Abiding in Compassion (written 2014)
I guess if someone were watching they'd think I was pretty miserable. I'm sitting in the morning darkness in front of a small table on which a candle and incense burn. I'm wrapped in a blanket against the autumn chill because others in the house are still sleeping and I don't want to bake them out of bed by turning up the heat. My eyes are closed, my back erect and my hands folded in my lap. What is relatively unusual is that tears are running down my face.
The hurt I feel is sweet and all-consuming. The pain of an open and yearning heart. It's akin to the surge of pain cued by listening to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah or his newer song Going Home. The pain of loss remembering loved ones no longer living, remembering the milky sweet smell of babies now grown, knowing most of my life is behind me, knowing I can't fix the pain of someone I love.
Why do I say it's sweet? Unlike physical pain which has a bitterness to it, the mental suffering we all endure has a taste to it that invites surrender rather than struggle. When I cut my hand, I flinch away. When a sad memory arises, I pull it close, I let it cover my head like a hood. It is a crazy kind of human addiction.
But we too often think this pain is personal, mine alone, and not the “gift” of being human. It's what allows empathy if we can open to this, “inhabit[ing] simultaneously the first person and the third person”, as Alice Major, a renowned Alberta poet, puts it. When we understand that to be human is to feel this, it is a doorway into connection. A way of understanding that we all yearn to be alive, to love and to be happy. We just go about it in ways that tend to be counterproductive to that end. So we all experience this sweet pain of disappointment, loss, and the charade of denial. Neuorscience tells us that if the brain is being monitored, we can see that the same parts light up for the same type of experience, whether it is our experience or that of another that we merely witness. When I see someone weeping, the part of my brain that is active when I weep, mirrors theirs. It would seem to follow then, that when we build defenses and shut off to the pain of our own lives, we shut off to the pain of others.
So what has brought on my tears this morning? It's a bit of a mystery and yet I think I know what I have done. From under the suffocating blanket of personal pain, and disappointments, I have burst out into the world of all human suffering. For a little while I am overwhelmed.
A few weeks ago I began to spend more of my daily meditation time on what traditional Buddhist texts call the Divine Abidings: loving kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), empathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). One of the strategies I employed to enable me to carry this intention throughout the day, was to commit to memory a beautiful passage known as the Discourse on Loving Kindness. This passage outlines the actions and attitudes required of “one who knows the path of peace.” This act of memorizing meant that I read the passage multiple times a day. I took it in small meaningful bites and carried it in my head throughout the day. I would fall asleep mentally reciting these bits, and eventually the whole passage. I was busily opening new channels in my brain, new avenues to my heart.
“Whatever you think and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of the mind,” the Buddha said. And so my mind was inclined toward these divine universalities. I was amazed to find that falling asleep hearing the words in my head, I'd wake to find them there, the first thing my waking self reached for in finding its place and time again.
This isn't my first tearful sitting. But it is one of a recent series that leaves me not depleted and worn out but feeling renewed, tears watering the seeds of compassion and metta in the heart's garden.
Footnote: There are many translations of the Discourse on Loving Kindness. Here's one in English for those interested in a look: