Compassion

It’s an astonishing painting, by Alex Grey. It hangs in my hallway just inside the front door. I could go on and on about the beauty of it all but I’m sure the message is clear to you. There is giving and there is receiving, with the giver knowing deeply that he or she is being given to as well.

We had an art class this afternoon. The lesson was on perspective, how a line of trees can appear to be stretching to the horizon. The teacher and I roamed around, offering feedback and encouragement. One young man (I’ll call him “Brett”) had his head down and I asked if I could help. He was shaky. When I looked at his pencil drawing, I saw the mistake he was making and I coached him about how to fix it. Then I moved on to other kids. It was fun to offer a hint here and some praise there.

Ten minutes later, I glanced back at Brett. His arms were propping up his head and he was crying. I walked over. “What’s wrong, Brett?” He turned to me and away from the students beside him. “This isn’t any good and my dad will be so mad.”

My eyes welled with his. I flashed to my father and to the unconditional positive regard he sent me, even when improvements needed to be made. Clearly home was sometimes not like this for Brett. I wanted to assist him and I wanted us to have privacy. We found a table off in a corner and sat there with each other, both of us making some marks on the paper. We worked towards the OKness of any tree that emerged from Brett’s fingers and shared the creation of perspective – two tall trees on the left and right edges of the paper, two shorter ones next door and two itsy bitsy versions in the middle of the paper. By the time the first bell rang for home, Brett was calm.

Such a key moment, that one with the tears. Each of us needs to be ready with a helping hand. The Bretts and Lucys of the world deserve our care.

Love and Hate

First of all, I’m fine. The X-ray and CT scan last night showed nothing major. I’ve been taking Tylenol and magically I have no pain right now, just a sensation in my neck. What a lucky boy am I! I’ll rest up and go see Jess, my physio. Scarlet will take two weeks in getting herself repaired and meantime my garage is hosting Bullet, a silver Ford Focus.

***

Second of all, I’m really in the dark about things. The power went off thirty minutes ago and isn’t expected back on for another 2-3 hours. We’ll see if I have enough juice in the phone to complete this post. I’m sitting with my friends Candle and Flashlight. We’re having a good time.

***

I’m an avid tennis fan. I especially like watching the women pros hit the ball. I’m enthralled with Bianca Andreescu, a young Canadian woman who won the US Open in September. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) offers lots of posts on Facebook. I participate. Here are a couple of things I’ve said about Bianca:

I hope you realize, Bianca, what an incredible role model you are for young girls. You’re real. You show sadness, joy, confidence, anguish, determination when you’re feeling each of those things. No false modesty. No suppression. Lots of aliveness.

***

I’m so impressed with the human being that Bianca is. Her smiles are real. Her compassion shines bright. Sure, she plays great tennis and wins championships but she’s far bigger than that.

Some folks’ first response is to criticize. Others start with appreciation. I think the world needs a lot more kindness.

~~~~~

Countless people share my admiration for Bianca. However, there are those on the Internet whose glass seems to be empty. They prefer to attack:

Andreescu is a drama queen and a mercenary traitor.

***

All year she has been faking injuries … See how lying is wrong?

***

I hope she breaks her legs.

***

Ms. Piggy

***

Andreescu is too chubby.

***

That woman is always showing such a lack of sportsmanship. She is certainly one of the worst personalities in tennis right now.

***

So fake.

***

Cheap crap! Same spoiled child attitude!

***

Andreescu is so hard to like.

***

Such a bad handshake from Andreescu. Pathetic.

***

Andreescu is too fat.

***

Theatre.

***

Andreescu needs to stop acting like she’s injured when she’s not.

***

She’s just too full of it and cocky.

***

She’s selfish.

***

Class is so far away from Andreescu as class gets.

***

Bianca’s attitude was a bit unfair and fake.

~~~~~

Oh my. Such venom. It leaps out into the world … and finds its way back to the one starting it all. There is truly no cheese down that tunnel.

