Compassion                   Autumn 2000
Madeline Ko-i Bastis




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Compassion is a pleasant quivering of the heart in response to pain.












































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Generosity is a willingness to give, without pious motivation and not being afraid of receiving anything.

Those of us who are caregivers like to think of ourselves as compassionate people. We devote our lives to helping others and often derive great satisfaction from giving to those who are in need. When that satisfaction wanes and we become a little colder, a little bitter, a little needy itís time to look at ourselves and our definition of compassion.
    In Buddhist psychology there are three levels of compassion - the first is tied to a specific situation or person - there is drought and whole villages starve; a friend loses a husband to cancer; our mother is diagnosed with Alzheimerís. Our hearts are touched and the desire for suffering to end arises. We want the person to get well, the situation to change or we want not to feel sad and helpless. Frequently this kind of compassion causes suffering in ourselves. We become caught up in the pain of the other and it reminds us of our own pain.
    During the first year of my chaplaincy training I worked on a medical floor of a large cancer center. During that year 83 people that I had gotten to know died. I experienced chronic leg pain, exhaustion, insomnia and long bouts of weeping. Immersing myself in my patientsí suffering cracked my carefully constructed shell of denial of my own suffering. It took several months for me to be willing to ask for help in confronting my own emotions and issues. Even though I had several years of meditation practice behind me, it was difficult to stay with the feelings and accept them.
    When this kind of suffering rears its ugly head the temptation is to flip-flop in the other direction - constructing, brick by brick, a wall of indifference to protect ourselves from feeling any pain - our own or anotherís. But there is another way.
    In Buddhism, compassion is defined as a pleasant quivering of the heart in response to suffering. How strange that sounds to us! We tend to think that if a person doesnít cry or get upset that they donít care. But a sense of detachment is necessary if we really wish to help another. Imagine if we were on the operating table and the surgeon started to cry, patted us on the shoulder and became so overwhelmed with feeling that she couldnít work.
    We can work with the conflicting emotions of drowning in pity or indifference to suffering by practicing a meditation call Karuna (compassion) which is the companion practice of Metta (loving-kindness). Like Metta, we visualize the person to whom we are sending compassion and work with the phrases:

    May you be free from pain.
    May you be free from suffering.
    May your heart be filled with peace.

If we tend to close ourselves off from feeling, we can use the phrase:

    I care about your pain.

Both of these practices help bring us into balance so that we can act compassionately. We begin to realize that everything changes: we are born, we live, we become old and sick and then we die. We exacerbate the pain of change by clinging to the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant. When we understand this truth, the vast expanse of suffering in which we all dwell is revealed and we feel compassion for all beings. This is the second level.
    The deepest level occurs when we realize that we are all connected; that we are all one body. The wisdom of the oneness of all things is manifested in compassionate action. We automatically do the appropriate thing in a given situation. The surgeon operates. The chaplain listens. The social worker fills out the necessary forms. The nurse gives the injection.
There is a famous Zen koan (conundrum):
    "What use does the bodhisattva (saint) of
     compassion make use of her hands and eyes?"
The master answers, "It is like a person reaching back, straightening a pillow in the middle of the night."
    Compassion arises naturally, with no self-consciousness. There is no sturm und drang, no feeling of being the savior, no pride in doing what needs to be done. There is no caregiver, no patient, no saving. There is simply compassion. You are me and I am you and we are in this life together.
    There is also no expectation of thanks or reward or acknowledgement.
    Several years ago while I was windsurfing I noticed a large dog in deep water. He had wandered out and the tide had come in and he was not able to get to shore. It was terrible to watch him tread water getting weaker and weaker. I was not a good enough sailor to be able to pick him up on my own board, so in the light wind, I tacked and tacked and tacked until I was nearly spent. Finally I spotted a couple in a canoe. With difficulty I sailed back to the dog, the canoe paddling behind. The couple picked him up and left him on the shore. The dog lay on the beach for a moment or two, then joyously shook the water off his body and trotted away. No backward glance, no thanks. Even though it was silly to think a dog would be grateful, I noticed my longing for acknowledgement. It was a great teaching for me. The reward was in his trotting off, looking for the next adventure. I shook the disappointment off myself and trudged back to the car. Whenever I begin to feel resentful and unappreciated I remember the incident with the dog. When I begin to burn out, wanting acknowledgement is the first sign that I need to step back and renew myself before it becomes a raging fire.
    Generosity is closely tied to compassion. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher defined generosity as a willingness to give, without pious motivation, just simply doing what is required at any moment in any situation and not being afraid of receiving anything.
    Compassion and generosity cut both ways. Thereís a time to give and a time to receive. When compassion comes from a place of wisdom thereís no distinction between the giver and the receiver.
    So take a break from feeling selfish or guilty. Itís okay to take a little time for yourself and replenish your resources, nurturing mind, body and spirit. Go on a retreat, take a walk, get a massage. Allow yourself to receive. Free yourself from the dichotomy of giver and receiver. Let your compassion flow freely to all beings, including yourself.


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