Slowing Down for Suffering

Photo: Death Valley, California

His frail body was draped in a black coat, hung from bones that outlined his figure. He stepped off the grass and onto the pavement, blocking my path and turning to look at me with recessed eyes that spoke of suffering, desperation, and loneliness. As the car rolled forward, he turned and began limping down the road, still blocking my path but glancing back every time he tripped on his leash.

What could I do? Should I stop and give him some company, perhaps remove his leash so he wouldn't struggle so much? No, that would be risky; he might be sick. Should I call animal control so they can take him away and give him food and a place to sleep? No, he'll probably just end up on a table being put to sleep permanently.

I waited for him to step back onto the grass and then watched as he limped down a hill. As I drove away he lapped water from a soggy patch of grass in the rearview mirror. Then he looked up and stood motionless, holding his head high as if confident that he'd somehow find a way to survive.

What should I have done? Was I being cruel and cold-hearted by leaving him there? Did I make the right choice by doing nothing? He was an animal, but I still felt pity for him; why didn't I do anything? Why did I let him suffer?

Those thoughts reminded me of the suffering I witnessed while traveling through India last year, the endless dichotomy of slums and skyscrapers side by side. It made me think of the wealth and prosperity of the country I'm currently living in and how a handful of the worlds population hoards what others need for basic survival.

Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of oncoming cars stopped in the road. Sitting at the curb and facing the traffic was an old lady in a motorized scooter trying to get across.

The cars in front of me whizzed by one by one, ignoring her situation and leaving the 'problem' for someone else to deal with. Just as I did for the dog a few moments earlier, I slowed down. I held the traffic behind me and watched as she smiled, waved, and crossed to the other side.

That's when I realized something: If we don't slow down, we risk contributing to suffering.

It's easy to witness suffering and avert our eyes. It's easy to see a problem and leave it for someone else to deal with. It's even easy to allow ourselves to suffer, to let the busyness of life numb the pain inside while we redirect our discomfort into the outside world.

Life moves fast. It's easy to let things get pulled forward by momentum. But slowing down requires deliberate action. Slowing down requires recognizing that there is something worth slowing down for, something worth making a conscious effort to notice and then attempt to change.

If we do nothing in the face of suffering -- if we don't even slow down -- then what happens to us? We build skyscrapers next to slums, we let the homeless sleep on the street, and we stuff our faces while children around the world die of hunger.

If we don't slow down, we even risk torturing ourselves, suffocating our passions and caging our dreams. Instead of being an inspiration to others, we spread our suffering around, pushing the brunt of our irresponsible decisions onto those around us.

Slowing down for the old lady took nothing out of my day, but it gave her so much. Slowing down for the dog took nothing out of my day, but it gave me insights that I'm now sharing with you (and perhaps my brief but empathic interaction even gave him a little confidence to move forward).

Slowing down to face my own suffering over the past few years has continuously improved my focus and direction. I'm here today sharing these thoughts with you because I made the conscious decision to slow down and address the internal pains that were preventing me from growing and evolving.

We need to stop deferring action to the passage of time. Suffering, whether our own or that of someone else, isn't necessary. We are not apathetic machines designed to live without emotion. We are conscious beings capable of making our own choices, capable of spontaneous evolution, selflessness, and empathy. Use your humanity. Slow down.

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31 Comments

  1. Hey Raam,

    I’m back from my trip!

    I really enjoyed the post today. One thing that I really picked up while in Japan and Thailand were the two conflicting lifestyles that I want to live.

    In Japan, I wanted to go go go. Nonstop. I wanted to do everything, see everything and get things done. It was the same for Thailand. There was so much to do and see that I didn’t want to stop.

    However, I began to pick up this “slow” lifestyle while there. The Japanese are very fast paced but they always take time to enjoy the little things and respect others; so much so that it’s really hard to explain. The Thai people may live in poverty compared to what most Westerners would see but I saw a lot of the opposite. I saw a lot of people without what we consider “normal” but nearly every one of them were incredibly happy. They were always joyful and took everything slow. I saw so many people that would just lounge around and hang out with their friends and family; not a care in the world and taking every day for what it’s worth.

    Since being back I remembered your video you made upon returning. I felt very alienated. Everything seemed a little bit off and I couldn’t understand how people in the States live the way they do. Everyone seemed to have an attitude and couldn’t slow down for a second. The biggest culture shock was examining my own country to be honest.