I’m sad for those among us who do such damage. What must their lives be like? What must their loved ones’ lives be like?

~~~~~

Let us pray for all beings
Large and small
Hurtful and hurting
Blessing and blessed
We all deserve a second chance

Skunked

On Thursday evening, I was doing a Mutual Awakening practice online with a woman in Vancouver.  All was mellow.  And then … a God-awful banging started downstairs.  Peace evaporated.  My heart revved up.  Home invasion?  Beam collapse?  Or an animal?

I returned to my friend, with visions of a raccoon roaming through my family room.  After we said goodbye, I headed down, resisting the urge to grab a blunt object.  And there, rapping on a basement window, was an all-in-motion white and black furry thing.  A skunk, trapped in the window well.  He or she was ripping apart the screen but I didn’t care about that.

Two parallel thoughts came my way:

1. They’re going to die in there. Claws won’t do much good on four feet of vertical metal.

2. They’re really going to stink up the house.

I felt momentarily guilty about my smell worry but then I reasoned that human beings sometimes obsess about dreaded futures.  I’m a human being so it all works out fine.

As I laid myself down to sleep, the imagined scenario switched to Bruce trying to get furry one out of the window well and getting sprayed in the process.  Halfway through the night, there was still the banging and scratching.

On Friday morning, I girded my loins, grabbed a stepladder and tippy-toed towards the window well.  Such a hero!  I peeked over the edge … and the only thing down there was a plastic bag.  Impossible!  Was I dealing with Super Skunk?  Looking more closely, that bag seemed to be full of something.  I went back into the garage and emerged with a long-handled cultivating tool.  I nudged the bag – and it moved!  A slight rip showed something black-and-white beneath.  I wedged the ladder against the well and headed off to embrace the day.

Late yesterday afternoon, I drove into the driveway.  Another timid peek showed the same full bag.  And then I remembered – skunks are nocturnal.  Reason soon faded away, however, as I imagined my friend dying alone.  I fretted through the evening until engaging joyfully with a friend on the telephone.  Then to bed.  A half hour later, the banging and scratching resumed.  I confess an impatience with the gorgeous-looking animal.  “Haven’t you seen a ladder before?  It’s your way out, your road to freedom, your release from the prison of life.”

I slept fitfully, partially because of an early morning wakeup for a church breakfast, and also due to the furry one.

6:55 am.  No sounds.  Clothes on.  Outside.  Peeking number three.

Mr. Skunk was gone

I’m so happy that my companion didn’t die.  He’s no doubt out there in the woods with his friends and family.  And I’m more than a little pleased that I didn’t have to zoom off to the grocery store for a year’s supply of tomato juice.

On to the next ridiculous adventure …

 

Just A Human Being

I was reading an advertisement recently when I came across this description:

Buffet included soap, salad bar, about 6 entrées, and a selection of deserts

The first thing that drew my eye was “soap”.  That’s pretty funny, imagining myself with a knife and fork chowing down on a beauty bar.

Then I saw “deserts” and moved into critical mode.  Why can’t people learn to spell?  I know how to spell.

After a time of better-worse, I paused.  And it came to me … we’re all human.  Maybe I can spell because I love writing and reading.  Perhaps the author of this ad isn’t so focused on the written word.  What if the writer didn’t finish high school or had parents who didn’t care about reading?  What if he or she was in the middle of some traumatic experience?

This person struggled with the ad.  I can’t swim, can’t skate and am afraid of heights.  We’re all so imperfect and marvelous.  Next time, may my first seeing be of compassion, not criticism.

 

Sweet Music in the Evening

Neal and I went into London tonight to listen to a Canadian folk music group, appropriately called “Eh?!”  Two fiddlers and a bass violinist.  All brilliant performers.  Their concert was held at The Cuckoo’s Nest, an intimate club that takes over Chaucer’s Pub on some Sunday evenings.  Chaucer’s seats about 50, and features a huge stone fireplace, dark wood, and beer steins on a high shelf.

We sat immediately to the right of the band, in the second row.  I was about eight feet from James fiddler’s right arm.  Joe bass violin was on the other side of James, and farther along was Anne fiddler.

Sitting right in front of me was a man of about my age with a very large head.  He kept that head extremely still throughout the concert.  There was no hint of grooving to the fiddle tunes.  I felt sadness and dryness coming off him, even a depression.  And so I felt sad.  I decided to simply be with him.  No beaming of positive energy his way.  Just let him be as he was, with my company.  But sometimes he would lean way to the left or right, trying to see beyond James.  The first couple of times, I was irritated, and then I let that go.  Actually, when he leaned right, I could see Joe playing haunting melodies on the bass, rather than just the top of his head.  So my neighbour was helping me out.

At the break between sets, I decided to talk to the gentleman, to see if I could make a contribution.  “Hard to see past the first fiddler from our angle, eh?”  Big smile in return.  I was happy.

The tops of Joe’s and Anne’s heads were just fine for me because I got to see three musical heads feeling the melody and making the harmony, swaying to the peaceful tunes and jerking wildly during the raucous ones.  Very cool.  Oh, and I also got to see Anne’s left hand on the neck of her fiddle, her fingers alternately caressing and smashing down on the strings.  Cool again.

