A Door to Compassion (written 2015)
For a few months now I have been concentrating a lot of daily meditation effort, on and off the cushion, on what traditional teachings call the Brahma Viharas, the Divine Abidings. Of these teachings, loving kindness is the most familiar. Compassion, the second in the list of four, is also familiar, and neither, of course, is exclusive to Buddhist teaching.
My “formal” work with these teachings includes a number of chants, and recitations as well as some free-form prayer: wishing for my heart to open in certain ways. I am very specific about this in these private prayers, mentioning particular people and particular situations that are challenging, expressing my heartfelt desire to look clearly at my part in the picture and to let go of my preferences and judgements that are causing difficulties. And I spend time in meditative contemplation of what I discover in calm and tranquil times that permit clear seeing.
Not surprisingly, this intention to open my heart continues to have impact on daily life. And I do not mean only on direct interactions. As a lifetime reader, I am discovering anew the deep gifts of fiction.
A superficial take on fiction is to see it as entertainment and the lesser cousin of serious non-fiction writing. But fiction allows what is seen from the outside in non-fiction to be lived from the inside. My personal bias is that books do this much more effectively than film. We are inevitably viewers of films. Books take up residence in our bodies and minds. When I read a good novel I am temporarily re-embodied. I take on the life, the views and the emotions of some other being. This is the door into compassion, and into sympathetic joy, understanding and sharing the joys of others without envy or judgement, the 3rd of the Brahma Viharas.
This aging, white woman, university educated, middle class, and living in an affluent province in a country with diversity and in a time of opportunity and freedom, is sublimated to the character whose story I am living in the pages of the book. This character may be male or female or even transgender, younger or older than me, of any class or religion, of any race and ethnic heritage, in a country and time period beyond my experience. Thus, I am drawn into a new way of living in the world.
Recently most of the books I have read have had female voices. But these voices have ranged from that of a 9 year old Afghani girl to a one hundred and fourteen year old Japanese Buddhist nun. I have lived vicariously within cultures in France, India, Afghanistan, Trinidad, and less exotically in Toronto and SanFranciso, to name only those that come immediately to mind. I have moved from the 1500's to medieval times, to the WW1 era to contemporary times. Inside the minds and hearts and lives of these differing beings I have learned about a range of hope and loss far beyond my personal experience. I have been inside points of view that fit comfortably and view points that were fraught with dis-ease. Yet for the time I lived inside of them, I was able to see more clearly the ten thousand things that make a being. Familiar furniture to the being for whom they are home, these are the things we so often trip over and bump into in our understanding of others.
These have always been the possibilities of fiction and even when reading purely for the pleasure of story, I have been exposed to them. However, the intention I have formed to open my heart has meant an opening on a new level, that surprisingly applies not just to those born and not-yet-born, as traditional chants say, but to those never-born in the sense we usually mean. The characters in these stories borrow this mind and heart awhile to become “real” and this mind and heart is made more spacious in that union.