    I’m now a very relaxed person. There are so many things that I’ve given up since the trip that are now trivial when I think about them. I find myself taking action on the things that seemed hard at the time (prior to leaving) because I know they will be worth my time. I spend time carefully doing things without worrying that it needs to be done this very second. I take the time to be helpful, smile at people and help them if I see they need it. I don’t always get welcome but I understand it now; I’ve seen the “other side” and know more about the people around me than I did before.

    I’m no longer taking everything in strides; I’m taking it in thoughtful steps.

    • Murray, I’m glad your trip had such a positive impact on you and I can absolutely relate to your feelings of culture-shock upon returning to your own country.

      It was quite eye-opening to observe myself readjust to life in the States in the months following my return, slowly recognizing how simply being here changes our perspective and the way we think about the world around us.

      The thing I keep coming back to is how members of affluent societies seem to be more disconnected from nature and from each other. The manufactured, individualistic world they live in promotes disconnection instead of collaboration and thoughtful face-to-face interaction.

      Everything is about speed, time, and deadlines. Little time is spent simply enjoying the company of each other and recognizing the magic and beauty of nature (even cities have plenty of nature to observe magic; a simple tree or bird can provide hours of insight).

      But we can help change all of that by becoming beacons, examples that show how life can be just as “productive” and happy when lived more slowly and more consciously.

      I love that you’re setting an example with what you learned and applying that to your life. It will, without doubt, affect those around you. πŸ™‚

  2. I agree. When you see inhumanity taking place we must speak up, especially in the case of children and animals.

  3. This is so moving, Raam. It really speaks to the core of our problems and our suffering in the West despite of and in relations to all our material development.

    I admire the courage you have expressed by “Slowing down to face my own suffering over the past few years…” This is so key. I think we are running so fast because we fear the discomfort of facing our own suffering. I was on automatic for such a huge part of my life. I’m grateful to illness for slowing me down and pushing me to look at and learn to transform my own suffering. When we are willing to work with our own mind and our own suffering, our heart opens and we become the beacon of light you mention to Murray that can guide the way to others.

    I’m so happy to know you!

    • Sandra, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. Your comments always add value here and I’m grateful for our connection.

      On the point of working with our mind and our suffering, I realized something else today while exercising: The ‘fountain of youth’ can be found in our mind, in its ability to slow time. When we’re allowing ourselves to suffer through the passage of time, we’re not just suffering, but also shortening our lives.

      By slowing down and focusing on what needs to be done in the here and now — whether that’s removing our own suffering or just taking the opportunity to recognize the magic and beauty around us — we’re able to live life the way it’s meant to be lived.

  4. Your share couldn’t have come at a more opportune time in my VERY humble opinion, what doesn’t come at the right time??? lol……… there are so many levels of awareness and it is sad when the injustices of humanity go below what we deem “acceptable??” behaviour. What blows my mind is just how low humans can go…. this is response to many of the mindsets I was reminded of. Thank you to all, this is my first “share” I am known to be a rambling kind of gal.

    spacequeen

    • Welcome and thank you for the comment, spacequeen!

      There are many injustices in the world — much suffering, cruelty, and negativity — but I believe it’s in focusing on the goodness in the world that we will find the path to a better world.

      If we focus on negativity, we assist in its maintenance. If we focus on positivity, we help it grow and propagate. πŸ™‚

      • I completely agree with you with the importance of direction of energy. I notice for myself when I focus on less than positive action, thought or ANY less than positive energy, I get what I get!!! I have become increasingly aware of the power of positive actions, thoughts and more importantly, my words!!!!! A careless word can create chaos while a carefully chosen word can make a world of difference. One never knows what “injustices” have occurred to: say for example… a street person..I often ask myself, “how did they get there???? What happened to them?How could CIVILIZATION do this.? ” We are supposed to be quote “civilized” people, but I wonder at times when I see occurrences in media, life as it is. I have no doubt in my mindset there is a reason for it all, but I will admit my complete frustration with it all, and chalk it up to lessons to learn.
        There is an old saying I am reminded of…….a Golden Rule…..TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED YOURSELF…. if only the whole world could get on board,and I could go on and on, but I will spare the semantics of it all and go with the heart.
        Can’t blame a spacequeen for dreaming in the midst nirvana.

        • What you said about seeing a homeless person on the street and then asking yourself, “how did they get there?” is so important. It’s important to put ourselves in their shoes and trying to understand what may have led them to where they are.

          If we were in that situation, we wouldn’t want others to judge us but rather to try and understand the circumstances led to that predicament. To “treat others as you would like to be treated yourself” is to understand that no matter who we are (or who we’re not), no matter what we have (or what we don’t have), we are all one in the same. Our essence, the core of who we are, is identical to that of everyone else.

