Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Transforming pain into compassion

Photo courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons

The heart is a muscle.

It starts beating at 150 (or so) beats per minute when we're growing in our mother's womb. It slows to 60 to 100 beats (or so) per minute as we head into adulthood. But it's always beating. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.

It beats and beats and beats, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, until the day it stops beating.  

I've been thinking about hearts. How constant and steady they are. And how we have to take care of them – giving them the right food and exercise and all that. And even if we're not all that great at tending to our hearts, they still muddle through. 

I've been thinking about how our physical hearts relate to our metaphysical hearts – that part of ourselves that dreams, creates and loves. How it thirsts for goodness. Both metaphysically and physically. It feels warm and full when it gives or receives kindness. It feels cold and empty when it gives or receives hatred. 

Our hearts thrive when there's peace. And suffer when there's stress. 

Physically and metaphysically.

I had this thought that just like our physical heart, our metaphysical heart is a muscle. It's the steady beat of our subconscious. And it can be strengthened and weakened based on our actions. And that the stronger all our metaphysical hearts are, the stronger we'll all be.


This past weekend my sister sent a text to my family. Her neighbor's home was on fire -- flames shooting out of an upstairs bedroom. She was worried and sad for the family who lived there, so she went across the street as the emergency crews were working and told her neighbors gathered out front they were welcome to come to her house if they needed a place to stay.

Not wanting to be in the way of the firefighters, she returned home to prepare for friends who were coming that evening. 

She told me the next day she didn't know where the family ended up. She felt guilty for not going back outside to find out if there was anything she could do to help them, she'd gotten distracted by dinner preparations. She felt badly that she didn't do more for them.

I pointed out that she had done something. She'd reached out to them during what must have been a terrifying ordeal and offered them a place to stay. 

Even though they didn't come, that gesture meant something. It should not be diminished. 

But we do that all the time, don't we? When faced with the problems of our family or our community or our country or the world, we always feel as if we're coming up short. That we never do enough.  

I feel this way all the time. After reading "The New Jim Crow" last year, I remember just feeling so defeated. Here I am the picture of white privilege with the blinders ripped off my eyes with no real direction on what I could do to fix the broken system. 

Or, like, watching the news of Syrian refugees. All those people – all those children – being slaughtered or dying trying to escape. What could I do to heal that? 

It's all around us, this despair and worry. How do we solve homelessness and poverty? How do we save the polar bears and the chimpanzees? How do we help our veterans plagued by PTSD? How do we stop gun violence? 

In the face of all these enormous problems, I find myself paralyzed. I can't fix all the things, so I do nothing.

But when it comes to compassion, the rule doesn't have to be "Go big or go home."

Our metaphysical hearts are muscles. They're ready to be compassionate, just as our physical hearts are ready to beat. It's the thump-thumping of our metaphysical hearts that makes us human.

The more we tend to our hearts, the more compassionate we will be. And just as we wouldn't expect our physical heart to be able to successfully run a marathon with no training, I don't believe we should expect our metaphysical hearts to solve all the problems of all the world on a moment's notice. Rather, as with all the hard things we want to accomplish, we have to take it one step at a time. One deed at a time. And even the smallest of gestures counts toward that step. Because compassion begets more compassion. We can strengthen those muscles with each deed. 

I was reminded of this while reading a Facebook post by a former co-worker.

He's a TA with an English-as-a-Second Language class in a Pennsylvania town "where three months ago about 3 million people voted for a man who said he’d build a wall between America and Mexico and protect people who live here from people who don’t." 

Bill recently shared a story about a field trip the class took to a local coffee shop to practice using English. He described how the large group of immigrants arrived in a Starbucks 20 minutes before close, how they apologized, telling the guy behind the counter they were an ESL class. 

The barista told the group it wasn't a problem. He'd been an ESL student himself. Another patron, an old man, chatting with the students despite the language barriers. At closing, the cashiers gave the class armloads of free pastries. 

