CowHow to Meet Suffering With Compassion and Keep Your Heart Open

By Lee Harrington (Upma Kaur Khalsa)


“Understand through compassion or you will misunderstand the times.”

~ Yogi Bhajan (from the Yogic Sutras for the Aquarian Age)


It just occurred to me recently how much I live in a bubble.

That bubble is Ulster County in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region of upstate New York—which is, for the most part, a very conscious place.  At least the people I know are conscious. My friends are yogis, healers, artists, musicians, social workers and environmental activists who recycle, compost, use solar power and are actively engaged on some sort of spiritual path. Our energy-efficient cars sport bumper stickers which oppose war, corporate greed and fracking; and support co-existence, organic farming, and world peace. Our lifestyles, for the most part, include daily prayer, sadhana and meditation practice for the soul; books, scriptures and National Public Radio for a sound mind; and—for a sound body—yoga, exercise, and an all-organic vegetarian or vegan diet.  We practice kindness toward all animals and all living things. Our houses are full of crystals and incense; sacred art and heirloom potted herbs (and no, that’s not code-word for marijuana. I’m just creating an image here: we grow our own food from non-GMO seeds). You’ll always find at least one home-shrine in these houses, often representing multiple traditions and faiths; and tucked into those potted plants you’ll find small river stones hand-painted with the Hindu Om symbol or the Sikh Adi Shakti symbol or the Dove of Peace or the Tibetan TAM.  And invariably, there’s music (usually a recorded mantra, or two, or three) playing quietly in one of the back rooms. That’s Woodstock. That’s my bubble. And it makes me happy to live like this. With peace, harmony, and love.

Because the bubble of the Hudson Valley is so large, I can go through a day, a week—sometimes even many weeks if I have a writing deadline and don’t get out much—believing that EVERYONE is conscious and everyone respects Mother Earth and all her inhabitants; believing that everyone is a vegetarian who practices Ahimsa (non-violence); believing that the Age of Aquarius is a concept and a lifestyle that everyone is aware of, embraces, and understands. Call me naïve, if you’d like. But this is what I choose to believe.

Then I was invited to spend a month in Colorado for an artist’s retreat. Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am not dissing Colorado or my experience hereI love the dignified energy of this land; I love the watchful majesty of the mountains, and the terra cotta continuity of the plains. I love the way those plains seem to hold time still and command that you stop, look, listen, and remember.  I love the smell of pine and juniper and sage; and the way everything seems to be just on the verge of being too dry.  Where I live, everything is always on the verge of being too damp. Dryness, I realize, is actually better for my constitution. Anyway, all this is to say: I love Colorado and I feel blessed to have landed in such a beautiful, conscious town.

It’s just that my absolutely lovely residence happens to be situated right next to a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.  That means that, while I have few human neighbors, I share my long dirt driveway, my road, and my incomparable views of Mount Sopris with thousands of cows, bulls, and calves, all of whom are very likely slated for slaughter. And human consumption.  My bubble, as they say, has been burst.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in this valley and began the long drive up toward my residence was pull over to take pictures of the mountains and sing to the cows. I knew this would peg me as: A) a tourist (who but a city slicker stops to take pictures of mountains?) and B) insane (who’s that crazy lady singing mantras in some ancient Asian language to the cows?) But we all reach a point in life where we just have to do what we’re called to do, despite what people might think, and what I’m being called to do right now is chant mantras for animals. Plus, my rental car had California plates, so I figured I was off the hook.

Imagine my surprise, then, when all the cows and calves in the nearby pasture ran away in terror as soon as I stepped out of my car.  Yet another bubble burst. I could actually feel it—a tiny pin-prick of reality poking into the layer of denial that surrounded my consciousness.  I felt a part of me deflate and say, “Oh, right. Reality. Human existence. Samsara. Right here, right now.” Of course these poor animals would run away in terror. For how many humans in all their generations, in all their centuries of handling—of captivity, of mistreatment, of rodeos, of forced inseminations, of brandings, of slaughter—how many humans had stepped forth to offer prayers of comfort or to chant Om Mani Peme Hum? I don’t know the answer—and I am not even here to write about the importance of a vegan lifestyle. That’s a platform for another day. Today I’m trying to write about what you do in those moments when your bubbles burst and you find yourself standing before a situation of suffering. And it hurts.  And you want to go back into a state of denial and/or shut your heart down to avoid feeling the pain; but you can’t shut your heart down because you’re a yogi, and every practice you’ve done for the past decade has been related to opening your heart. So you try to stay present, through the pain.