  5. i know discussion is a good thing. it helps people to grow. and give us all insights where otherwise we might not think about it.
    but
    there seems a danger to me to talk, think, talk, think. talk.
    i am glad you helped the old lady get across.
    i wish you had done something for the dog… over even tried.
    he had obviously been part of a human’s life… hence the leash.
    a slow death of thirst (he may wander from the dirty stream) or a slow death of starvation and as you perceived… loneliness… alone.
    just very sad to me. and the picture will stay with me for some time.
    my favorite song is
    bless the beasts and the children. they have no choice. they have no voice.
    we can debate all of it til the cows come home.
    what we really need to do is act.
    and maybe not think so much?

    • Hi Tammy,

      I empathize with the sadness you feel towards the dog in my story, but here’s the question I ask myself every day: All the caring about animals, all the talk and acting against cruelty towards animals, all the energy, attention, and money invested in those causes… how can we, as human beings, be prioritizing those higher than the 16,000 children who die every single day from hunger (11 children just while reading this comment)?

      How can we, as a society, donate to animal shelters and jail people who promote animal cruelty but not donate to homeless shelters and not hold our leaders responsible for actions that promote human cruelty?

      For me, I see a huge misplacement of priorities. All life is sacred, yes. Nothing should suffer, yes. But what about fellow human beings? What about the suffering of the human family? If we let them suffer and look the other way, what becomes of our humanity?

      As you noted, we need to act. It’s easy to talk and think. But acting requires focus. It requires sacrifice. It requires actively choosing our priorities and living by principals that reflect our values.

      • i’m sorry. i sense that i have offended you.
        the priorities of this world have been unthinkable for ages it seems. I totally agree with you. But…
        i was not even debating priorities, or amounts of money given to help animals over people or children.
        there will always be “agencies” who help certain “groups.” Sadly, that will unlikely change.
        i simply meant, and apparently i said it very poorly, i am not as eloquent as you. (not being facetious. i really mean it! ) but i simply meant that EACH one of us has a responsibility to help on an individual basis whenever the need is before us. If i met a lost and starving child, I would help it immediately. The fact that there are 16 thousand children dying everyday when we pay basketball and football players enough to save everyone of them and more is a sacrilege.
        BUT… don’t you see, that fact CANNOT make me not save that little child, or dog, or old person in front of ME RIGHTNOW. Sorry for the caps, but i don’t know how to do italics on this thing for emphasis!
        If every person helped just one soul in need every day… well… it wouldn’t solve it all. But it would be a start. was it Ghandi that said, the change you want to see has to start with you?
        I think we are both saying the same thing. I simply meant, if it were me, I would have tried to help the dog. He needed my help right now. That doesn’t mean i value him over the life of a child. But he is also a living, feeling creature. And one with me and the universe, in which we all live.
        That doesn’t mean I’m unaware, or that I give all my money to animal shelters instead of human agencies!
        Are we still friends?

        • Tammy, you certainly haven’t offended me and I apologize if I made it seem that way. Yes, we’re definitely still friends! πŸ™‚

          It sounds like we’re on the same page.

          My feeling is that it can be dangerous to focus only on “helping those in front of us”. That’s important, yes, and we should start as close as ourselves. Help ourselves first, then our family, then our community, and finally the global community. But we shouldn’t simply dismiss the global community (or any of the other levels) because we feel that we don’t have enough resources. The fact of the matter is, every one of us in the developed world can be doing a lot more on all levels (personal, family, community, and global).

          We need to take a holistic approach to caring and I feel that a holistic approach requires understanding how our choices affect others at the planetary level. It requires being proactive in our community. It requires setting an example in our personal lives for those around us (such as saving the dog/child/person in front of you, and sharing insights with others in a public forum like you and I are doing here). And it also requires looking inward and taking care of ourselves.

          • YES! finally i get what you are saying!!!
            good grief. slow or what.
            i don’t know. chalk it up to … well i just don’t know. had a DUH moment i guess!
            love,
            tammyj

  6. Thank you Raam for this series of posts. Your words have such eloquence and grace. I feel privileged to read them πŸ™‚

    The first step in responding to other people’s suffering is [noticing] it. Many of us simply don’t. You’re so right… when life is going fast… we can’t see [or empathise] with the sometimes dire predicaments of others. Noticing takes practise. Doing something about it takes courage.

