I’ve recently had talk with a few people about India and my experiences of being there. It’s been over 10 years ago now since I was there for about 6 months. I arrived without friends, guides or plans – simply bringing a large (but mostly empty) backpack and a guidebook. I saw ancient ruins, ashrams, monasteries, beach resorts, sky-touching mountains and parched deserts. I treked in the Himalayan mountains and river rafted and kayaked down mountain rivers. I saw the extremes of India’s culture, from the poverty, to the spiritual traditions, to the Hindu-Muslim clashes. The experiences from that trip expanded my mind and helped shape my mind to be able to see outside the cultural assumptions we take for granted.

Now one of the most common questions I’ve received over the years has been about the poverty in India. “It must have been so hard to see all the poverty and suffering there!” is something I’ve heard over 100 times.

The answer is of course, paradoxical. The truth is that it felt like an extreme relief. It was a profoundly freeing experience to actually see the suffering that was actually there. Here we avoid this. In the North American culture most of us are in, we do all we can to remove all sights, sounds and impressions that suffering exists. We try to hide homelessness, ignore poverty, and even amongst friends there’s usually a tacit agreement to filter our emotions and sufferings. Showing these in a corporate office is usually taboo. We’re uncomfortable with the emotions that seeing direct pain can bring up. In India, on the other hand, it’s all visible. The leprosy on the street is visible; the millions of people living in shacks with unclean water and no toilets are visible. The simmering rage between Hindus and Muslims is also visible.

(This kind of sight, by the way, is not that uncommon. Leprosy is quite common and visible in many streets)

It’s hard to convey why this is such a relief. But perhaps an analogy is in order. Say two people are in an exclusive relationship and one person cheats. The other person knows (as they usually do), but it hasn’t been brought out in the open. There will be a great tension in all interactions between them, because there is a great pain waiting to come up that they resist. So until it does, there will be a feeling of walking on eggshells, and if it continues, there will often be an entire routine built around avoiding the truth that a broken agreement has taken place. Misery will appear. When and if it actually does become visible, and both parties put all their emotions on the table, there will be a palpable sense of relief; the need for pretense is gone. Both sides can actually reveal their emotions instead of living within emotional castles of thick stone walls.

The truth is that suffering exists. Buddhism starts with this simple statement as the first noble Truth. Our society intellectually knows this, but we push it away emotionally. We say “yes, I know about suffering, I know it’s there, but I don’t want to touch it or be confronted with it”. And yet, when we do actually touch it, our heart opens. We simply can’t act compassionately until we actually touch another’s sufferings. We can’t understand others until we fully listen, and listening means fully allowing them to touch you. This touch involves more than the hospital rubber gloves of analysis; it involves an openness that has the possibility of being overwhelmed for a while. Yet being overwhelmed, as I was in India for some time, develops the heart. Emotional muscles need to work, or they atrophy. Allowing ourselves to be touched, and yes, sometimes hurt, by others’ sufferings lets the full range of the heart come forward.

It was actually more of a shock for me to arrive back in Canada than it was arriving in India. I was presented with all my family patterns of hiding real emotions (similar to most families here), and realized I simply could not go back to the way I was acting before. So over the next few years, I did my best to be visible with what was going on. This caused many upsets in my family, but has immeasurably helped me. My parents may not always feel comfortable with me, but their reaction is based on who I actually am, not a game we play.

I generally recommend being immersed in a similar culture for anyone wishing to see other ways of living. It’s not just India of course; there are many, many other cultures that don’t have the emotional straightjackets we do. An example closer to home might be Italians; in general, they tend to be much more visible with emotions, and if fights break out, so what? It doesn’t mean a lack of love. It can easily be part of it.