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In These Times How Can We Make a Difference?

These are difficult times, personally, socially and environmentally. The changes, the sense of things being uncontrollable and threatening, can make us feel more anxiety and concern than ever before. Our compassionate heart may drive us to help others and try to make a difference. But within we may easily feel it is too much, or we feel overwhelmed, angry, despaired or helpless. When we do go out to make change, we also can meet rejection, misunderstanding and much negativity. To cope with this, we need to develop attitudes and skills that will help to empower us for kind and effective action in the world.

One of the main skills is authentic presence. Aware presence teaches us to see the way things are, a consequence of myriad causes and conditions, and from that place go out and make a difference. Once I met an old Bedouin sheikh who had struggled against all odds for most of his life in order to provide for the needs and subsistence of his people. I was moved by his gentle, modest and firm presence and the glitter in his eyes. I sensed clearly this was an authentic person to the depths of his soul. Meditation can bring this quality to flower in our lives too; the practice of authentic presence with whatever arises within us and in the outside world. Authenticity means that we go about our lives without playing games, without hiding anything and without hypocrisy; an authentic person does not surrender to fear or escape to comfort zones, but remains steadfast in the eye of the storms of life.

When we wish to make a change in the world, there are two key dualities which we need to be aware of, and between which we need to find a dynamic balance, a Golden Mean. One is the balance between ends and means. If we are too much attached to ends, outcomes, we are always running after results like a donkey with a carrot tied to its back. It leads to burnout , stress and pressure, and an obsessive missionary mind which annoys everyone. On the other hand if we are too stuck with means, we will be busy trying to get things right and prepare ourselves, and endlessly sharpen the tools but never use them to build the house. Activities sow seeds that do not necessarily bring about measurable results. Measuring the effects of our action can create tension and pressure that are rooted in perceptions of success and failure.

Another fine balance is between inner and outer experience. We need to express what's in our hearts, to act decisively and speak out in situations where others are silent. But this needs to be balanced by inner qualities such as brightness, clarity, peacefulness and joy. If we are too dominated by the outer, we are a busy bee, constantly active, often agitated, sometimes mechanical and frustrated. If we are too much in the inner life we can get paralyzed and psychologically constipated. Maybe we sit at home passively, in front of screens and media, bemoaning what's going on in the world. Or alternatively, perhaps working on ourselves with a view that we need to be perfectly peaceful before we can go out and make peace, and then we will feel we are never ready to express our voice. A dynamic balance between inner and outer releases amazing power and potential where heart and mind, voice and body, are in sync. We strive for realization of a vision but at the same time manifest peacefulness, harmony, compassion and a broad and inclusive wise heart. As Padmasambhava once said “Keep your vision as wide as the sky, and sieve your actions like fine flour”.

Activists might object that a broad view, a joyful and peaceful heart and calm action are unhelpful foundations for action, arguing that they couldn't do anything without motivation based on a burning need for change and a righteous anger at injustice. These personal motives are indeed sources of energy, and sometimes they are also needed; but if they take central stage they can create all the problems described above, while if they are softened, a larger inner space opens which in most instances is a space of love, and this is a more powerful and sustainable motivation. Love grows with a minimizing of subjectivity and clinging to personal stories and the melting of our resistance. In fact love can be found behind all our actions, often camouflaged as a desire to fix the world. In its essence, love is an expression of our sense of belonging to the world, and in a certain way love and belonging are one and the same. We want to help a blind person cross the road because we know how they feel, we have empathy, and in a way we and they share the same human vulnerability. This feeling of love is a powerful force that underlies all our actions. We might lose touch with it, forget it and fail to notice it, yet nonetheless love, empathy and compassion have formidable power.

In the end what actually does the job in making change in the world is the qualities that we manifest. The writing, speaking, acting or campaigning that moves hearts and minds can only happen because they are the manifestation of qualities and skills that are part of us. We cannot be other than who we really are. So we do have to continually refine and develop these qualities which, besides a compassionate heart, may include positivity, steadiness, equanimity, wisdom, renunciation, balanced determination and deep generosity. We will increasingly find that we manifest these qualities spontaneously in word, thought and deed, and these become the powers that drive us to go out and make a difference.

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