    A while back I helped an elderly couple find their car in a busy multilevel carpark. It wasn’t much. And I could have just left them there for someone else to find. But I wouldn’t. And I couldn’t. That simply isn’t me πŸ˜‰

    When eventually we found the car the frail elderly woman threw her arms around me and gave me a great big hug [a hug I happened to really need that day] She told me ernestly that I was an angel sent from heaven to help them… but what she didn’t realise was that she too was my angel… sent to help me… on that otherwise ordinary day!

    • Jean, thank you so much for sharing that beautiful story!

      When we help others, the universe ensures that we receive whatever it is that we need (even if we don’t know we need it). πŸ™‚

  7. Thank you for sharing, all the posts I read this morning is in line with what I am noticing. The MORE awareness I work to “notice” or “not notice” the more I get the more I receive. A random act of kindness goes a long way. Raam said something that triggered something in me. All we have is NOW, but I forget, by the distractions of my own mind. I am becoming more aware of the power of thoughts,thoughts precede action… so ergo… action speaks louder than words…. however words have great power and inspire creativity or its polar opposite. The more I learn, the more I don’t understand on an intellectual level, but on a spiritual level, yes. I am aware I can only do what is NOW for ME. My NOW is my present reality, the only reality is NOW…. we only have choices, the more I recognize the power of positive energy thus seeing and feeling the results of such choices, I am more inclined to follow that way. There is another saying I am reminded of, “Glass half full or half empty” which leads me (since I am a space queen-:) to continue to fill that glass and not empty it, whenever I become aware of “fill in the blank”. I am recognizing the source of energy. I see, for me, the awareness is the key that unlocks the door, and it is up to me to take action as MY next step. I can only attempt to do my part and contribute, and I am learning it does not involve things, but rather energy. Our energy is NOT something to waste, but we do it all the time. I look at my unawareness as “faulty wiring” but awareness is leading me to become “rewired” through positive awareness. Life, in my opinion, very humble opinion is like a deck of cards. We are dealt one hand, each hand is different, some appear to have a better hand than others, but we all must make the best of the hand of which we receive. We never know what is in the next moment, EVER!!! Wouldn’t it make sense to make the best of what we have instead of bemoaning what we don’t have? I see this as a paramount issue. We have become so busy by distractions we forget the true essence of life. I totally agree with slowing down, I am slowing down myself, and in that specific action I am learning to “listen” more carefully and paying attention more. I think that society has gotten the MORE disease, but sometimes I think toooooooo much!!!! We all need to learn that LESS IS MORE!
    love and ((((((((super hugs))))))))))) to all.

    • I have always been a thinker, but I have recently begun to learn how thinking can only take us so far. There comes a point where to continue exploring we must change the medium in which we travel. Thinking is still important, but there’s more to it.

      It’s easy to waste energy, to spew more than necessary and hope that something sticks. The real challenge comes when we learn to do more with less, when we learn to focus our energy on a specific task, carrying with it only what’s needed and nothing more. πŸ™‚

  8. I just found your website and subscribed and I am enjoying reading all of the past posts and comments. One thought I had was the opportunity to help doesn’t always present itself as clearly as a sick animal, frail elder or homeless person.

    I work as a registered nurse and have a lot of experience providing hospice care. We are often present when someone dies and “pronounce” the death and arrange for the funeral home to pick up the body. In one case though a family member got scared and called the police before I arrived. The death was expected in this 45 year old man with AIDS and I had been caring for him for a long time and loved him and his family dearly. The cop who arrived to investigate burst into the house with loud talking and snide, racist comments and it completely changed our serene, quietly mournful setting to one of rising anger. I watched angrily too for a minute or two but then I walked over to the cop and said, your job must be really, really hard. You have to walk into a house and find a dead guy and not realize what a wonderful person he was and how loved he was. I had the privilege of getting to know him and this family and I can see how you have enjoyed that. Believe it not, his eyes filled with tears and then he sat down at the kitchen table with me and some of the family and started talking to us about how hard it WAS to not get to know anyone…to only walk in on the aftermath of a crime. The atmosphere immediately changed and his attitude became helpful and not antagonistic and I could see folks visibly relax. That happened several years ago but I have never forgotten him and now I intentionally look for the angry person, the resistant person and try to see what might be scaring them or making them uncomfortable. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but usually people let down their guard and respond when met with understanding and kindness.

    Thanks for letting me share! πŸ™‚

    • Barb, thank you so much for sharing that incredible and very eye-opening story. It’s incredible how a little compassion and understanding in a situation filled with anger can turn the entire scene around.

