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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 70 and freedom in intimacy. We can be afraid of intimacy with pain because we are afraid of helplessness; we fear that we don’t have the inner balance to embrace suffering without being overwhelmed. Yet each time we find the willingness to meet affliction, we discover we are not powerless. Awareness rescues us from helplessness, teaching us to be helpful through our kindness, patience, resilience, and courage. Awareness is the forerunner of understanding, and understanding is the prerequisite to bringing suffering to an end. Shantideva, a deeply compassionate master who taught in India in the eighth century, said, “Whatever you are doing, be aware of the state of your mind. Accomplish good; this is the path of compassion.” How would our life be if we carried this commitment into all of our encounters? What if we asked ourselves what it is we are dedicated to when we meet a homeless person on the street, a child in tears, a person we have long struggled with, or someone who disappoints us? We cannot always change the heart or the life of another person, but we can always take care of the state of our own mind. Can we let go of our resistance, judgments, and fear? Can we listen wholeheartedly to understand another person’s world? Can we find the courage to remain present when we want to flee? Can we equally find the compassion to forgive our wish to disconnect? Compassion is a journey. Every step, every moment of cultivation, is a gesture of deep wisdom. Living in Asia for several years, I encountered an endless stream of people begging in the streets. Faced with a forlorn, gaunt child I would find myself judging a society that couldn’t care for its deprived children. Sometimes I would feel irritated, perhaps dropping a few coins into the child’s hand while ensuring I kept my distance from him. I would debate with myself whether I was just perpetuating the culture of begging by responding to the child’s pleas. It took me a long time to understand that, as much as the coins may have been appreciated, they were secondary to the fact that I rarely connected to the child. As the etymology of the word indicates, “compassion” is the ability to “feel with,” and that involves a leap of empathy and a willingness to go beyond the borders of our own experience and judgments. What would it mean to place myself in the heart of that begging child? What would it be like to never know if I will eat today, depending entirely on the handouts of strangers? Journeying beyond our familiar borders, our hearts can tremble; then, we have the possibility of accomplishing good. Milarepa once said, “Long accustomed to contemplating compassion, I have forgotten all difference between self and other.” Genuine compassion is without boundaries or hierarchies. The smallest sorrow is as worthy of compassion as the greatest anguish. The heartache we experience in the face of betrayal asks as much for compassion as a person caught in the midst of tragedy. Those we love and those we disdain ask for compassion; those who are blameless and those who cause suffering are all enfolded in the tapestry of compassion. An old Zen monk once proclaimed, “O, that my monk’s robes were wide enough to gather up all of the suffering in this floating world.” Compassion is the liberated heart’s response to pain wherever it is met. When we see those we love in pain, our compassion is instinctive. Our heart can be broken. It can also be broken open. We are most sorely tested when we are faced with a loved one’s pain that we cannot fix. We reach out to shield those we love from harm, but life continues to teach us that our power has limits. Wisdom tells us that to insist that impermanence and frailty should not touch those we love is to fall into the near enemy of compassion, which is attachment to result and the insistence that life must be other than it actually is. Compassion means offering a refuge to those who have no refuge. The refuge is born of our willingness to bear what at times feels unbearable—to see a loved one suffer. The letting go of our insistence that those we love should not suffer is not a relinquishment of love but a release of illusion—the illusion that love can protect anyone from life’s natural rhythms. In the face of a loved one’s pain, we are asked to understand what it means to be steadfast and patient in the midst of our own fear. In our most intimate relationships, love and fear grow simultaneously. A compassionate heart knows this to be true and does not demand that fear disappear. It knows that only in the midst of fear can we begin to discover the fearlessness of compassion. Some people, carrying long histories of a lack of self-worth or denial, find it most difficult to extend compassion toward themselves. Aware of the vastness of suffering in the world, they may feel it is self-indulgent to care for their aching body, their broken heart, or their confused mind. Yet this too is suffering, and genuine compassion makes no distinction between self and other. If we do not know how to embrace our own frailties and imperfections, how do we imagine we could find room in our heart for anyone else? The Buddha once said that you could search the whole world and not find anyone more deserving of your love and compassion than yourself. Instead, too many people find themselves directing levels of harshness, demand, and judgment inward that they would never dream of directing toward another person, knowing the harm that would be incurred. They are willing to do to themselves what they would not do to others. In the pursuit of an idealized compassion, many people can neglect themselves. Compassion “listens to the cries of the world,” and we are part of that world. The path of compassion does not ask us to abandon ourselves on the altar of an idealized state of perfection. A path of healing makes no distinctions: within the sorrow of our own frustrations, disappointments, fears, and bitterness, we learn the lessons of patience, acceptance, generosity, and ultimately, compassion. The deepest compassion is nurtured in the midst of the deepest suffering. Faced with the struggle of those we love or those who are blameless in this world, compassion arises instinctively. Faced with people who inflict pain upon others, we must dive deep within