Friday, December 28, 2007

Compassion so Subtle it's Sublime

Alex Blackwell at The Next 45 Years tagged me to join in the Spread the Love Now! Group Writing Project initiated by The Three Monks. For the rules for submitting an article go to one of their websites:

With receipt of Alex’s email, I was at first elated—to be connected with such a fine collection of inspirational writers—then immediately disheartened to see the subject: Compassion.

Compassion?! Do we have to do Compassion now? Yes, I know the rote message! But you know, Spirit, that I cannot allow myself a mere lifeless soliloquy. You know that if I am going to write it, I must live it today! I must feel it, actively, now. —And it cannot be a message that people are already well familiar with.

If we must…then let it be compassion.

Please give me a minute to explain. Compassion is a fine topic, an appropriate focus for any day, and particularly important for this time of year (in the northern hemisphere) when the weather is harshest, the shorter daylight hours depress often, and many hopes are dashed on finding that no holiday or event can support the weight of so much anticipated rescue from all that ails.

The problem was never the subject. The problem was that Spirit confronted me with this opportunity at a time that I did not feel I was in a position to do it justice. It’s like being well trained and capable in the proper handling and care of the queen’s snow white cape, but as I was merely the backup attendant who imagined my big chance would come—without warning—just after I finished filling in for the chimney sweep?

Oh well, Spirit’s opportunity comes when it will…for its own reason.

So I walked away from the email and awaited that place beyond the muddled condition of mind that it found me in. After all, there was nothing going on in my life that could justify not standing up to the state of spirit that would be necessary to properly do this task. I was not that attached to my melancholy. In fact, I was in the process of shaking it off when Alex’s note delivered the abrupt wake up call. “I can do this,” I said. And then I waited.

It was not long before the subtle craft of Spirit began to show itself…or rather, to clear my eyes, for compassion (and Spirit) had always been in touch with me me, had never been hidden from me.

I do not know why Wade, Kenton, and Albert started this project. If it had been my project, I suspect I would have imagined the process was to refresh compassion in the minds of readers and writers, inspiring acts of compassion out into the world around them. Though that will undoubtedly be some of the effect of the Love Now! Group Writing Project, I start to imagine there will be many initially less obvious benefits, other profound forms of compassion.

My first experience of the effect of this project was the compassion that I was induced to treat myself with. I allowed myself to release the gloom that I had stumbled into so that I could properly contemplate the subject of compassion—a subject too important to receive anything short of a fully focused consideration, connected to the heart.

I thank the three monks for that gift of compassion, for myself and all the others that will experience it.

I do not know why Alex invited me into this project. Very likely Alex did not consciously know of the transformation that I would be given in order to appropriately respond to his tag. He and I have never communicated other than through comment boxes in blogs and, then only very recently—at least we have not communicated in direct and obvious ways.

Though Alex and I have not communicated in direct or obvious ways, we are all—each and every one of us—connected at a transcendental level. And we all ‘speak’ with each other. It’s just that not everyone has the perceptiveness to respond to even the unheard and unseen needs of our sisters and brothers. Sometimes we know, but doubt.

I thank Alex for his compassion to reach out and have confidence that I could show proper honor to this project.

So now, having traveled this circuitous little mind path to achieve a place quiet enough to attentively consider compassion, it is not surprising that I would be primed to settle on an atypical variation—what some may consider a minor face of compassion. I, however, have found evidence of this particular gift being something much needed even in places where one would never imagine finding ‘the needy.’

This act of compassion seems that it should simpler to offer than most. At first consideration, one would imagine that giving it requires nothing of us. It’s something we can freely give without ever being the lesser for it. It should be easy! But it must not be so, or there would be more evidence of it in the world as there are so many opportunities to share this gift every day. What is even more confounding is that giving this gift immediately benefits both giver and receiver.

Another sublime aspect of this particular form of compassion is that the receiver is rarely conscious of receiving it. For that matter, they are rarely aware of their need of such a loving gift. However, a person who receives this gift of gentle compassion is invariably affected. You can openly pour this compassion over the one in need—and I assure you that will be just about anyone you meet—without ever threatening anyone’s dignity or pride.

A dear friend, Kitty Couch (1921-2004) introduced me to this form of compassion, without ever my knowing that I was its recipient until far into our relationship. I realized that something was different with my experience when I spent time with Kitty. I have tried to cultivate my sensitivity over the years, so I knew there was a palpable sense of having received something more than the gift of time and friendship when leaving each visit with her. At first this sensation was a little uncomfortable—because of the unusualness of the experience—but the subconscious so enjoyed the experience that the conscious mind was quickly convinced that it was delusional in its concerns.

Kitty was a genteel Southern (US) lady, so it was not surprising that whenever you tried to engage her into conversation about herself, she would say something like, “I know about me, Sweetie. I want to know about you.” She was also a converted Buddhist (raised Catholic), so that may have added to the sense of focus she gifted her guests with. Some time passed and I began to more actively try to shift the conversation to her, for she was a very interesting person. However, she would kindly sidestep and again touch you with her gentle attention. Before you knew it, you’d be leaving the visit with no more knowledge about her than before—but feeling wonderful!

After some time, I suspect my ‘need’ had been healed enough that I could begin to see the magic that Kitty was working with everyone that came in contact with her---and there were many. The gift she gave, the compassion so simple yet so rarely given, was undivided, focused, heart-felt attention to the person that she was visiting with at the moment. If there were a dozen visiting at any given time, when her eyes came in contact with you, she connected! She gave her attention to you alone….not to her thoughts, her concerns, her tomorrow, her yesterday, her reply, offering more tea or snacks. She gave her attention to you alone! Each person felt special in Kitty’s presence, all because of undivided attention for a short period of time—each time, every time. And she did this with friends, neighbors, people on the street, the sangha that met at her home, the prison sangha, troubled school kids, anyone and everyone.

Before that experience, I had never even realized just how counterfeit is the focus that we so often offer as attentiveness,including the ones we love. Even when we mean to give our all, our minds are just not used to coming to such a single focus for any length of time. And that is another amazing thing about the fact that this practice is offered so rarely. The moment one gifts another with this unreserved focus of our attention, we are immediately unchained from all our concerns of ourself. All the exaggerated demons of the mind are immediately deflated, for no space in the attention is left for them to thrive.

I was fortunate enough to know Kitty long enough after she had healed my deficit that I could actually see her giving the gift to others. I saw how it affected them. I saw the look in their eyes, the light that grew in their faces….all without them ever knowing she was giving or that they/we needed. Unfortunately, I did not get to have her around long enough to achieve any real mastery of the art. True, I know all the essentials, but it is always good to have a master to remind one of the possibilities. Example is the best teaching.

Kitty died in the winter of 2004, in an auto accident on her way to a Buddhist monastery in Vietnam. At her memorial in Penland, NC (US) many people suffered the lost of that undivided, open-hearted attention that was her greatest gift…and by no means a lesser face of compassion.

I can hold the essence of this kindness for periods of time. Only practice will improve the skill.
Blessing to the Spread the Love Now! Group Writing Project for the synchronistic compassion of bringing this study back to my attention.