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5 Ways For Me To Help the World

I’ve come to understand that now is not the right time for me to be a big help or provide big service. “Oh, but you are big help,” you might say, “we need your big service,” you might add, and “au contraire,” I would reply, “that is not so, it is simply not so,” and then, knowing that I proffered a dramatic conclusion without first offering even the most meager exposition, I would regale you with an expiation.

“Now is not the time for me to be a big help,” I would aver, in whatever hat I was wearing at the time, “you see, I mean big as in the-person-in-charge-and-the-one-who-gets-credit big and person as in the-person-who-is-asked-for-everything-from-everyone person and help and service as in the-help-and-service-that-do-good-and-benefit-others help and service. I am not ready to be that big big help big service person—the one that saves the universe—I am not ready for that.”

Then I would dramatically drop the act and tell you a story.

“A homeless man asks me for money for food. I bow my head to avoid eye (human) contact, mumble an incoherent and incomplete (rude) refusal, and keep walking (like he has the black plague). Then, because of meditation, I see this all a split second after the process, and I have the thought, ‘You asshole. You do have money for food for that man.’ I then bypass the Dunkin Donuts that I was going to get coffee at because I don’t want the man I refused to give money to to see me spending money. As if my hypocrisy was only hypocrisy if he witnessed it, I buy coffee at a coffee shop around the corner.”

I take off my hat. I sit down. I become dark and moody. “My compassion is just big enough for me to notice that I did that. I escaped the moment where I was asked for help. Erased it from my memory like it didn’t happen. Got my coffee. Kept the three dollars in my wallet safe and sound. My compassion is just big enough to notice that I did that. And you still think I can be of big help?”

I pause for dramatic effect.

“I should offer bagels or fruit to people who ask me for food. There are bagels and fruit everywhere in NYC and I have plenty of money for bagels and fruit. Perhaps the next time someone asks me for money for food, I can offer to buy him or her a bagel or fruit. That is, if I have the courage and guts to do that much for the world.”

I thank everyone. I leave the lecture hall. That is as big as my help gets right now. Figuring out how to deal with myself when someone asks me for money for food and telling that to an imaginary group of students while I write a blog post for the IDP website.

But, I want to be of BIG help one day, (and a bit more optimistic for your sake) so here are five things I am doing now to help me be big help.

1. Meditation. This is the single most important thing I can do to benefit the world. If it weren’t for my daily meditation practice, I would not have even noticed that I walked halfway around the world to avoid a homeless man’s damning eyes. I would not see that I am not ready to be a BIG help. If it weren’t for meditation, I would be stumbling around bumping into things mumbling and stinking like a wet dog and barking compassion-ish things at you.

2. Yoga (or other exercise). I up my intake of yoga (and running) because it makes sitting meditation easier; I don’t have nearly as much knee, leg, and back discomfort during periods of meditation. A more comfortable body allows me to sit longer and more frequently.

3. Dedication of merit. I dedicate the merit of my practice after every session either silently or out loud by saying: “With this merit, may all obtain omniscience. May it defeat the enemy wrongdoing from the stormy waves of birth, old age, sickness, and death. From the ocean of samsara, may I free all beings.” What I’ve come to understand is that this dedication of merit is like the dedication of super powers: “I will use my super powers for good.”

4. Opening. I mistake myself as this separate white, US, male, dude named Robert who needs to be protected all day long while I am not being attacked by anything and this happens more when I am in the non-white section of my neighborhood of Washington Heights than it does in the Jewish White neighborhood that I still think of myself as separate from. Did I mention that meditation causes me to see my karmic policy clearly, and that can be shocking? So I repeat, “May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we safe. May we live with ease,” whenever I notice the karmic awakening of separation in my mind. This happens, like, all the time, it seems. I am not the only human being on the planet, I am not the only human being on the planet, I am not the only human being on the planet, I am not the only human being on the planet

5. Humility. I am not ready to be a big help. With that humility, I put myself in a position to be of some help. Some help is better than big help anyway because my big help is usually (to be kind) not such big help.

I think that the ultimate point here is that helping means never letting yourself or others down when the need arises. It is accepting the invitation to help in whatever way it comes but not thinking too hard about being big help. Most of the time, I get the feeling that what my family, friends, cats, and this world wants most from me is my basic sanity. It may seem like a small thing, but I think it is the biggest thing.

(My cat, Jack, for example, as best as I can tell, right now wants me to have a clearly articulated lap.)

Image of Alexander Giving Money to the Priests of Ammon by Jean Pénicaud III (Saint Louis Art Museum official site) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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what if

what if meditating is a big help? if you look at it interdependently rather than as a hierarchy where one person COULD EVEN be a 'big help' single-handedly, you can see that every single action you take could either add to or subtract from the sum total of suffering on the planet. therefore i don't think meditation is preparation for being of service. it is service. right now.

A subtle point.

I think your point is subtle, so I will address that subtlety.

Firstly, number 3 is on the list precisely so that one does not think that meditation is service in and of itself. So, get a hardcore dose of number 3 and say, "all of the cool stuff that I get, even the idea that I feel like a superhero, I'm going to get up from this seat and do some good with it." But meditate because what kind of superhero are you if you don't meditate?

Secondly, in the Buddhist philosophy I've read, meditation tends to work with the karmic seeds that are planted in our 'subconscious' more than it does with suffering. We don't reduce the amount of suffering because we see suffering and take an axe to it. We see the causes of suffering and we stop contributing to the causes of it. Or we help alleviate the causes of it. But we don't reject suffering. We don't kill it. We don't hide it. We don't deny it. It rises due to causes and conditions and whatever it is it is when it is.

Meditation adds to karma (also causes and conditions that tend to relate and arise) and contributes to what arises for us in the (next) present moment. But what about our conscious mind? To see that, we have to look at phenomena as it appears ordinarily, as we see it here and now. Look at the phenomenal impact you are actually having while meditating. If you are home alone, you are home alone. Your floor does not start to rise, you get hungry when you are hungry, and you will need to pee eventually. There is no use going on a spiritual trip where we think we are healing the planet while sitting on a cushion; eventually the trip disappears for us and we are back to ground zero and we have to take a shit. Even a practice like tonglen is not to be taken literally. We don't actually take on another person's suffering when we do the practice. What we are doing is planting the seeds of compassion in our subconscious and conscious mind, working with our karma, and hopefully, when we are out in the world, our heart is more open and we are more awake so that we may be of benefit to others. That is why we cannot see meditation as reducing suffering for others. It does have a karmic impact, but the present moment of the impact while meditating is our relationship to our own experience while sitting on a cushion in a safe and soft place, not out with others doing things.

If we take your point to it's limits (which is fun), then we could hypothesize that a buddah who lives alone in a cave who meditates all the time actually does have an impact because what we all are is energy, or openness, or the awakened heart of buddha or whathaveyou, and the waves of that energy pulsates everywhere and touches everything. But we cannot see that in this human body because we are, practically, human. We can only have an understanding of what openness might be, or a certain human experience of openness, which might be what we feel when we meet a buddah, which is beautiful, but clearly the particles of our arms and legs don't spontaneously turn to water when we see some part of the truth of openness. You will walk away from a meeting with a buddah as you walked in the room, just with some additional experience and karma. I will understand things when I understand them, not when someone reaches enlightenment on the other side of the planet.

To give you credit, I did list meditation as "the single most important thing I can do to benefit the world," so at least we agree on the method, if not the result.

As I said, I understand your subtlety, so I addressed it.

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