Hunker down, friends, this is a long one…
I remember a discussion about Compassion at church a few years ago. I was in the middle of reading A Course in Miracles and had also read enough Buddhism to make myself dangerously misinformed. So, not being willing to pass up an opportunity to offer my opnion, I declared that Compassion was about being with someone’s truth, not with their suffering because suffering is not real. I got this kind of ‘uh-oh’ look from Father Bill as he gracefully disagreed, saying that the translation from the Latin is “to suffer with.” It’s testament to how much I trusted him that I didn’t walk away from there muttering, “Can’t these damn Christians get anything right?”
Suffering goes against my world-view. How can I accept that there is suffering if I’m operating from the basic premise that everything is good? The very idea of suffering challenges everything I know in my heart of hearts about who God is and about who I am. So, either there is suffering and I am delusional (which is, admittedly, entirely possible) or there is no suffering and people just need to wake up. Right? Hmm.
I think the discrepancy at the time stemmed from my own skewed definition of compassion which I had linked with self-righteousness. It always seemed that when the word compassion was being bandied about, there was someone in the room who wanted to fix someone else. So compassion always looked like pity. And pity is an inherently self-righteous stance that reinforces the delusion of separation. It is what allows one to say, “Isn’t it a shame he has to suffer? I’m so thankful for my blessings that I’m not in the same shoes as he. Let’s do something for him.” Guilt is never far away from Pity, one might say they are conjoined twins.
So, what exactly is the link between suffering and Compassion?
I received my acceptance letter to seminary this past March and soon after that, I could feel the numbing begin. Leaving Bend and going to Berkeley… leaving a place where I have found my heart and my true community and going to the fabulous place where I will follow my calling. I have slowly, but surely shifted into a place of full denial, completely shutting down… reaching for the chocolate rather than the phone or watching movies instead of taking a walk… my typical routine of numbing out to my life and closing down my heart in order to “function”.
So, even though I wrote about Commitment in my previous posting, I have to say that I have fallen short of the mark. I am not meeting my life with my full self. And the grace that I pray for has come, perhaps in the ability to see that I am, in fact, falling short.
This change in my life also impacts my connection to my spiritual practice. I have been involved in the 5Rhythms dance practice for the past 2 years at a studio in Olympia. While the people have changed a bit from workshop to workshop, the community remains consistent and I have been held in a place of true nurturance there. You can’t get much more womb-like than Olympia… it’s wet and dark there most of the time.
This past weekend was my last time dancing in Olympia for a long time, if not for good, as I’ll be moving on to a new community of 5Rhythms dancers and teachers in the Bay Area. And as I entered this weekend fully aware of my own numbness, I finally got to look my suffering in the face this past weekend in the dance.
The Rhythm for this, our last time together, was Stillness. Stillness is a kind of arrival… or a beginning… one in the same. That stillpoint where one thing ends and the next one begins, one thing becomes another… like the pause between breathing in and breathing out. The perfect rhythm for where I am in my life.
It’s interesting that the shadow side of Stillness is… get this… numbness (I swear I live a life of poetry). And the dance didn’t let me down. Movement allowed me to find the Stillness that was locked in my numbness. And what I found lurking there for me was vast, vast Sadness… incredibly endless Sadness. It was a bottomless, shoreless, clear, still lake… a lake that you can see through several feet of depth because the water feeding it is so pure. This Sadness had no story… no waves on the surface or currents underneath. There was no “reason” for this Sadness.
I know what you’re thinking… “Helloooooo! You are obviously sad because you have to leave your community!” Yes… thank you, you little fixers (wink)… I am aware of my own story. But, you see, my story is just a pebble that throws out a few ripples. And when the ripples subside, the calm stillness of all that Sadness is still there. It was there before I came and will remain when I’m gone. And this pebble is nothing compared to that eternity. How can a heart possibly contend with such infinity?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened to mine… my heart broke wide open to this cosmic Sadness and joined with it. This is why pity is so much easier to manage. Everything is kept in nice neat rows… here is my pain and there is yours. But with a wide-open heart, there are no rows, no columns. Compassion is not an Excel spreadsheet.
Of course my ego hates this place and so fear arises. But my soul… my soul loves it. She stretches out into the vastness like a sponge soaking it all up. And as my soul fills herself with this Sadness, she sees Beauty… vast, endless, eternal. She becomes Compassion.
Aside from all the existential experiences, my lesson this weekend that neither of my previous definitions of Compassion was completely correct. It’s not that horrible pity-guilt reaction but it’s also not my preference to refuse to see the suffering. So, what is Compassion?
My teacher Sara says that when the Buddha became enlightened, his first words were “Oh, shit.” The Buddha realized that Enlightenment wasn’t about instant bliss and now – woo-hoo! – party time! “Oh, shit,” he said.
Job’s story is helpful here. We know Job was a good man, a righteous man, who still suffered. And his little fixer friends tried to help him come to terms with his sin, bless their hearts. But Job was enlightened enough to know that there was nothing to fix and, after much wailing, finally got the message that his task was to allow suffering the same as he would allow prosperity… because they are both of God. There is no difference because neither one is really the Truth but they are both the Truth. God is a “both-and” not an “either-or”.
Enlightenment simply means that there is a realization of absolute oneness as well as a realization of Maya (the illusion of this world, the illusion of both suffering and prosperity). And with this realization comes immense responsibility… the Bodhisattva path. To come back again and again and again in true Compassion… holding both the pain and the beauty… knowing the Truth and also knowing that when one suffers we all suffer. Therefore, my suffering is, quite literally, your suffering. Compassion… “to suffer with.”
When he walked on this earth, Jesus talked about the Eternal Kingdom. Christ is the Bodhisattva, coming back again and again and again to show us the way. According to John, the Christ version of “Oh, shit” is, “I am the light, the truth and the way. No one gets to God but through me.” This piece of scripture is the very reason I am a Christian. Jesus was the model but Christ, that Christ that is within all of us, is the way. That is the path, the Bodhisattva path… within Enlightenment, the action of Compassion. Within Salvation, the action of Love.
So where does that leave me? I’m not enlightened. I still believe in my own suffering… I still think it sucks that I have to leave my friends and my community. I still feel the distress of leaving my teachers. I still feel rejected when I offer myself and am not met. I still feel the rug get pulled out from under me at work. I still get angry that I cannot live how I’d like to live in my own house. Pebbles.
… the lake of Sadness ripples and soon becomes calm again.
In my humanity perhaps my task is learning how to dance with my Sadness so my heart is open to all of my experience without needing it to be a certain way… allowing my heart to break open again and again and again so that my Soul can dance, in true Compassion, knowing that all things are of God.
So, I have to disagree a bit with my sister, Julian of Norwich who is often quoted as saying, “All manner of things will be alright.”
Because I hear Christ whispering, “Psst… everything is already OK. It really is.”