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Open Up, Lean In, Stay With: Contemplative Practices in Uncertain Times

In the Tibetan calendar, 2016 was the year of the Fire Monkey: raw, turbulent, tempestuous—a year of personal strife unfolding in tandem with social unrest and political upheaval. Permeating my own experience of 2016 was a visceral sense of being wrenched in two directions: to dive in fully to the fire of this unrest, and simultaneously to withdraw from it, to shut down, to block out the pain. I suspect I am not alone in such ambivalence: In the face of overwhelming suffering—from the personal to the societal, from shouting at the family dinner table to the bombings in Aleppo—our human impulse is to fight or flee. And when each of these options seems hopeless, we may freeze, paralyzed.

How do we confront our situation? How do we move through fear and paralysis and remain awake to the pain (as well as the beauty) of our reality? In Buddhist teachings and practice, I read three relevant refrains: open up, lean in, and stay with.

First, the teachings advise that with a heart of courage, we open to the intensity of reality, just as it is. In our time, this means seeing clearly the systemic suffering in our society: We open to the pain that is climate change, income inequality, police brutality; we feel with our human hearts the full weight of the Syrian refugee crisis, knowing that other human hearts mourn the loss of family, home, and country; we face directly the implications of an impending Trump presidency. In Western psychology, opening to one’s own emotional pain is a key mechanism by which individuals are thought to move through defense and denial, toward healing and growth.1 At a societal level, opening to the suffering of others may similarly move us through collective denial of very real but painful social issues—institutional racism, for instance—and toward understanding and justice. So when we feel the impulse to flee to Facebook or numb with Netflix, we can instead choose the challenge of opening to reality as it is, in all its beauty and pain. Such courageous open-heartedness, or bodhichitta, is an essential first step toward shaking ourselves and our society awake.2

Second, with a mind of curiosity, we lean into the present moment—both the individual present, with its rich emotional texture, as well as the social present—that is, the social and political context of this moment in humanity’s history. When discomfort arises—whether in the form of inflammatory political rhetoric or of coming face-to-face with our own privilege—instead of turning away, we can lean into our discomfort and into the complexity of the moment. We can actually investigate our situation: What exactly do I feel is wrong with the current rhetoric about Muslims, for example, and how can I confront it skillfully in my own community? Where does my privilege (as a white person, for example) blind me to the suffering perpetuated by current social systems, and how can I become more aware and engaged in dismantling these harmful systems?3 These are complex questions, and, like a kōan, we must lean in and contemplate them fully in order to wake up. But we must also do our homework: With curiosity and equanimity, we modern Buddhists can lean into the challenge of understanding modern society—its systems, its enlightened qualities and its unique forms of samsāra, as well as its points of entrée for skillful, compassionate action in this very moment in our history.

Third, with fearless compassion, we stay with the discomfort. One of the key insights of Shambhala Buddhism in particular is that what often clouds our innate wisdom and compassion is fear—and 2016 was saturated in fear. Indeed, The New York Times described Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign as a “campaign of fear,” in which Trump capitalized on the anxieties of disaffected white voters to create a dystopian view of American society as crumbling, constantly on the precipice of violence, overrun with potential terrorists.4 As many a politician before him, Trump used fear as a political tool to distort perceptions of American’s “present moment,” to scapegoat already marginalized groups, and to distract from the true issues of our time. But what if society knew how to sit with its fear, instead of acting out? Pema Chödrön advises that emotions like fear have the potential to “teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.”5 Thus, if we are brave enough to stay with our fear in these uncertain times, we might see more clearly what is needed, and we can move beyond fear toward compassionate action. This capacity to stay with discomfort is especially important for issues that require long-term, cooperative action: In the case of climate change, for example, we must be willing to stay open to the fear and pain of our planet’s situation, and to remain attentive to issues of environmental protection as they arise, if we are to be of benefit to all beings in the long term.6

As we enter the uncertain times of 2017, we can practice opening up, leaning in, and staying with, both to keep our hearts and minds engaged, and to see more clearly what is skillful or unskillful. But this is difficult work, impossible to do alone. We need people; we need sangha, community. Evidence shows that humans fare better under stress when we have a person we love and trust to hold us with our pain; without this “secure base,” the pain is too much to bear alone, and we shut down.7 Buddhist communities can become wellsprings of support and beacons of guidance to light the difficult road ahead. Barbara O’Brien writes, “By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.”8 Thus, the path is to seek refuge in others while also becoming a source of refuge ourselves; in this way, we can remain awake to the suffering in the world, and we can better sustain our efforts to address the pressing issues of our time.

Jessica Stern is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Maryland and an Associate Editor at The Arrow.

  1. See William J. Whelton, “Emotional Processes in Psychotherapy: Evidence Across Therapeutic Modalities,” Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 11 (2004): 58-71; and Douglas S. Mennin, “Emotion and the Acceptance-Based Approaches to the Anxiety Disorders,” in Acceptance and Mindfulness-Based Approaches to Anxiety, ed. Susan M. Orsillo & Lizabeth Roemer (New York: Springer, 2005), 37-68.
  2. See Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2007), 3-8; and H. H. Dalai Lama, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, ed. N. Vreeland (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001), 117-126, 169-180.
  3. For further discussion about working with issues of privilege and race in Buddhist communities, see “A Call to White Buddhists,” Buddhists for Racial Justice, accessed January 4, 2017,; see also resources from White Awake.
  4. NY Times Editorial Board, “Donald Trump’s Campaign of Fear,” The New York Times, July 22, 2016.
  5. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 16.
  6. For further discussion of Buddhist approaches to addressing climate change, see resources from One Earth Sangha.
  7. Kent Hoffman, “Taking Refuge in the Family of Things: Exploring the Nature of Attachment,” The Arrow 2 (2015): 1-30.
  8. Barbara O’Brien, “The Three Jewels: The Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha,” accessed January 4, 2017,

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