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Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Compassion: The Pause That Refreshes
Buddhist practice is about demonstrating compassion with the goal of ending suffering and the causes of suffering in the world. At first it might seem a lofty goal. For example, wars, natural disasters and terrorist threats all cause a lot of suffering, but what can we really do about those global events? Fortunately, or unfortunately, there's a lot of suffering that occurs in everyday life, close to home. We throw angry words at family members when they do something that disappoints us. We lash out at colleagues who miss a deadline or don't follow-through on a project to our liking. We ignore the email from a friend who is going through a tough time because we just don't want to become immersed in his problems, again.
It's a strange realization when you discover that your everyday actions—or lack thereof—may cause anguish in others, but it's even more shocking to discover that you cause a lot of suffering within yourself. Of course, it's far easier to identify actions that hurt other people, even if it's after the fact. It's much, much harder to be conscious of the hell you put yourself through everyday.
To be a compassionate person, you first must be compassionate to yourself. This doesn't mean just excusing your bad behavior or giving yourself a break from taking responsibility for your actions, but you cannot possibly be kind and loving to others if you are paralyzed with anxiety, guilt or despair. Being kind to oneself takes a lot of effort and it begins with understanding the root of the problems that vex you. Again, easier said than done, because often we don't truly understand the motivating or mitigating factors that cause anxiety and mental anguish in our lives. We may see what is on the surface, but delving deep into the origins of that pain can be difficult work. That's where Buddhist practice comes in. It's therapy, yes, but of a very directed nature which aims to replace negative and harmful thoughts and behaviors with positive, loving ones.
Yesterday, Jack provided me with a wonderful example of self-created anguish. Since he's out of school for the holidays, I arranged for him to attend an afternoon camp. He played dodge ball for three hours. The camp was held in a gym about four blocks from our house, so I walked over to get him. He groaned when he saw that I hadn't brought the limo to pick him up, and he immediately began complaining of thirst. "Let's go back in the gym and get a drink of water," I suggested. "No!" he said stubbornly."I don't want water!" We walked a few more yards. "I'm so thirsty, Mom, I'm gonna die!" he said. We were still near the gym so I suggested that we go back so he could get a drink from the water fountain. "No!" he said. "I want juice!" "Okay," I said, "We'll be home soon, and there's lots of juice there. It's only a few more blocks." He trudged along behind me for another block or two occasionally making sounds like a man crossing the Sahara without a canteen. At last I turned to him and said, "Son, if you were that thirsty, we could have gone back for water. But you decided that's not what you wanted. It was your choice to remain thirsty. Now you have two choices, you can forget about your thirst for the rest of the way home, or you can focus on it and make yourself miserable. Either way, we'll be home in about five minutes. It's up to you whether that five minutes is painful or pleasant." Then we walked past some houses decorated for Christmas and he became distracted—he chose pleasant. The whining stopped and we enjoyed the rest of the short walk home.
Mental anguish is like this. We often think we need something or are lacking something or can't live without something and become so fixated on the deficit in our lives that we make ourselves miserable. We cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain. We are thirsty, but not just for anything that will quench our thirst. We want something sweet and satisfying—something that we don't have. That's what Buddhism calls craving or grasping.
When we are compassionate to ourselves, we take the time to talk to that child inside us and rationally explain the options: You can drive yourself crazy with anxiety and grasping over the things you don't have; or you can choose to focus on the good things all around you and take yourself to a place where you can feel better. Like Jack, instead of focusing on thirst for what you don't have, you can enjoy the journey until you get the refreshment you really need. And, believe it or not, that mindful action is the first step to ending a lot of strife in the world. Try it and see.