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July/August 2001
Bearing the Unbearable

By Norm Phelps


When we become involved in a social justice movement, we volunteer for the pain of others. We take on a portion of the suffering of the homeless, persons living with HIV, victims of intolerance and discrimination, nonhuman animals—whichever direction we turn our attention—in the hope that we can alleviate it. And sometimes we can. More often, though, we cannot, at least not enough, and so we take on the additional pain of our limitations.

Most people deal with the suffering of others by not looking at it. What they don’t see, doesn’t hurt. They buy their chicken at KFC and never glimpse the inside of a battery cage or slaughterhouse. They go home to clean, air-conditioned houses or apartments and never see the inside of a homeless shelter. But that is not an option for activists. For some reason—perhaps a defective gene that the biotech industry will soon learn how to fix—we seem constitutionally unable to chill out in the bliss of willful ignorance. We feel compelled to look straight on at the suffering of others and try to do something about it.

Not Your Average Burnout
In Mahayana Buddhism, “the Great Compassion”—compassion for all living beings without distinction—is one of the two fundamental goals in life (the other being a direct perception of the true nature of reality). But on the way to developing the Great Compassion, we pass through a state that the teachers call “unbearable compassion,” where practitioners become so acutely aware of the suffering of others that they risk breaking down beneath the burden. Activists know exactly what those old monks were talking about.

I believe that most “burnout” in social justice movements does not come from the pressures and stresses that burn out people in the business world—long hours, heavy workload, tight deadlines, and the like. Workers for social justice experience these pressures too, but by and large we are insulated from their most corrosive effects by the knowledge that what we are doing has ultimate value because it is undertaken on behalf of others. And that knowledge satisfies a human need beside which things like sex, money, and immortality pale into insignificance: our work gives our lives meaning. And because it does, most social activists can cope with the stress. What is much harder for us to cope with is the suffering of those we are trying to help—and our own frequent inability to end that suffering. I believe that most cases of what is usually diagnosed as “burnout” in social justice movements are actually instances of compassion that can no longer be borne.

So how do we bear “unbearable” compassion? One way is simply to refuse to acknowledge our own pain. We grow a hard scab over our compassion and try to tough it out. “I just don’t let it get to me,” is the way most of us describe this strategy, and sometimes building this kind of levy to seal ourselves off from the rising tide of our own pain is a necessary first line of defense. For the long haul, however, it is woefully inadequate. Strategies that depend on refusing to acknowledge powerful emotions eventually fail. When our levy breaks down, the flood extinguishes the fire that keeps us going. We burn out.

Fortunately, the same ancient teachers who diagnosed unbearable compassion also gave us techniques for easing our own pain while we work to ease the suffering of others. Their prescription is by no means the exclusive property of Buddhism. Over the ages, it has been taught by many traditions in many cultures going back into prehistory, so that no one can claim to have created it or to have proprietary rights to it. It is part of our universal human heritage. I am talking about spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice assumes many forms and defies definition—at least by me—but there is one thing that it clearly and definitely is not, and that is a religion. Different religions may teach different forms of spiritual practice, but spiritual practice can be undertaken within the context of any religion or no religion, and does not commit you to—or alienate you from—any particular religion or philosophy. Spiritual practice is simply a set of mental disciplines—mental training exercises, if you will—analogous to the physical disciplines practiced by athletes. These exercises strengthen and focus the mind so that it can bear unbearable compassion the way that physical exercise strengthens the body to endure the rigors of running a marathon.

Finding a Spiritual Practice
No one spiritual practice is best for everyone for the same reason that no one physical fitness program is best for everyone. What follows are a few personal observations on making the right choice based on nearly twenty years of both animal rights activism and spiritual practice.

Shop but don’t hop. By this I mean, search for a spiritual practice that is suited to you, but don’t jump around from practice to practice, trying and discarding one after another. Once you have decided that a practice may be right for you, stick with it for a while. They’re called “practices” because you have to practice them. New spiritual practitioners often get a quick “rush.” When that rush fails to reappear, they become disillusioned and go looking for it in a different practice. The real benefits of all spiritual practices, like those of exercise regimes, accrue slowly over time. In order to experience them, you may have to endure a distressing amount of boredom and fight off a lot of urges to see a movie, read a book, or sleep an extra hour. But it’s worth it. You can’t run a marathon if you aren’t willing to stick to your training schedule, and a lifetime of social activism can be the toughest marathon most of us will ever enter. Fortunately, there are spiritual practices tailored to practically every taste [or need]. There really is something for everyone. Techniques like sitting meditation, moving meditation, mantra recitation, prayer, journaling, and mindfulness exercises (becoming fully focused in the present moment) are neither right nor wrong in and of themselves; they are either right or wrong for you.

Look for a three-way fit. First, the practice has to fit your belief system. If you are a devout Catholic who attends daily mass, you will probably do best with a Catholic spiritual practice, such as saying the rosary. Conversely, if you are an atheist, you will probably not want to adopt the Eastern Orthodox practice of reciting the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”). Second, a spiritual practice has to fit your personality. If writing about your experiences and feelings helps you to focus and bring clarity to the issues in your life, you might do well with a practice that includes journaling. On the other hand, if keeping a diary has always struck you as a waste of time, journaling is probably not right for you. Or, for example, If the idea of using the body as an instrument of spiritual growth makes sense to you, you might want to take up a practice with a physical component, like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or Yoga. Finally, a spiritual practice has to fit your lifestyle. If you are a single parent who is earning a living, keeping house, and raising a child at the same time, you will have to consider carefully whether a practice that calls for an hour of sitting meditation every day is more likely to provide an island of relief or add to your stress. If the latter, you should look for a practice that can be more easily integrated into a hectic day, such as mantra recitation or mindfulness exercises.

Don’t make up your own program. Spiritual practitioners have been experimenting with and refining their techniques for centuries. They have made the mistakes, and figured out what works and what doesn’t. Take advantage of their experience. After you become comfortable with a practice, you can begin to slide in variations that are compatible with its principles. But learn the practice first.

Once you have adopted a spiritual practice, practice it. Practice it every day. Make it as much a part of your routine as eating and sleeping. Spiritual practice is food for your mind and soul, and to be well nourished, we have to eat regularly.

One final thought. I believe that spiritual practice is especially apt for activists because social activism is itself a spiritual undertaking, the extension of our compassion into the outside world. Spiritual practice can not only help us bear the pain that this necessarily entails, it can deepen and expand our compassion and bring us into more constant and intimate contact with its source, whether you call that source God, the Atman, Buddha Nature, the collective unconscious, Nature, or by some other name. Spiritual practice puts us in touch with what is most fundamental in our lives. And in doing so, it unites us with all living beings.

Norm Phelps is spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals. Visit their website at


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