Sunrise Thoughts on Compassion

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(Morning sky photo by me)

When I woke up this morning the sky was yellowy-pink and blue. The leaves on the trees were blocking or filtering the colors. The leaves themselves were a hundred shades of green. Some of them were dancing and singing to the rhythm of the breeze. I thought for awhile about the the current events around the world. Of all the suffering and fear. I thought about all I have been taught about religion, spirituality, being kind and moral. I thought about my family, people I love. I thought about fears, worries and feeling secure and safe. I thought about the power of compassion to be trasnformative. Here is my pondering.

True compassion does. not come from wanting to help those less fortunate than ourselves 

but from realizing our kinship with all beings. 

— Pema Chodron in Start Where You Are

Every day we read a story in the newspaper, or hear something on the news that opens in us the feeling of compassion. Something tugs at our heart: a father looses a battle with cancer, a young mother dies in a car crash, children starving, a house destroyed by a tornado. We find comfort in calling in a donation…we want to help ease the suffering.

For some of us it is a little harder to feel compassion when we impart a personal judgment on other types of stories: “They must have deserved that”, “That was their choice”, “Well, they should have known better”.

Make no judgment in which there is no compassion. 
— Traditional Saying quoted in The Fragrance of Faith by Jamal Rahman

Pema Chodron reminds us compassion isn’t just about wanting to relieve the suffering of others, but of “realizing our kinship with all beings.”

How do we internalize that so that we shut down the need to judge and condemn and look deeper into others to see the whole story? In an earlier post I quoted Joan Tollifson who responded to my cry for help in understanding the tensions and violence in Gaza and Israel. She wrote, “Love doesn’t turn away. It doesn’t blame or hate. It is the open heart, willing to be completely broken. And from that place, intelligent action (or non-action) can arise. Love is the real nonduality…love sees that this is how it is right now…bombs are falling, children are hurting, this is what the universe is doing…Love doesn’t try to avoid the pain or explain it away.”

Isn’t that the way of compassion too? To not turn away. To put aside blame or hate. To allow “intelligent” action to grow.

The nectar of compassion is so wonderful. If you are committed to keeping it alive, then you are protected. What the other person says will not touch off the anger and irritation in you, because compassion is the real antidote to anger. Nothing can heal anger except compassion. That is why the practice of compassion is a very wonderful practice. 
— Thich Nhat Hanh in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames

Can we learn to keep anger at bay, keep irritation silent and be open to compassion? Could we learn to keep our hearts open and to understand the suffering of the” other”? Perhaps we will not always be able to understand the choices others make, but does that prevent us from understanding that there is a person, a human being, who is suffering?

My father used to remind me of the parable of walking in another person’s shoes.  Harper Lee recalls it in To Kill A  Mockingbird:

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view,

until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill A  Mockingbird.

It is very uncomfortable to do that….we sometimes see things we don’t want to see, don’t want to understand, don’t want to accept. Sometimes we begin to question our own choices and values. We might even begin to feel uncomfortable thinking about things  we most likely take for granted: health, security, running water, food, a dry bed, clothes…… When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, someone perhaps we have made a judgement about, we may discover they love others, someone loves them, they are afraid, there is no security in their lives: they may not know where they will sleep at night, or when they will eat again, or when a bomb will drop next to them, or who will be the next family member they will bury from drug overdose, domestic or gun violence, when they will be sexually abused again……

If we go back to the beginning….realizing we have a kinship with all beings, where do we find ourselves then? What kinship do I have with the residents of Ferguson, Gaza, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guinea, Columbia, North Korea or Honduras?  With someone who has cancer , is a victim of rape or abuse, or is gay or  transgendered? Someone who is  Black, Vietnamese, Arab, or Philipino? Someone who is handicapped, mentally ill, homeless, a convicted felon, a prisoner of war, a deserter, a meth addict? A Kurd or  Yazidi,  Rakhine, Choctaw or Roma? With someone who is Jewish, Muslim, Shinto, Taoist, Christian, Pagan, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Baha’i? Someone wearing a burka, hijab, or a turbin? Someone with full body tattoos or an eye patch?  With anyone who is not me ?? How do I manifest compassion to and for those who are not me?

We are always beginners in the art of compassion. No matter how advanced or refined we believe our understanding to be, life is sure to present us with some new experience or encounter with pain we feel unprepared for.Your partner betrays you, your teacher disappoints you, some event of unimaginable cruelty happens in the world, and once more you are asked to open your heart and receive it. “This also, this also” is the essence of compassion. Over and over you are asked to meet change, loss, injustice, and over and over you are asked to find the strength to open when you are most inclined to shut down. 

— Christina Feldman in Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World

 The nectar of compassion is wonderful. We are always beginners in the art of compassion, and we can always choose to begin to practice compassion. We can find the strength to be open. If we can accept our kinship with one another, perhaps then we can begin the process of alleviating suffering and begin to spread compassion. There isn’t always a monetary donation we can make to improve something or to make us feel better.  We can begin discussion for intelligent action that might actually create positive change.

Going Away Is Like Going Nowhere

We just returned home from a wondrous vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan along the shores of Lake Superior. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience.  It gave new meaning to “going away”.

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(Miner’s Castle, Munising, MI. Photo by me)

Sometimes when my husband and I talk about meditation we use the words “going away”. We each approach our practice of meditation from slightly different paths…but both involve inquiry and mindfulness. “Going away” refers to sensations of time, anxiety, thoughts/mind chatter fading from prominence. It is as if we stop paying attention to the part (ego) of ourselves that occupies day to day life. Sensations, momentary life experiences go back to something simpler…..almost to a  pre-language level. There is no need to know anything. Sense of self becomes something curious instead of something important. Yet, it also approaches something much bigger….pure no separation, constantly changing existence……

I recently had a very profound experience during meditation….something that really changed my thinking, my awareness, expectations, my “goals”, my desires for what I hoped meditation would bring to me. It took me by surprise. I wondered if  I would ever have that experience again. I wanted to. Shortly after that experience I had a kind of opening up and realized I did not have to long for the recreation of that one experience, I could in fact have that awareness all the time….now, in two minutes, during bouts of doubt and frustration, in the middle of deep joy and moments of peacefulness. It was all the same.

This vacation to Lake Superior was similar. Up there it is remote, slow moving, quiet, wild…..leaving nothing to do or process, only to experience. To be with what was. The experience was more along the lines of “going nowhere”.  Just being.  Just being mindful of the one moment. I was where I was, and that was what I tried to present with. As Joan Tollifson says, “the boundary-line between “meditation” and “the rest of our lives” dissolves. We discover that aware presence is actually what Here / Now is, the ever-present ground.”

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(Grand Marias, MI. Photo by me)

The experience of being in the UP allowed for me to surrender to the simplicity of undiluted sensory experience. Not so unlike the experience I had during meditation. It was being present in the here and now. Awake. No divisions created by words, labels, ideas, interpretations….only what is. The mental realm gave way to the non conceptual realm.

“This kind of wakefulness isn’t something apart from the rest of your life that you just do once a day while sitting on a cushion in the lotus position.  It is your whole life.”

Joan Tollifson

Going away to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was like going nowhere. It just was. I just was. In that place and time, in that moment, the present moment. It was all about the here/now. It was about being awake.