We have chickens. For the past year we have had six of them. They are their own little flock; easy on each other and easy to be around. Last week, we brought in four new girls to join the existing flock. As you might imagine, the old girls did not take kindly to the new girls.
During the first night, for what seemed like hours to me, after we had closed them up in the coop, the distress calls began to ring out into the night and right into my living room. I opened the front door to hear better. I listened. And then I listened some more. Mostly though, I fretted. Were they all right? Were the old ones attacking the new ones? Would I find a bloody mess in the morning? Would it be my fault that I did not intervene? Finally, coming to the conclusion there was nothing to do, and in order to save my own sanity, I had to close the window. But I could still hear them.
Despite trying to reassure myself that they would work it out, something in me felt agitated and lit up by the distraught nature of their calling.
In the morning when I got into my practice, the same thing was being played out again. Over and over and over. It was driving me mad. My whole body, heart and mind was filled with their distress. I literally could not get beyond it. So much so, that I was driven off my mat and out to the coop to make sure no one was being harmed.
As soon as I arrived, the original girls, who were making all the noise, came over to me and quieted. It felt so good. And then, it didn’t. Because they started back up again.
Back on my cushion, I watched the agitation in me rise again and again based on their distress. And so I began to wonder about this. I know that it is natural for one sentient being to feel what is happening for another. That it is a necessary and essential part of being alive and being with others. And I also know that as a human being, I can muck up the works with my beliefs, habits and imprints about what it means to be with another’s suffering. This is especially so for some of us, more than others.
Because I know this about myself, I watched my thoughts and emotions around all of this. And what I found, way deep, deep down, was that my discomfort was not so much that they were distressed (although that was there). Not so much that I could not soothe them (although that was there). But mostly because I felt that their distress was somehow connected to my own well-being. In others words, that unbearable feeling I was having was less about them and more about me. It was me believing that if another is troubled around me, then somehow I cannot be OK. This leaves me doing the only thing I think I can do: Make another’s troubles my troubles.
Which takes me to something my astrologer recently said to me: “Two drowning people are not better than one.” Or for that matter 50, or a thousand, or a million, or a world full of the distraught. Don’t get me wrong. This is not about ignoring suffering. It is instead, about not increasing it. About not taking on what is not yours. About not making a life out of being miserable because others are miserable. For the truth is, someone, somewhere, will always be in trouble. And if your happiness and well-being are linked to that, well, you get the picture.
The natural fact that we are indeed all inextricably bound aside, how often is our concern, our compassion, our empathy really about our need to get another to be okay so that we can be okay? In other words, how often are our altruistic, caring gestures, in fact, a kind of co-dependency? This can be very, very hard to hear for all of us caring souls. And yet, getting clear on this is a crucial piece of the puzzle as we make our way forward in times where the distress is so palpable. So visible. So alarming.
Interestingly enough, if we take my small example of going out to the coop, there is guidance there. Because I made an effort to calm myself as I approached them, they were able to sense that, if even for a moment, giving them respite from their distress. Try it. Instead of jumping into the drowning pool with another, make yourself calm and be with them. No fixing. Just being, while being as okay as you can possibly muster.