      You’re so right that opportunities to help do not always present themselves as a sick animal or a helpless person. Opportunities to help are all around us if we’re willing to put aside our pride and our ego.

  9. raam, beautiful witnessing of humanity, our own mirrors reflected off of others, suffering included. we all suffer, whether or not someone witnesses these moments. this is. life.

  10. Raam,

    Love this!! I never thought about it in this way, but it is sooo true…
    This post actually reminded me of my drive several years ago trying to go from Iowa City to Davenport, Iowa – usually at a maximum – 1 hour drive. Well Iowa was experiencing extreme flooding, so what usually takes 1 hour, took about 7 to 8 with all the detours and figuring out how the hell to get back home.
    Anyways, I was with my boyfriend at the time – who was a major influence in the following act – but we saw a dog on the road. It didn’t look like it was freely roaming around, it looked lost. We stopped to the side of the road and started to ask the neighbors if they knew of anyone who owned the dog. Finally, we found a friendly household that didn’t know whose dog it was, but they agreed to take it to the shelter for us!
    Anyways, I don’t know if that was the most helpful action in the long run, but it’s what felt right at the time. And If I hadn’t done that I would have wondered if I couldn’t have done more – but I know at the time I did what I could. And at that time, I hadn’t traveled around so much, but it also taught me there are nice people who are welcoming and do good deeds … as the family accepted the dog from us, not knowing who the owners were either!

    I think it’s okay you let the dog go… shit happens. Frankly, you treated the dog exactly the same way as you treated the elderly person – you slowed down. Who knows what would have happened if u helped the dog…or who knows what happened after you left it? Never know where your actions – or lack of them – may take you or the dog! If you felt bad abut it, well then you know next time you might want to push yourself more to do something (or act a little slower :)) about the next lost injured dog (or whatever) you see on the street.

    I also feel that it is very easy to notice things, when away from the US. I do become more caring, passionate, giving, blah blah… when set in a society that takes care to the little things in life. Then when I get back to the US, it’s not that I’m NOT caring, but I seem to just meld back into the fast pace of society – and I hate that.

    • Natalie,

      There are so many great observations in this comment and I’m grateful you shared this story. The bit that stood out most to me was that you assisted in helping the dog by connecting him with someone else who would know where to bring him and how to help.

      Sometimes we focus too much on how we can individually solve the problem instead of recognizing that an entire world of people exist around us, all with caring hearts and differing specialties, and access to different resources. Often all that is required is to step in and bridge the gap enough for one to flow to the other. πŸ™‚

  11. you’re such a great writer and so inspiring! I love how you weave a story together. “slowing down requires deliberate action.” It’s true, and ironic that the act of slowing down (stopping) IS still an action. Very insightful post. I’m glad I slow down each day. Trying to get back into meditation..

    • Thank you, Janet. Slowing down (or stopping) is an action and even if that’s all we can do, it’s better than doing nothing or ignoring the situation altogether.

      When I used to work in Cambridge, MA, I would pass the same homeless beggars on the sidewalk every day. I didn’t give them money, but I always looked at them in the eye and gave them a smile. They always smiled back and it felt like they appreciated that someone at least took the time to stop and notice them.

  12. If we don’t rush we can see through ours and others’ scars and their internal struggles and pains. Pause, connect and reflect back on your life is what I learned from this post.

    Raam, you and your writing, both are magnificent. So honored to find your blog.

    with gratitude,
    Sayantan

Webmentions

  • Jen Smith September 21, 2012

    "If we don’t slow down, we risk contributing to suffering." http://t.co/NL2a62Va

  • 10 Ways to Add a Dash of Happiness to Your Relationships ~ Happy Relationships Series « *POSITIVE PROVOCATIONS* September 21, 2012

    […] though can only happen if we are paying attention to our relationship and nurturing it rather than allowing all the other demands of life suck the life out of our […]

  • Kris Lugo September 21, 2012

    if we don’t slow down, we risk contributing to suffering. http://t.co/iNweCPH via @raamdev

  • Susana Frioni September 21, 2012

    β€œ@ninayau: if we don’t slow down, we risk contributing to suffering. http://t.co/M0hrGYO via @raamdev” love this!!

  • Anonymous September 21, 2012

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  • Jasmine Stephenson September 21, 2012

    Nice poignant piece by @raamdev – Slowing Down for Suffering http://t.co/4YYFDEj

  • Kathryn Markolf September 21, 2012

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  • Murray Lunn September 21, 2012

    Slowing Down for Suffering http://bit.ly/pOxPGN <- Raam always has a way with words, read it.

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