During the love songs, Joe played his bass like a violin, moving his fingers way down the fretboard to draw out ethereal melodies, with his head bowed as in a trance.  Gone I was in those moments.  Tears came to my eyes as the distinct sound of incredibly high bass notes worked its way into my soul.  Jody came flooding into me.  She was happy I had brought her to the concert.  Always with me, my dear.

It was a lovely evening.  Virtuoso musicians.  Tunes that led me away.  And a bigheaded man who knows how to smile.

 

 

 

Crying for Kindness

A few days ago, I was watching a commercial on TV and started crying.  Deep sobs.  Afterwards I couldn’t remember what they were selling.  All I retained was Person A criticizing someone who wasn’t there and Person B agreeing.  Then that scene was repeated twice.  On the fourth viewing, Person B responded to Person A by saying something kind about the absent someone.

I’ve been crying for Jody every day and I figured that my response to the commercial had something to do with my vulnerability.  But it still seemed a mystery.  And then I stopped analyzing it … the why and wherefore just floated away.

Tonight I was watching a CNN report about a terrorist attack being prevented in Belgium.  It was time for “a message from our sponsors”:

(Scene: two employees chatting in the office)

Person A:  I hear she’s still depressed and on sick leave.

Person B:  We could both use a vacation too.

(Repeat twice)

(Fourth time)

Person A:  I hear she’s still depressed and on sick leave.

Person B:  I’m going to swing by with Mary and see how she’s doing.

(Person A thinks … and nods)

And Bruce cries again, weeping uncontrollably for a minute or two.

Then I used the “rewind live TV” function on my PVR and watched it again.  There was a single message at the end:

Be kind
1 of the 5 ways you can end
the stigma around mental illness

The advertiser?  Bell – a large Canadian company providing TV and phone service.

Lovely to behold
Cry on, Bruce

Humbling

Oh, to let myself be exactly as I am in the moment!

Today my friend Leslie invited me to join her and a few of her friends for breakfast.  It had been over a year since I’d gone out for breakie.

For most of the meal I did fine, chipping in during the conversation, and telling the folks some of the plans I have in my head.  And then suddenly my four companions were off like a speeding bullet into topics that clearly were old favourites.  I couldn’t handle it.  I was overwhelmed with all the words and just wanted to be with Jody.  How I faded away.  From inside came the parental voice “Be better company!”  But I couldn’t and wouldn’t.  I let go of social appropriateness and lost track of Bruce in society.  I allowed myself to go away.

Later in the day, my friend Neal and I planned to deliver Jody’s hospital bed to Lynne, one of her former colleagues whose husband was having breathing problems.  Gosh, that was a heavy so-and-so, and I wrenched my back as we hauled it out to Neal’s truck.  Big muscle spasms.

I was a hurting unit when we pulled into Lynne’s driveway.  “Pull your weight, Bruce!” screamed the inner critic, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t.  Sure I helped some but really it was the Neal and Lynne show.  I was feeling sad and feeble as we got the bed set up.  And again I chose to let go … of performance, of participation, of ego.

Two emptinesses in one day.  But it’s okay, Bruce.  You’re merely a fragile human on a little green and blue planet.

Tonglen

In meditation, picture someone you know and love who is going through much suffering – an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear.  As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering – in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick and heavy clouds – entering your nostrils and travelling down into your heart.  Hold that suffering in your heart.  Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light.  Imagine they take it all in, and feel completely free, released and happy.  Do that for several breaths.  Then imagine the town that person is in, and on the inbreath take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it.  Then do that for the entire country, the entire planet, the universe.  You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.

It sounds so masochistic, doesn’t it?  This practice of tonglen.  Drawing in smoke and tar through the nostrils and sucking it into your heart?  Who would ever do such a thing?  Is it a form of insanity, an expression of a consciousness that is “less than” what our society says is normal?  Or could it possibly reflect someone who has largely let go of “I, me and mine”, someone  who has come to define themselves in a broader way, to love more expansively?  I think the latter.

I’ve had my glimpses of tonglen when faced with the suffering of a person, a group, or the world.  I’ve let it emerge, be a part of me, but then it goes away so quickly.  What then do I do?  Let the word disappear from my vocabulary, or start again, breathing in people’s pain in this moment, and the next, … ?   I think the latter.

It feels like the process of letting go of thoughts when I’m meditating.  First they come rapid-fire, then later a little less frequently.  But they always return.  More and more, I look at a thought’s arrival, smile, say hello, and begin again.

So I choose to embark on another experiment.  I will “be with” the newspaper headlines, such as the ebola crisis in Africa, and I will breathe in the agony of thousands, perhaps millions as it unfolds.  Then I will send them love.  Same for Jody.  Same for the folks I encounter on the streets of London.  Same for me.  Perhaps my heart is big enough to hold it all.

Off to the Grocery Store

From Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher:

