How helping others helps me

I recently had a transformative experience that I’d like to share with the world. As some of you know, I recently set out to travel to South East Asia on a ‘spiritual journey’. My goal was basically to deepen my understanding of Buddhism, how to practice and meditate more profoundly than I had been doing so far.

A friend recommended I visit Suan Mokkh (a good place to get started in meditation and Buddhism, or also to deepen your practice. Just be mindful of the fact that every teacher lays out the dharma a bit differently and may emphasize certain aspects over others, so if you go, take it as one input along the path, not the ultimate truth 🙂

Suan Mokkh was an intense experience. I hadn’t been fully aware that going on a retreat can actually also bring up a lot of old stuff that is stored in your subconscious and that you’ve generally repressed as you go about the tribulations of daily life. In my case, envy and guilt came up, sometimes very strongly and it was very challenging to deal with. I’ve now found out, according to teachers I trust, this is normal and expected. I highly recommend watching this video before going on any meditation retreat, where these ‘darker times’ are analyzed in more detail. They also give good recommendations as to what to do when you encounter them.

On top of those emotions arising from the subconscious, as I meditated on the retreat and started reflecting on the core of the Buddha’s teachings of anicca or impermance, anatta or self-less nature of things and dukkha, the suffering nature of this world more intensely. At some point the impermance piece kind of really hit me. Everything is impermanent, including our lives, the people we love, the meals we eat, the sex we have, etc. So while many of the things life has to offer may seem pleasurable, they’re also all impermanent, fleeting, and will not bring lasting satisfaction, salvation. There will always be a beginning to each meal, a middle, and an end. Every relationship you engage in will ultimately end (at the latest when one of you dies). So there is nothing to hold on to. And that has been very scary to me. Many things I used to derive pleasure from, like going out dancing, suddenly didn’t really seem relevant anymore. Since it couldn’t bring about salvation. The only thing that seemed relevant was to meditate more, with the goal of eventually reaching nibbana, or salvation. But then my meditation retreat had itself brought me a lot of suffering by bringing about annoying and hurtful thoughts from the past. So what the heck was I supposed to do!?

Puuuh. This was an intense period. I couldn’t really see the light for a while. What am I supposed to with my life now?

Luckily though, I had recently purchased “Peace is every Step” from the most wise Thich Nhat Hanh, one of my favorite buddhist teachers. Different from most buddhist books I’d read, Thay (the Vietnamese word for teacher, as his students lovingly call him) is advocating a much more pro-active approach to life, in something he calls ‘Engaged Buddhism’.

Reading this book must have unlocked something in my subconscious. One day, the following thought crossed my mind. Well, if I don’t know what to do with my life, how about I help someone out who is suffering in some way? Surely that wouldn’t be wasted time then.

I remembered hearing about this website called “7 cups of tea” a year or so ago, but hadn’t engaged in it back then. On 7cups, people with any kind of psychological issue can anonymously and at no cost talk to others about their problems. People on the other side are called listeners. They are volunteers, who’ve gone through some basic active listening training and are willing to lend a listening ear to people struggling with horrors like anxiety, depression, abuse, eating disorders, you name it. It’s all done through text-based chatting, so you never see or hear the other person.

7cups looked like it could be the most instant way for me to have an impact, so I signed up as a listener and went through the active listening training program. Wow. I didn’t know that there was a way to ‘actively listen’, where you aren’t already thinking of the next smart thing you’ll say but merely trying to be really present for what the other person is saying. (Alert: Game Changer!)

So after the training I started having my first conversations immediately. In my 3rd or 4th conversation, something dramatic happened, which is the inspiration of this post.

I was chatting with someone, who I later would learn is a girl. Let’s call her CuriousMandarine here. (Everyone on 7cups get really awesome names when they sign up). She told me that she had to tell someone, but couldn’t say what was going on. I wasn’t sure how to take that. I asked her a few questions, but I still couldn’t get her to open up to me. She said she wasn’t even worth being listened to. This went on for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Then I decided to apply the learnings of my amazing sales internship with my BFF Steli. It’s about asking the customer what it would take for them to become your customer.

So I asked her

“OK, What is preventing you from telling me what is going on?”

“I don’t know!” she replied

I kept probing.

“What if you had to guess?”

And then she told me. She told me she’d just been raped a few hours ago.

I was touched. Deeply. Here I was in my beach resort in Thailand, anxious and confused because I didn’t know what to do with my life. And then Suffering was staring at me across my computer screen. It was very real, visceral.

I dropped all of my little problems. Automatically. There was a person on the other end of the screen who was in deep suffering, didn’t know what to do. And I was the only one right now in the world who could help. Of course I didn’t really know what to do as a listener there, so I asked for help in the 7cups listener support chat room. A helpful person there pointed me to a guide about what to do in such situations. The first question was to ask

“Are you safe right now?”. This actually made her freak out. She realized it had happened just a few blocks from her house, so that the perpetrator might know where she lives and come get her. She started sounding like she would maybe hurt herself, she seemed to have so little self-esteem at that point. So I started freaking out a little.

