Some time back in the early 1970's I was participating on a sweat lodge with a Navajo medicine man. At some point our conversation turned to the state of the world, the destruction of natural resources, the prevalence of suffering, injustices, etc. The advice he gave me inspired me at the time and set a standard for my path. He revealed that what he had been taught was to stay informed, participate and act on your truth, and ultimately learn to carry it all lightly. It's the last part, the "carry it all lightly", that has been the greatest challenge and greatest blessing. The Buddha, Tibetan Llamas, and Tantric masters all understood this. The Buddha called it "opening the heart of compassion". Compassion was known in these traditions to be a higher form of love and a higher vibration in the heart chakra. This form of love integrated acceptance, empathy, and wisdom. It was understood that years of practice and study with the assistance of evolved teachers are required to achieve and stabilize this heart of compassion. To experience this vibration briefly or occasionally is one thing; to stabilize there is yet another advanced level of development.
An integral aspect of this awakening of the heart chakra is the opening and activation of the upper chakras and the cultivation of the "descending current" that brings the consciousness and wisdom available through the upper chakras down into the heart chakra. If this sounds esoteric, it is. These practices were taught for centuries in Tantric mystery schools and practiced diligently by serious students and adepts. The full effect is not available to dilettantes who are looking for a quick and easy high. It requires time and regular practice - diligence, not dilettantism. Thus this particular awakening is very challenging for Westerners, most of whom have been conditioned to operate with short attention spans, oriented to external distractions, and to crave immediate results. Even the concept of such an approach to one's personal life and self-reflective identity is unfathomable to most Americans.
Furthermore, for those who have an ambition to awaken, who have brought their lower energies up and expanded their heart, becoming more loving, caring, and friendly, a satisfying "plateau" often develops at the heart, and the need to go further seems irrelevant. They are oblivious to the next stages of the journey of awakening - these next stages (upper chakra development) are literally "over their heads". The challenge to progress then becomes even subtler, as their satisfaction becomes an unseen obstacle to their evolution. It's very simple and common for the ego to become involved with entrenching here at this plateau, as a subtle ego identity of being a very loving person appears.
This could be seen as a version of what Don Juan, in one of the early Carlos Castaneda books, revealed as the "first adversary" on the path. Identification with a limited, yet satisfying and admirable plateau on the path becomes a type of subtle conceit, a resistance to evolving, and an avoidance of the discomfort and challenges that spiritual growth usually involves. Joseph Chilton Pierce refers to "our capacity for denial, and our simple desire to maintain things as they are". It is what 14th century Spanish Sufi, Iban Arabi, called "our enormous capacity for self-deception". This is why teachers and mystics have often described the spiritual path as a journey through a "maze" with many distractions. The maze is of our own making - or more accurately stated, it is the construct of our ego and cultural conditioning.
But I digress! Let's return to the business of "carrying it lightly" and awakening the heart of compassion. Easier said than done. One of the inherent great challenges of cultivating compassion and being informed is that with evolving consciousness comes increased awareness (and scope of awareness) of the suffering of others. One increasingly recognizes the suffering and causes of suffering in people with whom the student has immediate contact. Additionally, the student becomes more and more aware of the widespread suffering of humanity and the unfortunate destructive themes of history. This expanding awareness, near and far, attendant to opening and awakening, extends the challenge to maintain compassion and to hold it all lightly. To "pull this off" several processes are required.
The most accomplished masters of the heart of compassion are able to perceive the world's suffering with lightness because they have sufficiently progressed on a long process of diligently purifying themselves of similar personal issues. Thus psychological and emotional healing is absolutely necessary so that the energetic charge of others' suffering has nothing to "stick to" in the compassionate perceiver. And from the opposite direction, the master, although empathic and present with the suffering of others, no longer identifies with that suffering or its causes. In current psychological terms this would constitute a complete healing and transformation of all codependent tendencies, as well as tendencies towards projection and counter-transference. What emerges and is cultivated is a sort-of caring, kind autonomy at the core of relationship dynamics and style.
Beyond this relational aspect is another transformation that occurs within the inherent realm of self-identity. On the path of awakening the heart of compassion and learning to be informed yet hold the "news" lightly, there must occur an internal transformation of the way that one "knows" oneself - the identity that one associates with oneself. An allegiance to an old way of knowing oneself (with regard to relationship, especially with regard to relating to the suffering of others) must die so that a loyalty to a new self-identity can be cultivated and strengthened. Identification with patterns such as codependency, victimization, domination, fear, etc., must be released.
This has often been referred to as an "ego death" or "identity death". As the word "death" implies, there occurs a death-like passage, which is often quite uncomfortable, if not acutely painful on many levels. Ultimately, an ego death process is an existential process, rearranging one's belief systems and cosmological view. Because the ego holds on so tightly to old themes, an equally powerful, and often dramatic (drama filled) set of experiences are typically required to break that hold. Few people have the courage to face such a passage, and many are the world's diversions and distractions that persuade avoidance. The psychological territory that precedes ego death offers a view of self that often isn't very appealing. Identification with old, unhealthy relational dynamics must be recognized and known for its limitations, and a desire to be liberated must arise in order to have the intention and courage to embrace the ego death.
It is only on the "other side of" the completion of the ego death that one can begin to integrate the wisdom and consciousness of the upper chakras into the heart chakra. There emerges a new identity, at a more liberated level. Then there arises the possibility of holding lightly the suffering and confusion of others and of the world. This is true Tantra - evolving to a higher level of loving, compassionate consciousness. Einstein observed that one cannot solve a problem from the same level that it was (is being) created. Evolving to a higher level, a Lighter level, naturally allows one to become part of the solution while aware of the deeper nature of the problem. The act of simply holding the worldly issue lightly and compassionately, with awareness, will bring healing transformational energy and awareness to it. Through many years of studying, practicing, and teaching Tantra I believe I have come to understand what the Navajo medicine man meant about carrying the problems of the world lightly!