In the life story of Siddhartha Gotama, just before his enlightenment he is skeletally thin and barely alive, having deprived himself of sustenance to the point of starvation. A young woman named Sujata gives him a bowl of rice and milk. Understanding that deprivation is not the path to awakening, Siddhartha gratefully accepts Sujata’s gift, ending his six-year experiment with rigorous asceticism. Enlivened by the nourishment and brought back into balance, Siddhartha attains enlightenment shortly thereafter.
These days, we wonder how we can be like Sujata. We strive to make a difference in the world. We reduce our carbon footprints and participate proactively in the democratic process. We educate ourselves and serve others. Yet despite our best efforts, as a whole our societies still seem to be starving for compassion, thirsty for equanimity, and emaciated by the onslaught of digital disconnections. We wonder, what is the bowl of rice and milk that we can give our world to help to bring it into balance?
At some point in our lives, we realize that what we are doing is not enough. We mean well, but squeezing small acts of kindness in between hours spent working toward our own material and social well-being does not satisfy our deep drive to profoundly alleviate the suffering of others. Because there’s never enough time in a day to meet the demands of our multi-layered labyrinth of obligations, we are burdened with a sense of impotence and even guilt for not having figured out our own skillful expression of Sujata’s compassion. This impotence becomes anger, and we lash out at the world that we so deeply care for, or it becomes despondency, and we withdraw into complacency, haunted by the feeling that we could be doing more.
Then something comes along – something so big, so real, and so unavoidable that we cannot ignore it. Be it a natural or a political disaster, an emotional crisis or a brush with death, or everything all piled into one big mess, we reach a point when we decide that it is time for a profound change. In that moment we can recognize that we are not Sujata. We are not the ones bearing the rice and milk, but the ones in need. We are the Buddha, and to progress on the path, we need the sustenance that will bring us into balance. We will only achieve our full capacity to serve others when we ourselves are well and strong, and to do that, we must end our own spiritual asceticism.
Imagine that bowl of rice and milk, how good it feels to eat and drink. True compassion for the world, at this stage in our lives, is to do what is needed to bring ourselves into balance. This self-balancing is not the same as seeking comfort through pleasant activity and ownership of objects. We know from our own experience that leads only to more work, more complication, and more distraction. Spiritual self-balancing involves letting go of our political and ethical outrage just as we let go of every thought, positive and negative, during calm-abiding meditation practice. The feelings behind our outrage are uncomfortable, and our indignant responses are often attempts to alleviate that discomfort. The attitude, “I’ll stop being angry when they stop their insanity,” makes our own mental and emotional well-being conditional upon the behavior of others. Seeing that this attitude is a denial of our own power, exhaling, we let it go, and in that moment, we receive Sujata’s gift.
This doesn’t mean that we stop working for social justice, freedom, and equality. The motivation to be of service to others is the foundation of all that we do. Letting go of our outrage offers us a way to achieve our altruistic goals by means other than anger, frustration, resentment, and comfort-seeking self-interest. So often, when we attempt to let go of our outrage, a strong inner voice rises up in protest, insisting that to let go of outrage is tantamount to surrender. But that is not the case. We are starving for peace, and there is peace in every breath.