I realized I wasn’t qualified to deal with this, and asked in the 7cups listener support if someone could over the chat, and luckily someone very experienced volunteered. I made sure she was comfortable chatting with him and had to realize this was the best thing I could do at this time for her. He confirmed later he was able to help her and make sure she had all the things she needed to get the appropriate help. I was very relieved to hear that and hope that this girl is now doing better.

The moment was pivotal for me. Being confronted with the suffering of another human being so directly, it touched something deep inside of me. At that point, I forgot about everything around me, and my mind started focusing very intently on “How do I help this person? How can I remove some of her suffering?”. There was a sense of duty that arose, and a sort of energy that unleashed. I was willing to do whatever it takes to help. In fact the “I” kind of dropped away. It was just “What is needed to help this person”. When I realized that “I” could make a difference in this person’s life, right now, that was deeply moving. There was no one else there. I was needed. She needed me. The world needed me to be there. To listen to her. To keep probing when she wouldn’t answer. And then to do my tiny part in helping her get to next step. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I did something absolutely crazy here and that I should receive some kind of medal for it. I only did what was required. Yet it felt deeply gratifying to be able to be there for her then.

Reflecting on this over the next 24 hours, it really turned into a larger game changer for my life. For the first time in my life, I realized that life didn’t have to be about ‘me me me’ all the time. How I could get happier, wealthier, find love, have more sex etc. It could also be about asking the question “What does the world need right now? What does the world need me to do right now?”

I had definitely talked about altruism, about the need to do something for the world with friends, my parents and my therapist. But it had always remained a somewhat theoretical idea, something that I ‘ought to do’. And in the times I’d done it up until then, I hadn’t quite felt the strong sense of having made a difference in someone’s life. This is the first time in my life that I felt this very empirically. It was deep in my chest, my body. I can be a part of the solution to a better world. This has given me a deeper sense of purpose. This is how helping others is helping me.

And it doesn’t mean I have to be like Gandhi to make the world a better place (although that would certainly be a noble ambition). It can even just start with a smile instead of being indifferent. Whether or not someone is looking at you, you can smile. It’s great when you’re by yourself, as it is healthy for you. But it’s of course amazing if you can make someone else smile with your smile. Can you imagine, you can help release endorphines in someones brain by the mere action of smiling at them. This can potentially set off a chain reaction. What if that person then smiles at the next person they meet? And so on? Do you realize how powerful this is!?? You can literally ‘brighten up their day’ by smiling at someone. Try it. If there is someone next to you as you’re reading this, try it right now :). I’m smiling at you reading this now 🙂

I feel incredibly grateful to have been able to make this realization so viscerally. If someone is reading this and thinks ‘duh, you didn’t realize there is suffering???’ Well I didn’t realize it with my body. People who’ve already realized the amount of suffering in the world much earlier with their bodies and have made the focus of their lives to help others – I’m super glad you exist. Thank you for inspiring me. I just kind of really realized it now. And I hope I can use this realization and move my life more in this direction too. I will certainly try.

I’ve had the the chance to reflect on this and how it relates to Buddhism a bit more, and briefly wanted to share a realization I found very helpful as guidance for my life.

In Buddhism, one of the other core teachings is the one of anatta, of self-less-ness. Once you truly realize the selflessness  of nature (along with anicca and dukkha), you’re supposedly enlightened. This can be interpreted very nihistically, as in there is no self at all. The Buddha actually never said that there is no self. When someone asked him about whether there is a self or not, he refused to answer. Reading more about self and non-self, I came across this fantastic answer on quora

Quoting here: “You realize that actually, everything is inside of you. Your “ego” is no longer the small self: Now your “ego” is ever-expanding, experiencing the answer to God/Goddesses question “who am I” one moment at a time. Instead of drawing a conclusion “this is who I am”, you open up and realize: I’m that, and that, and that … and at the same time, you realize that you are not ;-)”

So the idea here being not to ‘get rid’ of the ego. More like to incease and expand the ego so much that it goes beyond your possessions, relationships, your body, whatever you are identifying ‘Me and mine’ with. So big that it can include the whole world. It includes all the people in this world. Including those who are suffering right now, deeply.

Imagine the whole world was one body. Like if your right hand has a cut from a knife, the entire body realizes this and acts in unison to get Betadine and a band-aid on the cut. The left hand doesn’t say, oh the right hand isn’t me, I don’t care to help. If the world was one body, if the whole world is ‘you’, and you could feel the pain in the world in the same way that you could feel pain in your hand, how would that feel? What would you do?