Discerning Awareness

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Excerpt from the book ‘ Emotional Awareness’ A conversation between The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

Discerning Awareness

“Ekman : Let us consider an example that is relevant to the issue we have been discussing : a pediatric oncology nurse who works eight hours a day with young children who are dying of cancer and their grieving parents. Such nurses witness enormous suffering. Some children get helped, but many do not. It is said that if the nurse feels the suffering of all of the children and all the parents ( what I term emotional resonance ), that would produce burnout. The more general point is that you may not need to feel the suffering in order to be motivated to act compassionately to help try to relieve their suffering.

Dalai Lama (Translated) This is what Buddhists refer to as the discriminating or discerning awareness. While you are capable of appreciating others’ pain, it should be accompanied by discernment. You do your best to bring about the end of their suffering. If you are totally overwhelmed by others’ pain, then you can be paralyzed by it; nothing happens.

There is a story told in the Buddhist meditation practice manual of a situation in which there was a famine in a region, and the whole family was starving. There was a real danger that everyone could die. But the family had a lump of meat. To be fair this should have been divided among everyone, and everybody should have their share. But the father upon deep thinking, decided that he should have the whole thing. That way he was able to get some energy, and then he left to go a long distance in search of food. And he was able to bring back food and everyone survived. If the father had become paralysed and everyone, thinking it is totally hopeless, had shared the meat, the family would not have survived

Ekman: I interpret the application of your idea to this nurse in that she may have a strong emotional resonance that motivated her to become a nurse, but that she must tone it down so that it does not interfere with helping her patients. Instead of sitting and crying with them, she does what she can do…” 

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