As the frightened cattle scattered, I began to chant more loudly. Back in New York, I chant mantras to the dogs at my local animal shelter, and the dogs always respond positively, so I kept the faith.  But here, despite my efforts, the cows and calves continued to run further away, lowing to one another with plaintive calls of caution. I started to notice that all the animals had metal tags in their ears (which had to be uncomfortable) and that many of them were branded. Ugh. At that, my mind started to climb onto what I call the “bobsled of despair” as one negative thought slid right into another one, gaining momentum as they joined forces. In my mind, I imagined the hot, shocking, intense pain of the branding iron; the sheer bloody horrors of the slaughterhouse. I heard the jeers of men in the rodeo circuits, who laughed as a poor terrified calf was tripped up with ropes. (Do you feel your energy shifting as you read this? Because mine is shifting as a write it. It feels icky to bring our minds to such places.) Then I felt the ignorance of all the humans who were causing all this animal-suffering (and this is compassion speaking here). Don’t they realize that if they create suffering they will only bring more suffering upon themselves and the world? I found my mind thinking. Can’t they wake up?

At this point, I began literally shouting the mantras, hoping somehow that my voice would reach the animals and help them somehow. But the plains here are vast; and the air, as I said above, is dry. Sound doesn’t seem to carry in the same way. I began to feel, well, useless. (That’s what hopping on to the mental bobsled-of-despair can do to us.) I felt useless because there had to be a hundred cattle out there in this particular pasture, which seemed huge in comparison to the twelve or so dogs I assist at the shelter.  Then there were all those other pastures on this 10,000 acre ranch. I turned full circle, looking south, then west, then east.  That’s when I realized there were actually thousands of cattle on this ranch.  Perhaps even tens of thousands. I had a moment of doubt when I began to think: not even my mantras can help a situation as large as this. (Note that I—or rather, that mind of mine—used the word “my” which is/was a mistake. The situation made “me” feel small and alone and overwhelmed that I had forgotten to call on the Divine).

But then I caught myself, re-centered myself, and thought of a Yogi Bhajan quote: “Act, don’t react. Calm yourself and claim yourself. When you reflect like a torch for a long distance, it takes away the darkness.”  I continued with the mantras. Finally, one mother cow and her calf finally did seem to stop to listen, but she kept her distance—far up on a hill—and positioned her body between me and the calf. Her motions were slow and lumbering, but there was no mistaking her protective instincts. This moved me in ways I can’t explain—I guess it’s just nothing touches me more than watching the Mother Principle in action. At that, I started to cry.

It reminded me of a story I’ve often heard about the Buddhist Bodhisattva Chenrezig—also known as Avalokiteshvara—and about Tara. This is a simplified version of the story, but basically: Chenrezig, as a Bodhisattva, had taken a vow to delay his own enlightenment until all sentient beings had been liberated and thus he had been working for many eons to help free others from suffering.  At a certain point, after having helped millions of beings achieve liberation, Chenrezig finally took a short break and said to himself something to the effect of: “Surely I must be nearly finished now. Let’s have a look and see how many beings are left out there.” Then, he turned, opened his sight, and beheld millions—billions—of beings still caught in states of suffering and samsara. At that, Chenrezig—the Great Bodhisattva of Compassion–became overwhelmed and discouraged and actually started to cry.

And what happens next always makes me cry.  From his pool of tears there sprang a lotus, and from that lotus Tara appeared. And she said: “Don’t worry. I will help you.”

