Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fear of the Compassionate Heart

my brother, as sketched by my father 1992
I woke up this morning flooded with softness, like the soft rainy day itself, holding thoughts of my cousin and her daughter in my heart. Before I even opened my eyes, my heart had melted. It felt as though waves of love could be sent to surround their eyes, their arms and hands, their words,  the spaces in which they moved their bodies. There was no reason why these two women should be in my mind at all, and in fact I haven't seen my cousin  in more than a year and a half, and have never met her 20+ year old daughter. They have been locked in a struggle for many years with debilitating psychological and emotional issues that have trapped them, literally, in the house, isolating them from social and emotional lives. Though my cousin goes to work, she can do nothing else; her daughter so fearful at all times that she forbids her mother from even allowing anyone to come to the house.  For more than 10 years this situation has been kept close to the vest, and I had no inkling of it. I saw my cousin so rarely, and she seemed to be connected to her work and always warm and kind towards me. My older sister maintained contact with this cousin since childhood as they were closer in age. A few months ago, my sister described this situation to me, detailing her observations and all the suggestions she had made, positing therapeutic strategies, all with a sense of hopelessness and sorrow.

Suffering.  There it is in a neighbor, a friend, a relative, in ourself. The urge rises to help, do something, fix something, give advice. A feeling of helplessness and sorrow washes in, an ocean of uselessness. Anger and frustration take hold, driven by a desire that conditions be changed, people behave differently, understandings shift, problems be solved.  Judgments and assessments abound. So imperfect, the situation or the self; so unsatisfactory, the conditions or the choices.

We all know how it is to stand in one place, take in the view and begin defining everything by what we see there. So it is with suffering.  We take a look at it, perhaps even a long look, and that view begins to settle into all the shapes of our feelings and reactions, our ideas and our behavior.  In any relationship, we can see the patterns of response and the collaborative nature of our view and our actions and feelings.

What if there is no action to take? How do we open ourselves to simply acknowledge without judging and hold the depth of the hurt, sorrow, anger, frustration or pain of the situation? What would happen if we could actually just allow the entirety of it (that pattern or story or set of conditions) to open up in our awareness, to be truly seen - the sheer pain of it might be unbearable, debilitate us or drive us over the cliff! It might show us how powerless we are, or ignorant or just hurt too much.  It can be very frightening to let the truth in, precisely because there might not be anything we can do about it.

This is fear of our own compassionate heart. As in a sitting meditation when for a split second there are no boundaries to the self, it can be so liberating that we react by grasping for our defined self to reassure ourself that "we exist" as we have always thought. What if it is truly so that our existence is a series of structures that we have built with conditions and reactions and once seen as separate from our basic being we are free? It can take a while to see that grasping at our definitions is something we can let go, and allow the feeling of grasping to be seen but not be in charge of defining us. This is a practice of learning to abide, to hold that vast open sense of being.

Holding my cousin and her daughter in my heart with compassion, I go through the same sequence -- feeling myself grasping at what action to take, how to convey my thoughts or advice, even simply figuring out how to show my cousin that I care about her -- and allow myself to let all that go. It takes practice to open the compassionate heart without attachment to outcomes, or assigning responsibilities. For me, perhaps especially as one who has been responsible for taking care of other people, there are knee-jerk reactions in that direction and fears of what taking on those responsibilities could be for me. I watch myself worry over what might happen if I showed my open heart -- how much more pain might flood in! It is at that point when the boundaries vanish, and all my thoughts, reactions, judgments and fears can be seen for the conditioned patterns that they are, not rooted in this moment and not attached to compassion itself.  It cannot hurt me to open my heart, the source of the pain is not my compassion.

Perhaps I truly do wish that the situation was different for my cousin and her daughter. I surely wish they could escape from the trap that cages them away from what looks like happiness and a full life. My discomfort with the pain of others' suffering stems from my own ideas about suffering and my definitions of who I am and what I ought to do to alleviate that suffering. It is by overcoming the fear of my own compassionate heart that I can offer a truthful place for my own feelings, and a healing space for the suffering of others.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sentimental, Objects Gripping the Heart

My shelves are full of books I haven't read in years, yet as I consider them, they seem to represent my life, my experiences, my hopes, and so many stages of my growth. Less personal than diaries perhaps but in some ways just as revealing, my bookshelves really carry weight. Literally. How many have I given away, or traded in at second hand bookstores?  Like the changing seasons, I change the flavor of my reading-in-progress pile, but for the most part the shelves stay the same. I am attached to them even though the vast majority of these books simply collect dust.

A dear friend gave me this book. I read this one in the middle of a hard winter in my sophomore year at college. These were my introductions to the existence of Japanese writings; these to the deep currents in Russian literature; these to the lyrical qualities in English poetry; these to the myths and stories that form  gender awareness, this was important in my pursuit of yogic practices. These were my grandfather's. This, from my uncle's shelf. These were my children's favorites once they began reading. Here is that poet whose name I never remember, and then this one that my husband gave me ... on and on.

I stare at the bindings and allow whatever is evoked to arise. Not quite ready to clear these shelves though I've traveled and lived elsewhere without them. I can conjure up the same feelings simply by thinking about them. How much weight must I carry to hold moments of memory,  feelings about people, ideas of myself in times past? This tiny tee shirt that my son outgrew 23 years ago is still folded in the back of a drawer in a room where he no longer lives. Four delicately cut glasses, that once belonged to my husband's grandmother, stand in the back row of my kitchen shelf. They are designed for some specific drink that I can't identify and yet I feel the tug of his childhood memories. There's that little dish tucked into a top drawer of my own dresser, the small shallow ceramic where my mother once deposited tiny sea shells and beach stones.

This poignant remembering does have such a richness, like a special caramelized sauce, heated by the heart, and sweetened by memory.  I can pour it liberally over anything, anywhere. The senses respond, the emotions rise. On the one hand my experience seems deeper, but in truth, it is a repeat of a pattern of responses. And yet all of this is fantasy, just my mind making a story for me. These objects, books, even ideas, can trigger memories that are pleasant or unpleasant. Essentially I can use them or not in this way, making choices about how I remember something or use my feelings to influence this moment in my life. Do I want to spend my time in a web of reaction, replaying feelings and a story line that might change or harden with time, or can I free myself from this layer of attachment and be present now?

It seems the sentimental object is a small trap.  Once I see it, I can step around the quicksand or jump in with both feet. Having this choice definitely loosens the grip of reactivity on my feelings and behavior, and frees me to see more than that one story, understand beyond the repeated pattern, and be present. I love reading a book more than once, discovering it anew,  not measuring how much I missed or forgot, and yet savoring the familiar. I do not try to relive my earlier experience of reading that book, but allow myself a fuller, layered experience of it. It is not a sentimental journey but a new adventure.