I shot this on our last trip to the Getty museum in LA. It’s not a good photo, but it seemed like a good point to leap off from in discussing compassion. I know watching the nun and her charge that I felt a great upwelling of pity and compassion, for both of them. I watched the nun cut a piece of fruit and feed it to the girl in the wheelchair. Every few bites she’d take one herself, so the two of them could share the experience, I suppose. Or she was hungry too.
I imagine both lives as incredibly circumscribed and incredibly bountiful. The nun has chosen her path of austerity, chastity, and service, love of the lord spurring her to turning her whole life into one ongoing act of self-denial and spiritual grunt work. The girl in the chair obviously did not conciously choose her cross. Her suffering is imposed on some level. I don’t want to minimize her suffering or ‘steal’ it for the purpose of some pat spiritual lesson or musing: I worked intimately with handicapped and mentally ill people for years, both in hospital and residential settings, and I am under no illusions about the quality of their lives. But. I wonder if, in some cases, there is not a spiritual ‘endowment’ that comes with this great suffering, some ramping up of the inner life to compensate, in some measure, for the awful external loss?
Okay, maybe. Maybe not.
But how about on the level of simple intimacy? The act of another human hand putting food into your mouth? The most primitive and primal expression of love, of compassion… surely this must strike a chord of comfort at the very least, must communicate on a cellular level that there does exist some force in the terrible world that loves you, even the stricken and malformed, even the least one.
I just want us all to know a moment of peace, no matter how bitter the world we find ourselves in. And these two, for a few moments on a busy day in a glorious place, fed each other and my dream of a world where compassion finds a way.
I was thinking about this as an experiment. I’ve tried it, actually. What do you think?
Get up. Turn on the news, eat breakfast, read the paper, have coffee.
Go to work and listen to the news on the way.
Get to work, check email and headlines.
Talk with coworkers about politics and the war.
Eat lunch at McDonalds and hurry back to work.
Work. Think about how fucked up everything is.
Stay late because you are behind.
Drive home fast and mad. Listen to the news on the way home.
Get home, turn on TV if it isn’t already on.
Eat dinner in front of TV or with TV on, talk to family about the news.
Drink a beer or a glass of wine or three.
Watch a movie or sitcom until you fall asleep.
Crawl into bed and have nightmare.
Get up too early and turn on the news.
Days 2 through 2,000:
Experiment No. 2-
Get up too early, lay in bed. Before you do anything, think about what kind of day you want to have. Imagine that this is the very last day you’ll have, and that by eleven pm you will be cooling on a slab in a green-tiled basement room somewhere. Imagine that this is a secret and you can’t let anyone know. Think about this for a second. Imagine all you’ll miss. Notice how all your “problems” of money, stress, job, car, etc. vanish. Notice who you want to be with one last time.
Shower. Check yourself out as you do. Skin, how good it feels. Wiggle your toes. Soap up and let the hot water run all over your bad naked self. Mmmm….
Get dressed. No TV. No radio. No newspaper.
Eat breakfast. You can have whatever you want. Eat it slowly and savor each bite. Don’t talk.
Just eat and drink.
Put dishes in sink, wash them, dry them, put them away.
Kiss family members good bye and tell them you love them.
Go to work. No radio. No iPod, etc. If driving, roll down window and listen and breathe. Look around.
Smile at someone.
You may sing as loudly as you wish for as long as you wish. You may tap your toes and the steering wheel.
Go to work and really notice and greet and listen to the first five people you see. Imagine that they are going to be dead by the end of the day, too. Find out something about them you didn’t know but that they’ve always wanted to tell someone if only someone would ask them.
Ignore email. No internet.
Take on the first task and really settle in to it. Breathe. Get it’s shape and depth and width and go do exactly what it asks of you to completion.
Take a break. Walk around, get a glass of water. Go say “hi” to the boss and to someone like the guy who empties the trash- go up the chain to the top and down the chain to the bottom. Treat both people the same, that is, as if they were the most important person in your life at that moment.
Go back to work.
Lunch. Eat somewhere new and take a friend and no TV, radio, newspapers, sports talk, bullshit. Just eat in silence, or ask them questions like “What’s the happiest you’ve ever been?” or “What’s the best thing you ever did for someone?” and then listen till they are finished.
Go for a walk.
Go back to work and do what’s asked of you with a grateful heart and as if it is the last, best, most important thing you’ll ever do.
Drive home and watch the sunset or the nightfall and no radio, news, etc. Sing if you like.
Get home and turn off the TV. Eat dinner with family. Savor each bite, savor the faces of your loved ones gathered around you.
Go for a walk in the dark after dinner. Bring anyone who’ll come with you.
Read a book for an hour and have a glass of wine unless you are an alcoholic, then have a glass of water or tea.
Listen to your family as they get ready for bed, and check in with them for the last time. Remember, you’ll be dead
in an hour or so now, so really let them have your full attention. They can’t catch on, only you know what’s coming.
But pay attention.
Lie down in bed and look up at the ceiling and replay the day in your mind. Notice the things you did that caused pain to others or yourself, and promise yourself you’ll try not to repeat those kinds of actions. Notice the things that you did that made others feel good, smile, etc. and promise you’ll try to do more of those things.
Fall asleep knowing that tomorrow you will die.
Day 2 through ??
The past few weeks the reality of the world’s ugliness has been at the forefront of my mind. The hatred, intolerance, and fear of mankind for itself is in terrible display. Most of us live in conditions that, if they don’t outright kill us by disease, starvation, or violence, wear away at our souls to such a degree that we become bitter and hopeless or angry enough to kill ourselves and lash out at the unfair world at the same time. The idea of killing babies in their mother’s arms comes to seem the only way to adequately express our hatred and despair, our own endless pain.
So, hell is here on earth. That seems, on the face of it, to be a reasonable conclusion. Now, the Buddhists will say that this hell is of our own creating, that all these suffering souls suffer because of:
1. The Karmic retribution for their own past bad acts and lack of understanding and compassion, and
2. Their mistaken ideas of reality that prevent true understanding, and thus the growth of compassion and the breaking of the grip of samsaric reality.
The nice thing about this belief system for someone like myself, who is relatively pain free and lives an incredibly bountiful existence, is that I can look at the dead, blown up babies and mommies and say, “Well, really, it’s some working out of Karma….it seems horrible, but it’s a mistake to take any of that too seriously. It all works out in the end.”
It feels awfully pat.
I can’t make out an answer that works for me, although I am inclined to just ‘make room’ for my own lack of understanding, and to view the suffering of others around me as a goad to my own weak and pitiful sense of compassion. As a way to break the ego’s grip on my world-viewing contraption, to shake it loose so that I might be able to see with new eyes.
And, of course, it is also true that Heaven is here on earth as well. Or Nirvana. Call it what you will, every joy, every happiness, is available to us here and nowhere else. It is all dependent upon the individual, I suppose. A combination of careful looking, of trying to see without judging exactly what is, from moment to moment, as well as flooding the world inside and out, with all of the love and compassion you are capable of producing. Not to change the world, but to love it as it is. With the ugliness. With the terror and pain.
How beautiful we are in our distress.
How beautiful you are in your pain.
How beautiful indeed.