We have within us an extraordinary capacity for love, for joy and unshakeable freedom.  Buddhist psychology describes this as optimal mental health.  I have seen this optimal well-being in many of my teachers.  Ajahn Jumnien describes his mind as completely steady, silent and free, throughout both his waking and sleeping hours.  He says, “I haven’t experienced a single moment of frustration or anger for over twenty years.”  I’ve also observed that he sleeps only one or two hours a night. 

 Ajahn Jumnien describes his inner life quite simply: “When I’m alone, my mind rests in pure awareness.  I am simply at peace.  Then, whenever I encounter people and experiences, the awareness automatically fills with lovingkindness or compassion.  This is the natural expression of pure awareness.”  All those around Ajahn Jumnien feel his free spirit and unshakeable joy.

Well.  I’m about to go out to the Real Canadian Superstore for some necessaries.  Will I live these words within the four walls, and as I drive to and from?  I’ll let you know.  (However, I’m not up for the part about one or two hours of sleep.)

***

Okay, I’m back.  Pretty uneventful, I guess.  No road rage or shopping cart rage to stress me out.  No need for anger.  I was quite peaceful and had some moments when people needed my love and compassion.  So I gave them what they needed.

Here are some people and moments I came upon:

1.  Driving on our home road, I passed an older gentleman I’ve met before, walking towards me.  He’s always been friendly but this time he didn’t wave back.  I felt sad and watched love burst through the windshield towards him. On some level, I know he received it.

2.  In front of our local psychiatric hospital, I saw a young man in a grey hoodie lighting a cigarette.  What is his life like, I wondered?  What demons assail him?  Does he have love in his life?

3.  Waiting behind another car at an intersection, expecting to turn left on this light.  But when the traffic suddenly thickened, a little nudge of frustration knocked me off centre.  Only a bit.  I was soon on track again.

4.  I noticed how slowly I was walking as I approached the store, and inside it. The rhythm was lovely.  It was like floating through the aisles.

5.  I made eye contact near the produce department with a fellow in his 30s. He returned the favour but I didn’t smile at him.  I felt disappointed about my contraction but quickly forgave myself for being human.

6.  I saw a pudgy middle-aged guy walking in front of me with his arms behind his back.  He had wrapped the fingers of one hand around the fingers of the other and was pulling hard.  I felt something very tight coming off him, and again I felt sad.

7.  I couldn’t find food colouring in the baking aisle and it was my turn for tightness.  I finally located the stuff – small bottles of blue, green and red. But the tag said there should have been a variety box sitting there as well – cheaper.  Nothing.  The compressing deepened a bit and then drifted away.

8.  A teenaged girl with what I guessed to be Down Syndrome was pushing a cart with her head down.  Her face was really puffy and her mother seemed to be urging her on to greater speed.  Compassion from me to her.

9.  I felt like talking in the checkout lineup and picked the woman behind me. I noticed that she had laid down two tall bottles of juice on the belt.  I mentioned to her that I’d never thought of doing that, despite having had tall objects fall over many times in the past.  Smiles all around.

Pretty ordinary stuff, I’d say.  Not in the league of Ajahn Jumnien.  But still a nice way to walk in the world.

I Don’t Have to Be Self-Disturbed

Recently during a silent retreat in a very sound-controlled centre, a woman with lung cancer started to cough.  She could not stop coughing, and I saw the people sitting around her begin to stir.  She realized she was causing a disturbance and left the room.  I followed her out, placed my hands on her shoulders, and looked her in the eyes.  I told her she was welcome to stay in the hall as long as she wanted, regardless of her coughing.  It was up to each of us in the meditation hall to deal with our discomfort.  I told her I appreciated her sensitivity to the group, but it was not her problem that we were annoyed.  We discussed how disturbance is not caused by outside sounds, but by internal reactions to perceived annoyances.  I reminded her that we were meditating to learn and work with that fact, not to create a comfortable container of imperturbability.

On one of my retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, I experienced the same thing – a woman couldn’t stop coughing while we were sitting in silent meditation.  And the same pursed lips appeared on many of the yogis near me.  I’ll call the woman Mary.  She was in the same small group as me.  The ten of us had three group interviews during the week, each time with a different teacher.  It was virtually the only time we could talk.  Like the woman with lung cancer, Mary felt horrible, sure that she was wrecking “the space” for one hundred people.  Each of the teachers encouraged her, and asked her to see that she wasn’t in any sense “less than”.

Mary started coughing on our first day, Sunday, and continued until maybe Friday.  That morning, at the 6:00 am sitting, Mary was silent.  Although many in the room almost audibly sighed with relief, I found myself in a different place: I missed Mary’s coughing.  I came to see that it represented for me a suffering human being, a human being to be revered, and a way for me to get out of my head and feel compassion.

I missed Mary’s coughing for the rest of the retreat.  At the very end, we had a couple of hours where we could talk to each other.  I went up to Mary and thanked her.  Although on the surface her response was astonishment, something else was brewing inside and her smile said it all.  Her hug too.