They burned her father alive and raped her mother, and she taught me something amazing

I have had the great fortune of meeting some of the greatest human beings alive in the world, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I have been moved by every one of them, but none of them had moved me to tears.  This week, someone I met almost did.  Her name is Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her life’s work in promoting human rights.  When I met her, I found her to be exactly what you’d expect of a stereotypical Nobel Peace Prize winner: she was wise, kind and joyful.  She was friendly to everyone and treated all with kindness.  She gave people a huge smile and warm hugs.  She was bursting with joy.  And if you asked her a question about life, she’d reward you with words of wisdom delivered with lightness and humor.

Right beneath the surface, however, there is a huge reservoir of pain.  Her father was burned alive.  Her mother was raped and tortured before she died.  Her brother was murdered.  She lost her youngest son.  She watched many thousands of her people oppressed, tortured and murdered.

When I realized the amount of pain she had to hold, and is still holding, I was almost moved to tears.  One of the signs of true greatness is the ability to hold a huge amount of pain, not just with courage and equanimity, but more importantly, with kindness, compassion and joy.  Rigoberta has shown me, and the world, what greatness looks like.  I was deeply moved.

I asked her on stage where that greatness comes from.  Is it something she was born with, or is it something she grew into?  She said it comes from deep spiritual practice, and in her case, practices from her own Mayan tradition.  Off stage, while we were taking a walk, she said to me, “You know, my Mayan spirituality, not so different from your Buddhist spirituality.”  We both laughed.

The meeting with Rigoberta had led me to two important insights relating to my own practice.  The first insight concerns the relationship between joy and pain.  I realized that joy and pain are mutually insoluble.  In other words, joy and pain do not dissolve each other, they can exist solidly side-by-side.  There had been periods in my life where I had suffered tremendous emotional pain, and at the same time, thanks to my meditative practice, I had been able to bring up genuine joy intermittently in the midst of the pain.  Sometimes, those two things, the pain that was so unbearable that I wanted to die, and the elated joy that filled up my entire mind, appeared just minutes apart from each other.  It made no sense to me at all.  The question I had for myself was, if I was so accomplished at bringing up joy, why did the joy not dissolve away the pain?  Conversely, if the pain was so bad, why did it not dissolve away the joy?  I thought I was going crazy (more than usual, I mean).

Rigoberta’s example had answered my question.  She showed me that joy does not dissolve away the pain, instead, it is a skillful container for the pain.  Her immense pain is still there, but she holds it gently with her joy.  Ultimately, the only true solution with regards to pain is to develop the ability to experience pain without suffering, and the only way to do that is with the combination of (mental) stillness, wisdom and compassion.  Joy and kindness form the skillful container for the pain to allow that process to unfold.

The mutual insolubility of joy and pain has another important consequence, which my dear friend and 15-times Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dawn Engle, puts very nicely, “Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you cannot be joyful.”

The second insight I have gained from Rigoberta concerns forgiveness.  I realized that forgiveness is not just about the past, but involves all three timescales: the past, the present and the future.  People think that forgiveness is just about letting go of the past, but no, it’s much more than that.  Letting go of the past is hard, but I think what makes forgiveness even harder are two things: continued aggravation in the present, and fear of more suffering in the future.  For example, if somebody does something horrible to you, it’s hard to forgive, but if she also continues to aggravate you and cause you pain in the present, and it appears likely that she will continue to cause you pain in the future, then it is even harder to forgive, much harder.  Therefore, successful forgiveness must work on all three timescales, and in doing that, Rigoberta demonstrates great skillfulness.  Despite of her still-present pain, she is willing to let go of the past.  In addition, she deals with the present by making sure that those who perpetrated great evil atone for their sins.  And she deals with the future by creating the conditions so that those evil things do not happen in the future.

I am profoundly grateful that great souls like Rigoberta exist in this world.

Rigoberta with all three co-chairs of One Billion Acts of Peace,
Dawn, Ivan and Meng.