Ekodo: The Compassion Factory
When I learned to play some tunes on the tin whistle I trained my fingers to do the playing. Practicing helped build a body-memory so that thinking did not interfere with the music. In fact I can’t play the tin whistle if I try to think about it – like running down steps, two at a time. Compassion is like this. If one practices compassion often enough, the body learns how to do it. It becomes second nature. It becomes easier. It makes wonderful music of our life.
The body is embedded in the interconnected world. Thinking often gets in the way by creating artificial boundaries like ‘self’ and ‘other.’ The ‘self’ becomes something to protect from the challenges of the ‘other.’ The body does not make this distinction though. The body listens, breathes, tastes, feels, sees, and experiences an infinite interconnected universe.
Out of this experience we find no need to defend the self because it cannot be defiled: because it includes everything that we hear, taste, feel, smell, and see. Insult “Sean” and the sky is still vast and unconcerned. Grounded in this space, there is no compulsion to harm an ‘other’ because there is no ‘other’ – just different aspects of the vast self that includes “others.” The left hand becomes aware that it shares the same body with the right hand. We share the same planet, the same moon, the same anxieties.
Our identity with “others” as aspects of our self has a neurological grounding. Check out this video for an example. We can identify with another person, another species, the biosphere, the Earth, the night sky, the universe and more. But how do we access this connection? Thinking about it is rather abstract – although it makes perfect sense that in an interconnected world where there are no fixed or solid boundaries “I am also that”. Better still, hearing that sound right now is an experience suggested by the previous sentence. By letting sound be nothing other than sound (dropping the accompanying narrative: “a bird,” “the river,” “a plane,” “a baby”) we let the barriers to the experience of interconnectedness fall away. But as soon as we try to explain this (even to ourselves), we fall back into the illusion of a world divided by names of things like “birds” “rivers” “planes” “self” and “other.”
This is also works for seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting – all of the senses participate in the adventures of an interdependent existence. When we let seeing be just seeing we also experience the Self-as-universe. Look away just now… It is remarkably accessible.
If the busy chattering mind finds it difficult to become absorbed in the experience of the moment, then quietening the mind through meditation, contemplation, or yoga practice can help. These practices give us the opportunity to experience in our bodies the miracle of our life, just as it is, right here, right now – exactly as it is.
The trouble with some approaches to spiritual endeavour is that we may come to expect a spiritual practice to enable us to perform superhuman feats like being peaceful and happy all time. And so we become crest-fallen when we find that even with lots of dedicated compassionate effort we still suffer from anxiety. This disappointment blinds us from more fully experiencing the miracle of anxiety. Our expectations distract us from bearing witness to the wonders of our life – anxiety is one of them. Like a culture that walks on water, but wishes it could fly.
Similarly, we become discouraged when we find that our relentless compassionate effort fails to transform a difficult person into an angel. This expectation to change the other person obscures our ability to experience a difficult person as an angel – precisely because they are difficult. Difficulty is merely perfection expressing itself as difficulty. We can grow from this by more fully encountering difficulty itself – by accepting it as one of our wonderful and miraculous human conditions. In the process we allow our hearts to open by another notch. After all, as compassion trainees we relish each opportunity to grow. And hearts grow sluggishly (if at all) when the going is easy.
But in this interconnected world we also fly. It is the Self-as-bird that flies. We twinkle. The Self-as-star does that. If we want to experience the Self-as-star: open our eyes at night.
This Self-as-universe is truly good enough, just as it is, right here, right now. Our experiences are legitimate from the beginning. This is the body practice of deep compassion for the self. Such a self feels ok. Such a self even experiences anxiety or pain or fear, or tiredness or regret as a sensation that is good enough, right here, right now.
When we are experiencing fear we are good enough. Instead of trying to run away from fear, we can embody it, like putting our arms fully into its sleeves and becoming it. In this way anxiety, pain, tiredness or fear is discovered to be less of a problem – certainly not something to flee from (fleeing never works anyway).
When we lean into fear we turn it into courage. I used to be afraid of the dark until I started hiding in the shadows. When we inhabit our fear and discover that it is quite all right, we can face the lions and tigers and bears of our life.
Among those fearful encounters is the prospect of actually following our dreams. The fearful mind tries to convince us that we need to focus only on narrow and short-range interests, leaving little room for pursuing compassionate works or a compassionate livelihood – “that will never pay”. But perseverance pays off. So few people actually pursue their dreams, which is why there is so much space for those that do.
By undertaking compassionate works we get to experience the joys that it produces. I have noticed for example, that when I help make people around me happy, my own experience of happiness escalates. The reverse is also true. It is very simple, and exactly what one would expect in an interconnected world.
If I help a starving child through my own actions, and see its smiling face, this is joyful for me too. And it is a quality of joy like no other. Helping to sooth the suffering of a terminally ill patient in a hospice is also joyful, and yet sad – more deeply sad that if I had never set foot in that place. But it is a sadness that I can endure, without fear, and in so doing have the emotional stamina to do the work that needs to be done. A willingness to fully experience the deep sadness that comes with loss, allows me to treasure more fully those around me: people and places, forests, family, friends and foe.
If I get to know a stream and spend time there, exploring it, seeing its beauty, I will experience joy. If I then witness that stream or a similar stream being polluted and explore that too, I will take close heed of the tragedy, seeing the dead fish for myself. I will feel pain in myself – a pain that needs healing. One way to heal this pain is to do something about the pollution. And by healing the Earth and caring for others we discover an effective means of healing and nurturing ourselves.
For example, my own headlong plunge into a campaign to protect a forest some years ago was exactly what helped to heal a deep bout of depression at that time in my life. When we are saddened about our own disempowered condition, we get convinced that we have no power to change things, and as a consequence cannot see a bright future, even as a remote possibility. I became so skilled at denying my own empowerment that I convinced myself that power and will were entirely alien from me. It was as if I alone knew the subtle truth and the truth was dark, dark.
I indulged in this self-righteous, self-constructed mythology, where surrounded and embodied by malice I could find no source of purpose or joy. As a consequence I was pretty ineffective as an agent of positive change. In fact quite the opposite – this condition inspired me to ridicule any effort to wage a contest with these forces. There was no escape it seemed. Until I woke up to the fact that there was suffering going on that was bigger than mine, and I had an opportunity to intervene in a positive way. This particular suffering was the destruction of lowland indigenous forests – forests I knew well – forests I had joyfully experienced in my own travels.
It could equally have been Tsunami victims, or childhood leukaemia patients. Either way, on this occasion I decided to get off my butt and do something about it. In so doing I regained a sense of purpose, and met some truly wonderful and supportive people who were also drawn to this quest out of the pain of bearing witness to avoidable calamity. I got so absorbed by the task of looking after others that I forgot about what had been dragging me to the depths. Gradually, those cobwebs (they felt more like chains at the time) blew away, shredded by the winds of adventure, and left me treading lightly and happily along a meaningful path, along with treasured companions in a camaraderie of hope.
This work that we do in the throes of the heart’s torment is the training ground of champions of the Earth. We use this training year in and year out to become black belts in compassionate action. If ever there was a time when the world needed its champions – this is that time.
There is a mind that thinks there is no hope. There is also a mind capable of wrapping cynicism in a cloak of kind acceptance and taking it on a purposeful journey. The latter mind is bigger and more powerful. We can know this for sure, and without a shadow of a doubt.
Sean Weaver is the founder and host of Ekodo – a professional development life-skills programme for compassionate agents of change. He lives in Wellington. See the Ekodo Facebook group here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47683391767
Sean is also a climate change solutions consultant through his business Carbon Partnership.