Riptides of Confusion and the Chain of Compassion

by Carol S. Hyman

Dorothy Parker’s response to her doorbell ringing is said to have been, “What fresh hell…?” That’s the way I feel many mornings when I turn on my computer and check the news. But sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised. Inspired, even.

Last summer, two children playing in the Florida surf were caught in a riptide and swept out to sea. Four family members who rushed to rescue them got in trouble too. Next four strangers on the beach tried to assist and then there were ten. Ten heads, bobbing in the waves a hundred yards offshore, swimming straight, swimming sideways, bodies floundering. The police decided to wait for a rescue boat. Others on the shore realized it might arrive too late.

Who knows how bright ideas arise in the minds of human beings? Somebody said, “I’m a good swimmer. If I can get close enough, I can pass them along!” Somebody else said, “Form a chain!” and five people joined hands and waded out. Others followed. Soon eighty human beings were linked with one goal, and all ten were brought safely to shore.

News that heartening is rare. Most mornings, if it isn’t nature raising a ruckus with hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and the like, it’s human beings acting out bad ideas like genocide, mass murder, and name-calling in high places. Cry me an on-going oy vey chorus.

But sometimes even mainstream media – which seems to aspire to keep us in a perpetual state of high dudgeon – can’t ignore good news. And social media, the platform of the people, spreads it. These days it’s worth contemplating stories that confirm the basic goodness of the human race.

If hurricane season always brings riptides, it also brings opportunities for decency. People of all ages, races, and social classes reach out to help each other. Another human chain formed in waist high water in Houston to deliver a laboring woman to a dump truck that drove her to a hospital where her baby was born. Yes, people can be wonderful. We know that.

So why doesn’t that generosity and creativity deal more effectively with systemic problems we face? I think the answer is that we don’t know what to do. When it’s clear how to help, most of us are willing to pitch in, in both profound life and death situations – the kind that make the news – and more ordinary ones like reaching the top shelf at the grocery store for someone shorter, or loaning a neighbor a tool, or slowing to allow a driver stuck in the wrong traffic lane to merge.

But how about bigger and more nebulous questions? Why do so many young people turn to drugs, or suicide? What can we do about the bigotry and contempt that people, including ourselves, may feel for those who are different? How might we balance the world’s economies and its environment to sustain good human societies? It’s hard to tell what actions will successfully address such problems, and their magnitude can leave us feeling helpless.

That’s because we don’t know what we don’t know. Our inner lives are a mystery, often even to ourselves, and that’s a problem. It’s relatively easy to see when people’s bodies are in danger of drowning, but trickier to tell when their minds are caught in malevolent currents – and people drown there too, every day.

If we want to help, we have to work with our own minds first. Those people on the beach couldn’t have formed a human chain if their hands were full of beach chairs, boogie boards, and beer cans. Similarly, we won’t be able to benefit this world on a deep level if our own inner lives are full of prejudices, fixed ideas, and unexplored baggage.

Everything that arises in our hearts and minds springs from an underlying energy field where tendencies of all sorts reside: polarities like positive and negative, surges of hope and fear, vast reservoirs of wisdom and ignorance. Science tells us that the ocean is the source of all life on earth; just so, this unseen energetic ground gives rise to everything we experience. And if we don’t even know it’s there, we won’t know that we’re all connected on that level. Which means we won’t be able to deliver the benefits that come from learning to ride its currents.

Within that energetic ocean, riptides of confusion carry away countless human beings. Most of them believe, as so many of us do, that our thoughts accurately represent reality, that there’s some inherent part of us – some self – that needs to be defended, and that most of the world’s problems could be solved if other people would just change.

Of course, they will, at some point. And so will we. Change is inevitable; it’s also unpredictable and often out of our control. But even if we can’t change our circumstances, we can learn to choose how we respond to them. A Nazi concentration camp is one of the worst places imaginable, yet Viktor Frankl was able to derive valuable lessons from the time he spent in one, and articulate those lessons in his enduring book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

One way to stop reacting immediately and habitually to everything life throws at us is to cultivate inner space. That space allows us to transcend conditioning and choose how to respond to events. If we choose to manifest courage, resourcefulness, and compassion rather than defensiveness and aggression, we can bring benefit instead of contention.

For example, from last year’s news: five Dallas police officers were killed following a Black Lives Matter protest. A similar protest staged a few days later in Dallas attracted counter-protesters. Tensions were extremely high; the police quite reasonably tried to keep the groups separated on opposite sides of the street.

Who knows how bright ideas arise? At some point, each group selected a spokesman. Those two met in the middle and talked, about how they both wanted what was best for Dallas, about how to bring about change. And somehow, on that street, they were able to create the space for a meeting of minds, the space to find common ground: “We have to stand together.”

And then they succeeded in carrying that message back to their groups. The video of what happened next – of people who had seemed to be on the verge of violence coming together instead, hugging one another – went viral. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person moved to tears by it.

Mindfulness training is a way of creating space that frees us from our habitual minds so that we can choose how to meet each moment. The clarity that arises spontaneously in emergency situations can be cultivated by learning to rest in a simple state of wakeful presence. Developing confidence in that state brings the resourcefulness, compassion, and courage we need to be able to help this world on a profound level.

For a human chain to serve its purpose, some people have to be planted on firm ground. That’s where we are once we learn that our minds are workable. From that ground we can begin to see how our world is workable. Wisdom and compassion naturally arise, bringing insight about what will help in challenging situations as well as the skill to communicate that to others.  

An open mind is like a helping hand. One person’s presence and awareness connects with another’s and on it goes, spreading basic decency everywhere. There’s no telling how far a league of open minds can take us. If enough of us do the work it takes to drop our habitual patterns and inhabit our lives fully – practicing mindfulness and then applying it every day – we can form a chain of compassion that could change the world.

Then, instead of always needing to steel ourselves to face fresh hells in the daily news, we might increasingly be pleasantly surprised – inspired even – by discovering, and creating, little outposts of heaven right here on earth.

To start training your mind, click play below for a 10-minute guided introduction to mindfulness practice

To cultivate a broader perspective, click play below for a 15-minute guided compassion exercise

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