I was lounging on a couch at my friend’s place in Hermosa Beach after a relaxing day when my ritualistic evening email check announced that my home country of Ukraine was under attack by Russia. A few minutes later, my friend from Ukraine wrote to me on Facebook: “They just woke us up. War has started.” The harsh reality and the pain of the situation took a couple of days to settle into my mind. What followed was a week of bad news, intense phone conversations with family and friends, disbelief, fear, anger and confusion.
Amid the bewildering human error and suffering that ensued, a growing voice inside me was seeking a way out of helplessness and into clarity and meaning. As time went on, I regained the inner stability and wisdom to be able to accept the gifts of war and begin to extend support to myself and those around me. I offer my reflections below not as a prescription but as a way to share, connect and possibly inspire.
Daily calls with my friends in Ukraine provided me an insider view into the situation. It wasn’t pretty. People were confused, afraid and angry. But it was manageable, in the sense that they were dealing with their emotions and situations in the best way they could. In contrast, I was also in touch with friends and family all over the world who were incessantly ingesting and digesting the skewed and exaggerated news accounts of the situation. Not only were they not able to personally manage the chaotic avalanche of the fear-centric information from the media, they were also influencing the people they contacted in Ukraine with their hopeless and helpless perspectives. More importantly, the energy drain of constant news consumption left very little to offer real support to those who needed it. It took me about a week to clearly see this dynamic, after which point my friends in Ukraine became my sole news source, mainly as an opportunity to provide them a space to express their concerns and be heard. Instead of fueling my fear and mental agitation, these “news sessions” became a source of connection and compassion.
Before the war, I spoke to my friends in Ukraine a few times a year, mostly about the general state of affairs in their life. Once the war began, these conversations became much more frequent and personal, touching upon topics in our lives that were deeply significant and immediate. Periodically interrupted by sounds of exploding bombs, sirens and gun shots, our calls were permeated with an undeniable awareness of our mortality and the insignificance of the petty pursuits we had given so much importance in the past. In my experience, human connection created on the basis of our core aliveness, instead of the fleeting roles and desires of modern life, provides deep nourishment and meaning to the moments in which it endures. I don’t know if suffering and war arise because we forget that connection, but if we can use war to remember, rekindle and strengthen such connection, we can consider it a gift, albeit with a hard shell to crack.
The key question that has been driving my actions and supporting my sanity has been: “What can I do?” Not, “What’s wrong with Putin?” Not, “Will Russia use nuclear weapons?” And not, “How many people have died today?” Those are important questions, just not for me. By keeping my mind clear of unnecessary noise and negativity and directing my energies into meaningful action, I have found ways to be stable and supportive. In my experience, once a conducive inner space is created and a clear question is formed, beneficial actions and supportive environments tend to arise.
So what could I do? I could start a weekly discussion and meditation group called the Peace Lab at my spiritual home, Inner Way LA. I can gather friends to recite a Buddhist sutra praised by Lama Zopa (a Tibetan Buddhist teacher) to relieve war and suffering. I can help my friend Sergey create and fund a new nonprofit organization, Health of the Ukrainian People, which works to support Ukraine’s healthcare infrastructure and to provide humanitarian aid to children. I can support my friends Sasha and Vlad in their struggle to find work by helping them train for careers in software so they can work remotely. I can sponsor my friend Sveta and her two children to immigrate to America. This has kept me busy for now. Will I solve all the problems? No. But I intend to take full responsibility for the situation, develop engaged compassion, and use whatever abilities I have to support those who need it. Using mindful awareness and digging deeper with insight allowed me to use this crisis to create inner and outer connection and healing.
If you’d like to explore ways of discovering meaning and healing in times of crisis, please join me on July 30 at 7:00 pm at InsightLA Benefit Series.