us to turn towards what’s happening and open our hearts to the powerful responses that comes when selfishness falls away: compassion and the desire to connect, to help and to give.