Held In Compassion (written 2017)
Some years ago I heard a teacher describe how our capacity for mindfulness, the ability to stay with discomfort especially, grows with time and consistent practice. Patience is key. So we gradually find we are able to stay with the slight discomfort of waiting in line, of a long-held yin pose, listening to the long monologue of someone we disagree with without interrupting. That sort of thing and maybe much more difficult experiences. Losing a job. The end of a marriage. An illness. But for all of us there will be surprises. Things that arise in our life that are outside the scope of that skill we've been cultivating. And when this happens, the second surprise is to find that the newer habits we've been consciously developing may be less stable than we imagined.
Recently in my life such a crisis arose. My first responses were careful and reflective. Although I could not change the circumstances or the event, I felt that I caught my own reactivity quite swiftly. I settled in to ride through one of the ordinary sorrows life offers, shored up by practices of mindfulness and the clear seeing of the way things are. It was in the night that I discovered that my feet were sliding, slipping into older, less skillful pathways. Dreams were troubled. Sleep intermittent. Body restless. I understand Right Effort and I continued to come to the breath each time I woke, to scan and relax this aching and weary body, to soften and relax the hand of the mind as it twitched, reaching for a place for blame and fear to take hold. It was a long night.
In the morning, I watched my breath and moved through a gentle yin practice and spent some time in paramitta chanting. These chants are reminders of the truths I have seen for myself in my practice. This moment is the only one I live in. Past and future are ephemeral creations of the mind. I knew I was painting tigers and then cowering in fear of them, as an old teaching story goes. I sat with the breath, beginning again and again. And then, later in the morning, I took my troubles to my Dhamma community.
When the Buddha's cousin, Ananda, said to the Buddha that friends were half the holy life, the Buddha answered him that no, they were the whole of the holy life. The Buddha knew the value of support on this practice path. Each of us struggles with the human perception of being alone in this world of the mind's making. Each of us needs reminders of those with us on the journey, the connections we share, the universality of our expereinces. Everyone knows the comfort of spilling worries into the ear of a friend. But often our friends may inadvertently increase our burden by pitying us, by being shocked, by trying to fix a situation, because they wish for our happiness again. They too are uncomfortable with our suffering. What I found among my Upasika sisters and brothers, instead, was a depth of love and a reminder of what I already knew. They did not climb into the river of emotion with me so that we were all swept away. They did not turn away. They pointed in a steadfast way at the shoreline within my reach, the solid ground beneath my foolishly scrambling feet.
And that next night I slept. I pulled back to the moment and found the ground again. I am not saying that without them I would have been lost, for I've been on this path a long time. The toolbelt I carry would surely have weighed me down to the ground again once I wearied of the struggle. But it was a welcome reminder of why this community, the catuparisa , the fourfold community of monks, nuns, lay practitioners both women and men, is valuable on this journey.
The strong and solitary, the rugged individual, is a dear myth of the west. Perhaps if we look closer, however, we'll see that the lone figure is an illusion of perspective. When we broaden our view, we see many such individuals, the strength of each possible because of the support and love and goodwill of the others.