Pain is physical, suffering is mental. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting. It is a sign of our unwillingness to move, to flow with life. Although all life has pain, a wise life is free of suffering. A wise person is friendly with the inevitable and does not suffer. Pain they know but it does not break them. If they can, they do what is possible to restore balance. If not, they let things take their course.
I don't know anything about Nisargadatta save what Google tells me, that he is an Indian guru, a spiritual teacher, and a wise man who has sold many books. But when I came upon this quote, in my bones I knew it to be true. My father, another wise man, used to say of certain things- illnesses, injuries, emotional phases- "let it run its course". The saying comforted me because it implied a secret working to life, but I tend to lose faith in this secret working. This lack of faith has been the portal to dark places, and yet I know I am not alone in going there. I hear about the insidious effects of depression and its cohort anxiety in the news, in phone calls with family; I read about them in my students' essays, in texts I receive from friends. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, referred to the prevalence of depression/anxiety as an epidemic, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites an increase in antidepressant use by Americans ages 18-44 by nearly 400 percent in the last twenty years.
We can debate all we want if the dehumanizing aspects of technological advances, the troubled economy, and daily stress are the culprits, but the truth is these things are an inherent part of our lives and are not going to go away. One formidable adversary to this type of mental suffering is often overlooked and discounted; I am speaking here of compassion.
Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and Zen priest, says having compassion is "to see clearly into the nature of suffering and stand firm and say, 'I am not separate'". It's that separateness that causes us to suffer. It's the diatribe of negativity in our minds, compelled by our success-obsessed society that enforces our singularity. True compassion eradicates singularity.
The problem with our culture is that we are selectively compassionate. We show it when it is convenient for us to do so. Around the holidays, we give because it is fashionable, because it makes us feel good. Also, our selective compassion may be a mask for fear. Barbara Lazear Ascher contemplates this in her essay "On Compassion" when she describes the anecdote of a homeless man being fed by a bakery owner in New York City. The offering is a backdoor deal; the man accepts the hot coffee and the brown bag and "as silently as he came, is gone". Ascher speculates why the woman would feed the homeless man: is it an act of compassion? Pity? Or is it a preemptive act to remove the man from her shop? She unearths an ugly truth:
Raw humanity offends our sensibilities. We want to protect ourselves from an awareness of rags with voices that make no sense and scream forth in inarticulate rage. We do not wish to be reminded of the tentative state of our own well-being and sanity. And so the troublesome presence is removed from the awareness of the electorate.
It could be us at the door of the bakery. It could be us with the gun in our hands shooting at bystanders. It could be us poking at our veins with a heroine needle. Even reading these sentences makes us uncomfortable, but as the peace activist and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn preaches, we are all vulnerable to the dark and the light within each of us and it's up to us which to cultivate.
In the past, compassion has fallen under the umbrella of religion, but today this is not exclusively true. Neuroscientists cite particular studies on how compassion strengthens the immune system and promotes longevity. But compassion and science is not entirely a novel idea; Einstein, knew full well, that in the hands of the technologically advanced, compassion would be imperative:
A human being is a part of the whole universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself and his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness- that separation. This delusion is a kind of prison for us. Our task is to free ourselves from this prison by exercising compassion and embracing all of nature and her creatures.
Einstein said that science for his generation, the generation that created the atomic bomb, was like a razor blade in the hand of a three year old. What might be the one thing that prevents a war? Seeing the "enemy" as human, non-separate, as people like Greg Mortenson do. By building schools for the region where the Taliban has sunk its claws, Mortenson is choosing compassion over fear. David Oliver Relin who co-wrote the book Three Cups of Tea with Mortenson says it best: "Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa."
And yet we must not leave compassion to the Mother Teresas and Greg Mortensons of the world. Compassion begins on the individual level, with the self. It begins with the worry we have for ourselves and our lives; it begins with our personal sufferings and darknesses. To cultivate compassion, we must first define it for ourselves. We must start with what the mind clings to- images. We are bombarded with hundreds of useless or disturbing images everyday through media and advertising. They reel in our minds, even when we turn off the screen. What if we can replace these images? What if we can focus on this thing compassion through positive images, images that unify us instead of alienate us, images of the spirit and not the ego; would this be a starting point in cultivating the light that lies within all of us? Will we then begin to know compassion? And once we know compassion and act on it, thereby deepening our knowledge, will we then recognize an individual like Adam Lanza before the seeds of the dark sprout and take root and tragedies like Newtown take place?
I found the image above in a book on meditation. I used pastels to regenerate it on a larger paper, framed it, and put it in the living room. This is my image of compassion for several reasons: one, it is white, a color depicting purity and nobility; compassion stems from the purist and noblest parts of ourselves. Also, it is a magnolia flower, a flower that grows on a tree that blooms only once a year in the spring. Spring is nature’s compassion for the earth after a hard, bitter winter. It is a balm, a celebration, a departure from suffering and a leap toward life. Also, the magnolia tree has been around for about 95 million years. On the evolutionary timeline, it appeared before bees and is believed that the flowers evolved to encourage pollination by beetles; this is why the carpels (seed producing center) are extremely tough, to sustain the beetles walking all over them. Compassion involves resiliency as well; a compassionate person must move into the nature of suffering but hold firm.
Knowing that the Charter for Compassion exists is incredibly good news to me, someone who knows full well the power of compassion from seemingly small acts - a stranger opening the door for my oversized stroller - to greater acts - a wise teacher inspiring a long-awaited shift in my belief system. I hope to contribute with my own endeavor: The Compassion Project: An Anthology. As writers and artists we must be mindful of what we publically express in an already dire ethos. My wish for 2014 is for writers and artists to create a new Renaissance of works, fashioned to reveal our greater virtues, like compassion. We can call it into our focus- that small light in the dark caverns of our psyches- you know the one always on the verge of being extinguished. It’s not always necessary to grab the low hanging fruit; we could choose to illuminate these greater virtues, compassion, forgiveness, courage, and portray those pivotal moments where that nearly-extinguished spark bursts into flame.
The Compassion Project: An Anthology calls upon artists and writers, young and old, of all levels and abilities, to define compassion through images, essays, stories and poems. We are interested in works about compassion in all its meanings, such as: kindness, tenderness, strength, courage, healing, and empathy in human and/or animal interactions as well as environmental conservation. We are asking contributors to think deeply and possibly abstractly about the topic and express this in their art/writing to raise the collective consciousness on compassion.
Selections from this collection of work will be published in an anthology and used in readings and presentations to stir the consciousness of others. For submission information, please visit us on facebook at www.facebook.com/compassionanthology.
Laurette Folk ‘s novel A Portal to Vibrancy is forthcoming from Big Table Publishing in 2014. She received a semifinalist nomination and “Noted Writer” award from the Boston Fiction Festival and has been published in the following: upstreet, The Copperfield Review, Wilderness House Review, Art Throb, Literary Mama, The Boston Globe Magazine, Italian Americana and the anthology Seek It: Writers and Artists Do Sleep. She has written English, science, and engineering curriculums for Discovery Education, Triumph Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Delta Education, and the Museum of Science. Ms. Folk is an associate editor at upstreet literary magazine and teaches at North Shore Community College.