I have a friend, a Zen teacher, who lost his daughter a decade or so ago. Years passed, and he asked his own teacher, "I have been meditating for many years, but underneath, I still feel an abiding sadness. Am I doing something wrong?"
His teacher told him, "What you feel is Universal Sadness."
When I first heard this story, I didn't get it.
But not too long ago, Michelle, my wife, had a miscarriage. She, of course, was distraught, and I felt terrible for her. What surprised me, though, was my own awful sadness (I had felt very ambivalent about the pregnancy).
The sadness walked around with me for a few days, and I kept thinking, "How do people live in the face of things like this? How can people function, knowing tragedy can strike as quickly as a you can step off the curb without seeing the bus?"
Then, one day, it struck me. Probably a million women had miscarriages on the same day as Michelle. A million husbands quietly grieved while they stayed strong to comfort their wives. The tragedy was not mine alone. We all had it. We're all struggling to get by. Life, for everyone, is precarious.
For just that moment, my heart broke open for the world. The sadness was not just mine. We all have it. We all suffer from it. I understood for those few seconds what my friend the Zen teacher meant by Universal Sadness. It means we are all in this thing together.
And when a moment like that comes, living environmentally, living for a purpose larger than yourself and having the things you want are not in conflict at all. They are not in competition. Because when you have--even for a moment--the experience that your sadness is Universal, what you want is not more things. Instead, you get a glimpse of simply wanting to help.
Painting entitled "Compassion" by Dan Wicks.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.