This is why I love Green Tara so much, by the way.  And that is why I love my yoga, meditation, dharma and devotional practices so much. Because in those moments when we feel overwhelmed, there is a part of us—a part of us we have cultivated through our practices, mind you—that steps forth and says: “Don’t worry. I will help you.” And whether you identify that “part of you” as your neutral mind, your higher self, the very voice of the Guru, or your spirit guide, we should be thankful that we have the ability and the capacity to hear that voice at all. It means that our hearts our open. And our minds. It means the two are working together.  

I was having a conversation recently with a yogini friend about the concept of the open heart.  This friend has a committed mantra practice and is fully engaged on the Bhakti path.  She is inspiring and brilliant and committed and full of love—in fact, her enthusiasm and good example have brought many others to this path. Recently, however, my friend happened to see a Facebook post about factory farming, and could not get images of garbage bags full of living baby chicks (who happened to be born male and therefore were considered expendable] out of her head. Nor could she get the images of grinning slaughterhouse workers cruelly tossing terrified piglets back and forth like footballs. I haven’t even seen this footage and I can’t get the images out of my head.

“Sometimes having an open heart sucks,” my friend said.

I apologize for using that language here on (and let’s take a moment to clear the energy right away), but I think my friend makes a good point.  She was having a Chenrezig moment.  All this yoga and mantra and chanting cracks our hearts open, which is a beautiful thing. But it also, in a way, leaves us feeling exposed and vulnerable.  I’m thinking now of the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who said, “The ground of fearlessness is renouncing hard-heartedness and allowing ourselves to be tender, sad, and fully present….Fear does not allow fundamental tenderness to enter into us. When tenderness tinged by sadness touches our heart, we know that we are in contact with reality. We feel it. That contact is genuine, fresh, and quite raw.”

A lot of people go out of their way to avoid that rawness, that tenderness.  In fact, one could say we humans spend much of our lives trying to avoid that sort of raw, open-hearted exposure, by slipping into addictions, by slipping into avoidance and denial, by turning on the television set, or logging onto Facebook to troll through a few hundred news feeds, some of which might actually help you forget that there are ten thousand cattle right next door waiting to be slaughtered. Until you come upon another news feed that shows you that bag full of living chicks.  And they you’re triggered again.

I imagine that we all have triggers we react to: for some it’s child abuse, environmental abuse, or crimes against women, racism, corporate greed.  The list goes on. For me, my main trigger in this lifetime happens to be the mistreatment of animals and of Mother Earth.

“It’s a crazy world,” one of my Buddhist teachers, Lama Kathy Wesley, once said. “The only thing that makes sense is compassion.” And Yogi Bhajan once said, “Compassion is for the very strong. Compassion does not come to the weak. People who are unkind, bullies, use rude language, are not strong people. They are very weak people.”

Eventually I got back into my car and drove on.  I tried to tell myself that the situation with the cows wasn’t “that bad.” At least they were free-range cattle, I told myself. Which is what everyone in these parts tells themselves.  “At least it’s not a factory farm,” they say. “At least they are at peace grazing out in those fields.” And thus, we can make ourselves feel better that things are worse. Huh?

As the days passed, I found myself encountering the cattle at least four times per day. I could no longer pretend, as I could in Woodstock, that everyone is a vegetarian, or soon will be. Instead, I had to face the pain of the “reality” of this thriving cattle ranch, and in the midst of that pain send as much healing energy and compassion to the animals (and the plants, and the humans, and the land) as I could.  It was such an interesting exercise in watching the mind react, and noticing how the emotions would quickly follow, and then feeling how my body responded to those triggers and reactions. All the while, I chanted, making sure that the practice was my dominant response.

Then the cattle drive began. This Yankee has never seen a cattle drive, with real-live cowboys wearing fringed leggings, cowboy hats and boots (for some reason that surprised me). With real-live cowboys riding dusty, speckled horses. With real-live cattle dogs, looking serious and focused as they herded the large groups of nervous cows. Apparently thousands of cows and calves were being moved down to their winter pastures, and I can imagine how upsetting it must have been to them to be uprooted like that, and herded so noisily and violently—with whips and shouts and nipping dogs—to a new and unfamiliar setting.  Their journey of relocation, in some cases, lasted miles (a journey which my bob-sled mind compared to the Trail of Tears). In this chaos, most—if not all—of the mothers got separated from their calves.  And they remained separated as thousands of them were corralled into various “holding paddocks” at the center of the ranch.  From there, I was told, they would be “sorted.”  I’ve already said above that nothing moves me more than the love of a mother for her child; now I can say that nothing upsets me more than the sound of a child crying for its mother, or vice versa.

