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Shambhala Sun | November 2012

We Can Be Heroes

We sure love our big popcorn stories about heroes. Just consider our decades-long love affair with Batman—and the astounding box-office receipts for his latest filmic chapter, The Dark Knight Rises.

Of course, that chapter was forever complicated when James Holmes crashed an Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre, opened fire, and left twelve people dead. And then there was Wade M. Page, the white supremacist who killed six at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin two weeks later.

Do something horrific and the world will take notice. Do something nice... not so much. Our everyday saviors—first responders, teachers, nurses, public servants—may get some recognition, but few among them become as “big” as Page or the would-be Joker, Holmes. To the most notorious goes the most notoriety.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne, by contrast, would prefer to be invisible. He’d rather not even be Batman! But someone has to, he reckons, so he rises to the occasion again and again, even though it would be far easier to revel in his immense fortune and try to ignore the world’s suffering. And therein lies much of his appeal, an accumulated cultural resonance so deep it can even feel a bit personal (it does to me). Why? Because Batman fans of all ages, even the most casual ones, know that he’s not just a stuffed shirt and a cape. He’s principled. A protector. Committed to fairness. And, he’s nobody’s fool. We don’t merely admire him; we want to be like him. We wish we had it in us to be heroes.

The thing is, we do have it in us. But like Bruce Wayne, we’ll probably do best if we put down the desire for recognition. We’ve got everything we need anyway, immense fortune or not.

To get started, we can take a commitment known as the bodhisattva or warrior’s vow, in which we declare our intention to put aside self-centered concerns and begin to prioritize others. There are even three ways to do it, as Pema Chödrön explains in “a greater happiness,” her teaching in this issue. After all, it takes all kinds, and the Buddhist path accounts for that. It offers a way to approach practice that’s appropriate to whoever we may be, to wherever we are in life. Will you enter the path, to use Pema’s phraseology, like a “monarch,” a “ferryman,” or a “shepherdess”? Only you can know that. (Think of it as your secret identity!) The important thing is that whichever way you go, as long as you’re sincere, you can’t go wrong.

And sometimes, as with Sully Sullenberger—the real-life hero pilot Pema talks about in her piece—or even Pema herself, the world will sit up and pay attention.

Oh, wait. There is one thing you’ll need: your breath. It’s key to your mindfulness practice, the starting point of the bodhisattva’s path, and without it you won’t be able to do the helpful tonglen meditation Pema teaches in “You Can Do It.” But really, that’s it. A bodhisattva’s utility belt may not feature grappling hooks and other cool gizmos, but it’s light as a feather. Or a breath. And you’ll find it packs a lot of power, too, helping you pause, assess a given situation, and then do what’s called for—even if all that’s called for is to be present and bear witness to the suffering and needs of those around you.

When we open ourselves in this way, responding to the real people and possibilities in our lives with warmth and fairness, everything follows suit: life’s joys become more meaningful. We even start to see that its difficulties have meaning, too. Like a caped crusader standing on a skyscraper’s gargoyle over some teeming metropolis, we’ve gained a more panoramic perspective. And a true hero’s humility and loving heart.

—Rod Meade Sperry, associate editor

From the November 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.

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