March 10, 2016
To be compassionate (or more accurately, to be compassion itself), is to identify with the field in which all experience arises.
Mesmerized by the myriad variety of appearance,
Mad with hope and fear,
Beings roam the endless wastes of samsara.
So that they may find relief
In the luminosity and boundless space of their own true nature,
I generate immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion,
Sympathetic joy and equanimity,
The very heart of bodhicitta.
When I left the house this morning I had a strong feeling of something being unfinished. I get this a lot. Partially, I think it’s the fact that I am an unfinished person, not really a “me” at all. A collection of parts. A collection of more-or-less consciously adopted identities. Therapist. Father. Husband. Man. When I leave the house I leave one set of identities and sometimes there’s a break, I’m walking down the sidewalk and I have not yet taken on another set. Sometimes I fill that space with an identity as well, “The Depressed Person,” for example, or “The Nice Guy” who always chats with the elderly gentleman smoking in front of his building.
But it is all so unsatisfying. Sometimes these identities may not fit very well. Sometimes I don’t feel “nice,” and to stop and chat is a chore. I don’t know how to be true to myself in that moment. I feel so distanced from myself. I feel so distanced from the heart of my life. That is the unfinished feeling.
You see I don’t mind that my life is composed of parts. That’s natural and normal. I can’t talk to my seventeen-month-old the same way I talk to my wife or one of my clients. But what’s at the heart of it? What’s at the heart of me? Is it really only memory that ties the whole thing together?
If so, I think I’m okay with that. It doesn’t bother me much that I may not exist. It’s been going on my whole life, this ever-changing slideshow of identities, and the existential terror I might expect to feel hasn’t shown itself yet.
What does not feel okay is the lack of perspective.
I was looking at a book of photographs by Diane Arbus the other night. She was fascinated by the moment when “the mask slips,” when the face of what is really going on shows through the face a person presents to the world. She saw the hidden despair of people very clearly, and photographed it with precision and compassion.
Diane Arbus committed suicide, and I am not particularly surprised. As is true for all of us, the despair she saw in the world mirrored the despair she must have felt herself. In spite of her famous quote that “It’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own;” the larger picture is that some of us feel the world’s pain very acutely.
I actually wonder if it is that sense of separation that makes life so very painful. It is not inherently painful to flow from one identity to the next to the next, it is the jarring effect of feeling that one should be feeling something other than what one feels, or BEING something other than what one is, in the moment. This could be as small as “I should be happy right now,” and as big as “Wait, I was supposed to be a famous actor by now. What am I doing working at Denny’s?” or “How did I end up in this alley with a needle in my arm?” Or, for that matter, “How is it that I am a porn addict? I’m not supposed to be that.”
This disconnect creates resistance, and the resistance creates more disconnect. I have clients who have no idea who they are or what they want, in the big sense or in the moment, because they are so convinced that they “should” be something else. More manly, thinner, happier, better.
I think the way out of the disconnect has to do with compassion. That’s the bridge. While my tragedy is my tragedy, and my clients’ tragedies are their own, the pain we feel is all part of the world’s pain. My thwarted ambition only exists because the concept of ambition exists in the world, as well as the concept that ambition might not be fulfilled. A client’s struggle with gender identity is rooted in the confluence of human biology and public opinion, both of which exist in the world, and of which we all partake, whether we want to or not. Grief comes from loss, which is a part of life. Obviously loss may fall more heavily on one person more than another, but it is a part of all of our experience.
The Buddha’s journey to enlightenment began when he first perceived the basic and profound sufferings of the world: sickness, old age and death. Although he was raised in a palace, he understood that there are no walls that can keep these sufferings out. They are a part of all of us, they flow through us, and they will take us all in the end.
Compassion means being willing to take up our share of the sufferings of the world. The nasty little secret, hidden in the wording of the Bodhisattva vow, is that our share of the world’s suffering is, in fact, the whole thing. This seems monumental, unbelievable and unbearable, but there is another secret as well: WE ARE ALREADY FEELING IT.
The Bodhisattva vow, or any commitment to compassion, is really just a symbol and a commitment to feel what we are already feeling. We already feel the pain of the homeless person, of the addict, of the abused child. We feel the pain of a bird with a broken wing, even of a fly caught in a spider’s web. This is why we walk past with our gaze averted. It is too painful to look.
Compassion involves being willing to look. But not just to look, also to invite. “Hello, I see that you are in pain. What’s that like for you?”
Even if there is nothing we can “do,” sometimes the most helpful thing we can offer is our presence. I have a client who is dying of multiple debilitating health issues, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to help him overcome his problems. He’s dying. He’s in pain. What can I do? But I meet with him every week, and we chat about his present and his past, and sometimes about movies and books and politics and culture. We share space, we share time. And, because I care deeply about this man, we also share his pain. That helps. I know it helps because he keeps coming back.
I have often said that love is acceptance. When we love conventionally, we accept the parts we like and reject the parts that don’t suit us. When we love unconditionally, we accept unconditionally. Compassion is a form of love that strives to accept unconditionally. Acceptance is larger than pain. Acceptance is the field in which pain can express itself fully. To identify with acceptance, to be compassionate (or more accurately, to be compassion itself) is to identify with the field in which all experience arises. In this place, there is no difference between the pain you experience and the pain I experience. Together, we can hold them both.
All Photos © Diane Arbus