This article was written by Karuna and first published by Elephant Journal.
As Russia pummels Ukraine with tanks and rockets, and the citizens of Ukraine take up arms, Molotov cocktails, and a healthy dose of f*ck you, many of us are suspended in disbelief.
The risks of a grander scale conflict feel just around the corner with words like “nuclear” and “World War III” being tossed around in the news. Our hearts ache for those affected by war and aggression. Which, in one way or the other, is everyone.
To me, it feels as if we have been in a traumatic global relay race for the past two years, with the pandemic now passing the baton to a high-stakes war.
In some ways, I feel small and helpless. I am not a foreign policy expert (nor do I pretend to be one on social media) any more than I am a healthcare worker. I am an ordinary citizen of the United States of America, living 6,000 miles away from the conflict. However, I also know that there are many practices we can engage from afar to help. Our hearts, minds, and intentions are powerful beyond measure when we put them to good use.
As a practicing Buddhist and a meditation teacher and guide, I am fortunate to have many tools in my toolbelt that can help bring love to those affected by these unfortunate circumstances. Specifically, loving-kindness, one of four practices called the four immeasurables, feels apropos for the war in Ukraine. Loving-kindness complements and builds on the other immeasurable practices of compassion, equanimity, and joy. A simple definition of the four immeasurables is that they are a way to positively engage with other beings in your daily life. While all four are beyond measure in the ways they can help, I feel that lovingkindness is where we must begin.
Beyond meeting the essential needs of people in areas of conflict, like access to clean water, medical aid, and food, they also need to know that they are not alone and that global citizens are paying attention to their plight. Humans need to feel loved in order to survive; something both the fields of science and psychology have explored and proven important. The good news is love is something that we can provide from afar.
Here are five specific things we can do right now to help those affected by the war in Ukraine.
Spoiler-alert, it starts with you and me.
1. Notice and manage microaggressions toward yourself.
I’ve previously written about the power of discipline. It is a necessary component to expressing more lovingkindness toward ourselves and others. Upon reflection, most of us are fairly hard on ourselves. Because we tend to mirror in others what we feel toward ourselves (think of bullies as an extreme example), we have to soften our approach to ourselves in order to soften our approach to others. Extending loving-kindness toward ourselves when we fail is a great first step in doing so.
I practice loving-kindness toward myself in two specific ways:
>> The first is by noticing the tone I use toward myself when small things happen, like spilling coffee or dropping a glass. If the tone within me doesn’t match what I would use with a loved one or a child, then I know that there is room to up the loving-kindness ante.
>> The second method is more formally practiced in sitting meditation. When we engage in loving-kindness meditation practice, we begin by extending lovingkindness toward ourselves. By doing so, we are symbolically putting on our own oxygen mask before helping others. This is a critical self-care practice to prevent burnout.
2. Engage loving-kindness meditation toward others, including those we do not like.
The traditional loving-kindness recitation is something like this:
May you be filled with loving-kindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.
Traditionally, you start with yourself, move toward people it is easy to love, people to whom you feel neutral—like you see walking their dog in your neighborhood or a clerk at your local market or coffee shop, and then extending your heart by also including those with whom you have a difficult relationship. Eventually, you extend lovingkindness to all beings without exception.
I’ve created a similar loving-kindness meditation that I call the campfire meditation. We begin by imagining ourselves sitting at a campfire. The space feels safe and is just the right temperature. There is a sense of peace. We then draw in groups of people to sit at the campfire with us. We can use the traditional lovingkindness meditation above, or we can modify the words to be more relatable. We begin with those we like, those whom we feel neutral, and those who challenge us.
With the current circumstance, we then stoke our intention to bring loving-kindness to the people affected by the war in Ukraine. First, we add in the citizens of Ukraine, then displaced people, those fighting for their lives, innocent citizens of Russia and neighboring countries, and so forth. In a final act of immense courage, we bring in the aggressors, extending loving-kindness to them as well. In this sense, we loosen the grip of judgment in our hearts. May they too, return home to the people they love. May everyone put down their arms of war.
I find I can only stay with this outer ring for a few moments before the campfire dies and I am back sitting with my breath in meditation.
This is a good practice to engage in a group. It is beneficial to get formal teachings as well, though anyone can practice loving-kindness. If you find it is difficult at first to extend love to those causing pain, it’s okay. Take your time and remember you can always return to the sensations of your breath.
3. Limit the amount of time you spend watching the news and scrolling through social media feeds.
I remember when the pandemic first started, I would watch the global counter for the number of individuals infected, recovered, and dead. I would search for “pandemic news” to see if the needle had moved. After a few weeks of similar stories in the news feed, I realized that this exercise was futile. While it originally helped me wrap my head and heart around this new world we find ourselves in, I soon realized also that this searching and scrolling was actually feeding my fear and anxiety rather than providing noteworthy updates. I resigned myself instead to tune in once a week.
The truth is that the news cycle moves much slower than we think and it’s helpful to check our motivation, as sometimes we are using the news to actually tune out by tuning in. As one of my teachers explains it, “Once we realize something is hurting us, we are the only one who can drop that hot coal.” We have great volition over our relationship with the news and social media. As autonomous beings, we can choose what we take into our hearts and minds.
4. Practice generosity.
Offering generosity toward others is one of the best ways to both extend and care for ourselves simultaneously. It feels good to help others, as our bodies release the great trifecta of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. During times of great distress, like war, people in conflict areas need access to shelter, clean water, and medical supplies.
Many global relief organizations begin mobilizing in advance of conflict to be the boots on the ground and they depend on the generosity of those of us who live both near and far. Donations are important. Stretching our capacity to give by donating a few dollars more than we feel we can is a beautiful way to combat stinginess as well.
5. Dedicating the merit of our practice.
In Buddhism, it is a tradition to end your meditation practice with a meritorial dedication. It is said that engaging in a meditation practice is a good act and by dedicating this good act to be of benefit to other beings as well, you share and extend the goodness. This allows us to connect with the wish that all sentient beings, including those we like, don’t know, don’t like, and so forth, be happy and free.
We can supercharge our dedication practice by doing this anytime we engage in a helpful action, from brushing our teeth (may all beings have access to clean water and good hygiene) to helping our elderly neighbor shovel snow (may all beings receive the help that they need today). This is a powerful practice to loosen up ignorant desire and aversion in our hearts, while extending warm wishes to others. I liken this to an upward feedback loop that helps us as we help others.
The simple wish for all beings to be happy and free from suffering is rooted in love and it starts and ends with you and me. Each day, we can dedicate the merit of our actions to peace in Ukraine.
“Thoughts have power. Prayers and aspirations have force.” ~ Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo