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.

Video: Always Live Mindful and Conscious

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Join me as I cook dinner and contemplate the need for always living mindful and conscious. The book mentioned in the video is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (aff). It's a fantastic book and if you haven't read it, I really recommend you pick up a copy.

Living mindful and conscious is a choice that you can make at any moment, even this moment right now. It's not magic and it's not something you need to have special powers to do. Try it right now. Become aware of how you're sitting, your posture; how your neck feels; relax your jaw and mouth; take a deep breath and collect yourself.

It doesn't take a few hours, or even a few minutes. This takes a few seconds. No matter how busy you are, you do have time to do this exercise. And by doing it, you're going to improve your entire day. Or at the very least, this moment.