The moans and cries of the animals lasted for days. I could hear it from my residence, echoing up through the valley like the very sound of a Hell realm.  One definitely cannot exist in a bubble when one hears that sound. Nor can one pretend that that the animals are at peace out in the fields, because they’re clearly not. I found myself wanting to retreat—to fly immediately back to Woodstock, back to the Garden (as we Woodstockers fondly refer to our town), where I could go shop at my all-organic vegan health food store and feel virtuous about ordering a Super Green juice. But what kind of spiritual warrior is that?

Yogi Bhajan said: “When adversity comes, automatically we meditate. We cannot survive through adversity without meditation. Meditation is a process through which you take your total self and your total pride and your total ego and your total spirit and you put it on the line.”

That’s when I realized: that to be a yogi is, in some way, to be in a bubble (and I mean that in a good way), because we’re operating on (or striving to operate on) a different level of consciousness.  So my job—our job—is to maintain that level of consciousness no matter where we are.  All I needed to do was reach inside and find my Inner Woodstock, my Inner Tara, my Inner Guru, and then—from that place—act.

Like Yogi Bhajan said: “Every day is a day of challenge: how much good have I done today? How kind was I? How many people have I inspired? How many people have I brought to laughter? How many people have I satisfied that they felt alive again? These things matter in life; they are what life is. They are the reality, and they are the religion, and they are the person and personality for which we are human.”

So every day I walked down to the paddocks where the crying cows were penned and sang to them. Were they freed from suffering that very instant? Were they saved? Will people stop eating meat? I don’t know….all I know is that I will try my best to meet every situation with compassion and an open heart.  Sat Nam!



Om Mani Peme Hum

I seem to recommend this mantra in nearly every Spirit Voyage blog I write, and that’s probably because 1) it’s my own personal go-to mantra for all situations;  2) it’s very powerful; and 3) it’s a particularly good mantra for animals.

Here’s a sneak preview of my own version from my forthcoming album “Beyond the Beyond.” You can download Deva Premal’s potent version, recorded with the Gyoto Monks, here:

Sat Kartar and the “Open to Love” Meditation

Featured as a popular Spirit Voyage Global Sadhana last February, the “Open to Love” meditation uses the mantra “Sat Kartar.”  You can read about the meditation in detail here, but in a nutshell: Sat Kartar is a powerful mantra that open, expands and directs the energetic flow of the heart.  For such a short mantra, it has quite a long translation, but I like to think of it as meaning: “Let my Soul be the Doer” and/or: “The Divine One is the One Doing This Action.”  Reciting this mantra not only opens the heart and keeps it open; it increases one’s sense of faith–faith that there is a Divine Plan, a flow. This mantra helps us create trust in that flow.

Even if the flow we witness includes the suffering of animals?” the small part of me asks.  “And mother cows being forcefully separated from their calves?”

Even then, the larger part answers. That’s our job as humans, as yogis.

My favorite version of the Sat Kartar mantra, by the artist aptly named Sat Kartar Khalsa, is available in the Kundalini Transformation Kit: Yoga & Mantras for Whole Heart by Karan Khalsa and Ramdesh Kaur. This kit features a book (the “Ten Guiding Principles for Living with a Whole Heart”), which is accompanied by instructions for five powerful heart-opening kriyas, plus a companion CD.




I also recommend another terrific meditation called “Balancing the Head and Heart.” This can be found in the manual Kundalini Yoga for Youth and Joy.

I’d like to end this piece with a prayer from Yogi Bhajan:

“My soul, bless me, be with me. Energize me so I can face the world with the strength of the spirit. Save me from duality, give me the reality and royalty so I can face my world in peace and tranquility. May this journey of life be completed with love and affection, kindness and compassion for all living things.”

Related Posts