Every morning when the Dalai Lama wakes up, he begins his morning practices with a prayer from Shantideva: “May I be a guard for those who need protection; a guide for those on the path; a boat, a raft, a bridge for those to cross the flood; may I be a lamp in the darkness; a resting place for the weary, and a healing medicine for all who are sick. For as long as Earth and sky endure, may I assist until all living beings are awakened.” This is the Dalai Lama’s way of reaffirming the direction of his life and the direction of his heart before he starts his day. With this powerful prayer, the Dalai Lama recites his vow of compassion and love for all beings, even in the face of the great difficulties of the Tibetan people.
You too need a reliable compass to set your direction and steer through the rough waters. When you are going through hard times you need a way to guide yourself. But how can you set your direction when you can’t see any clear harbour? And how can you navigate through difficult waters when you’re swamped by overwhelming emotions? There is a wise spirit in us that knows that we can behave with dignity and courage and magnanimity, no matter what the circumstances.
In the Buddhist tradition, one who dedicates themselves to the spirit of courage and compassion is called a bodhisattva. Bodhi means awakened, and sattva means being. A bodhisattva is a being committed to the awakening of the good heart in everyone. A bodhisattva is committed to compassion, committed to making known the shining beauty that is possible for the human spirit, not because they believe that it is somehow a “better” way to live but because they know that it is the only way to be fully alive and awake.
Living our highest intentions can happen in great ways or in what may seem small—yet critical—ways of refusing to be conquered by the difficulties that come to us in our lives. We can choose our spirit in spite of everything. Sometimes, all we’ll be able to offer is a smile to the weary or forlorn on the streets. Sometimes it will be to plant a garden where there was none, or plant seeds of patience in a family or of reconciliation in community difficulty. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can always set our compass to our highest intentions in the present moment.
When you’re overwhelmed by loss, by the difficulties around you, when you feel you are lost in the darkness, sometimes all you can do is to breathe consciously and gently with your pain and anguish and know that with this simple gesture you are resetting the compass of your heart. By taking that one simple, mindful breath, you will return again to compassion and remember that you are more than your fears and confusions.
Whatever your difficulties, you can always remember that you are free in every moment to set the compass of your heart to your highest intentions. You can offer the best of yourself in any circumstance, including in difficult times. In fact, the two things that you are always free to do—despite your circumstances—are to be present and to be willing to love.
Sometimes you may be able to improve a situation immediately, and sometimes you will have to steadily carry the lamp of hope and compassion for yourself and others through a period of darkness. Trust your highest intention. Your intuition and your good heart will guide the way.
Adapted from A Lamp in Darkness