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For a long time, in teaching, I’ve been using the example of an unexpected phone call that completely upends our lives to illustrate the reality that our lives are fragile, evanescent, and vulnerable. Life can change on a dime, for anybody. Sometimes, if I use that example before a break, someone will come back shaken, saying they checked their messages while on the break, and it had just happened to them.
Of course I thought of that last Friday when I heard of the immense tragedy in Connecticut. “Heartbreaking” seems so puny and inadequate a word to describe that unfathomable pain—losing your child, losing your parent, losing your partner to violence. Imagine getting that phone call. Actually, some of us have. I know many people who have suddenly faced the death of a child or a dearly loved one, some to violence. The pain really is unfathomable.
I also thought of my teacher Dipa Ma, who has been and remains to be my model for using great pain as a springboard to great love and compassion. I would never want to be glib, and imply somehow that it is easy, but I know from her example, and the example of others, that it is possible. Dipa Ma lost two children, and then her husband, whom she loved very much. She was in Burma at the time of his death, with one surviving daughter. The doctor came, and said she was in danger of dying of a broken heart unless she did something about her mind. He suggested that she learn to meditate. The fruit of her practice was her lovingkindness, which completely changed my life.
Someone once asked a venerable old monk what he would say to try to encapsulate the most important of the Buddha’s teachings. He replied, “All things arise due to causes and conditions.”
When I first heard that it sounded rather dry. “Really?” I thought. “Cause and effect is it?” But now I understand that teaching differently—it is the clarion call of connection and the end of nihilism. What we do matters. What we care about matters.
We live in a terribly nihilistic society, and it is getting more so all the time. I am committed to working harder to change that trajectory, through my personal efforts to be a more enlightened person and to change the structures of society that I believe lead to greater disconnection, alienation, and violence. Plenty of people whom I have loved have mental illness, so some of those efforts have to do with trying to change how accessible treatment is. Some of those efforts have to do with challenging the increasing normalcy of violence. And even though some who follow me on Twitter didn’t seem to like it, some of those efforts have to do with strengthening gun control laws, so that lethal tools are less available even if someone is overcome by hatred or fear.
May we all find the bounty of lovingkindness, and a vision of how we might try to make this a better world.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.