This next part gave me goosebumps:

"Someone with a long beard and torn clothing asked one of the students for money. 'I have to go to Rite Aid,' he said. 'Sure,' said Xiomara. She plucked a dollar from a thin wad of cash in her pocket. 'I always give,' she whispered in Spanish to the teacher. 'It doesn’t matter what they do with the money. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to give.'"

My responsibility is to give, I thought. Such a simple, beautiful sentiment. 

When you're fostering a compassionate heart, there doesn't need to be a scale on which your compassion is measured. You do what you can whenever you can. The act of giving, not the amount of that giving,  is breeding grounds for more compassion.


This is important, to point out I think, because we are a culture obsessed with data. And as such, we are always comparing ourselves to the work of others. But we sabotage ourselves when we do this. We sabotage the compassion already glowing within us. Because it stops being about the act in of itself and starts being about the magnitude of that act. And when someone else inevitably does more, we inevitably feel smaller. 

Now, I'm going to go out on a Zen limb here (sorry, I hit up that section of the library recently...) but bear with me.

In "When Things Fall Apart," Pema Chodron writes about the importance of learning how to be kind to ourselves and to respect ourselves. She says that when start to look into our own hearts and begin discovering what is confused and what is brilliant or what is better and what is sweet, we're discovering more than ourselves – we're discovering the entirety of the universe. We learn that everything and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious, whole and good. When we can perceive our thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, then that's how we perceive the universe. And this liberation isn't limited to the individual - but the communities we live in, how we help our families, our country, the world, even the galaxy and beyond.

Whether it's ourselves, our lovers, our bosses, children, or the political situation, she writes, "It's more daring not to shut anyone out of our hearts and not to make the other into an enemy."

Chodron then questions how we can communicate to the heart in a way that allows a stuck situation to ventilate? 

"How can I communicate so that things that seem frozen, unworkable and eternally aggressive seem to soften up, and some kind of compassionate exchange begins to happen?"
It starts, she says, with you. With being compassionate toward the parts of yourself that you feel are unworthy of existing on this planet.

Our hearts are muscles.  When we strengthen our own by loving ourselves, then we are better able to strengthen the hearts of others.

She then quotes another Tibetan Buddhist. 

"You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion." 

See, even if you're harried, time-strapped or penniless you can strengthen your metaphysical heart by using your breath as a metronome to transform the hurt in the world into love.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.

Later on in the book, Chodron shares about a Buddhist practice called Tonglen – creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. 

"Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy."


The idea of walking this world with an open heart can be intimidating. At least, it's been for me. Because you're vulnerable, right? I find myself worrying about how even the smallest gestures will be received – that I'm too awkward and weird and clumsy. That for all my best intentions my overeager interactions with the world will be viewed as lame, disingenuous or desperate. 

Was that waiter offended that I told him it looked as if he'd had a long shift and could use a break? Was it weird that I told a complete stranger on the street I thought her lipstick color was really cool? Did my Muslim neighbor think I was too earnest and overdramatic when I asked how his family was doing and told him I was appalled by the recent travel ban? 

I fumble every day with compassion. I'm this gawky, hyperactive golden retriever with a ball who just wants someone to play with. Like, just relax about the ball dog. But whatever. I'll figure it out. I guess. I'm building this muscle -- there's bound to be a few aches and pains along the way.

For those, like me, who obsess over these minor interactions with others, I'll go ahead and close by going full-on Buddha with a quote from the Dalai Lama from "The Art of Happiness." 

"I think that this is the first time I am meeting most of you. But to me, whether it is an old friend or a new friend, there's not much different anyway, because I always believe we are the same, we are all human beings. Of course, there may be differences in cultural background or way of life, there may be differences in our faith, or we may be of a different color, but we are human beings, consisting of the human body and the human mind. Our physical structure is the same, and our mind and our emotional nature are also the same. Whenever I meet people, I always have the feeling that I am encountering another human being just like myself. I find it much easier to communicate on that level. If we emphasize specific characteristics, like I am Tibetan or I am Buddhist, then there are differences. But those things are secondary. If we can leave the differences aside, I think we can easily communicate, exchange ideas, and share experiences." 

We all share the same human hearts. Let's open them to each other.

Photo courtesy of Sadie Hart/Flickr

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