This is very much how I have been feeling these past days in the wake of the storms that are the attacks on Paris, Beirut, Bagdad and other places yet to be (if ever) known. Being with what remains in their aftermath, I’m choosing to insulate myself as little as possible with my opinions or explanations or judgments, my heart-mind as open and vulnerable as I can allow. In this, I am buffeted and battered from many directions by gusts and gales fueled by ignorance, hatred, fear, anger, stinginess, prejudice, confusion, certainty, leaving me cold, chilled and weary. There are also times of calm and warmth, people offering words and stories of encouragement, understanding, reason, clarity, insight, infused with humanity and love. Throughout it all the sun still shines, providing warmth and comfort when those gusts subside; being noticed, albeit momentarily, when catching a glimpse of a golden leaf tumbling by in those fierce winds that quickly obscure it; remaining intact despite the storms that roll through. And throughout it all I’m giving what I can, which is mostly listening, presence, attention, a conversation here and there, wondering, looking, not turning away, waiting to see what is needed, ready to offer what I am able.
Now the sun is setting, the cold is growing, the day is turning to night and different light will shine in that same clear sky, some of it reflected, some of it sparkling and clear. And tomorrow the sun will come again, making its long, slow arc from horizon to horizon. There may be less wind, there may be more; additional storms will certainly come, and there will be days without a single cloud in the sky. Regardless, behind, throughout and beyond it all, that same sun will be shining and offering its warmth, generously and impartially. I wish to be in it, I wish to nourish and share it, I wish to shine and to receive the shining all around, so that all may know this warmth, comfort and peace.
As happens quite often, today my "Little Zen Calendar" offers words that seem so strikingly apropos:
“You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.” Gyalwa Karmapa
Reflecting on this quote, a question seems to naturally arise: “How do I turn it into compassion?” And a response I find arising just as naturally is: “Taking it all in is how you turn it into compassion.” There is more to this than just circular reasoning, and it is not at all advocating a passive stance of acceptance as a way of dealing with things. At the heart of it is the activity of unselfing, and I see this happening in two ways.
The first way is in the realm of how we try to protect our hearts. For some people or in certain situations, the choice is not to let anything in, regardless of whether it is beneficial or harmful, knowing that doing so leaves us vulnerable and open to risk, a choice likely rooted in past experiences of pain and heartache. A more typical and widely-practiced approach is to only open our hearts to the positive, those things that bring us joy and happiness and nourishment, avoiding the negative, darker, heavier things that could disrupt our sense of peace and calm. It’s a perfectly reasonable and natural approach to take and certainly seems healthy overall, but when you look more closely, it’s fundamentally about excluding a significant portion of life and the world as a whole. All in all, no matter how we endeavor to protect our hearts, doing so is essentially a self-focused project that develops and maintains a limited territory, out of which can only come limited compassion. “Taking it all in” moves us beyond this territory, relinquishing its boundaries and constraints, widening the focus and reach of our hearts, and furthers the unselfing that leads to compassionate action.
Relinquishing the limited territory of our individual hearts transforms the central question of a compassionate response from “What can I do?” to “What is needed and how can I help?” The difference may seem slight, yet it is also quite profound. The former question focuses too much on me and places the responsibility more squarely on my shoulders, whereas the latter puts the focus outside of myself and shifts me into a relationship of partnering with as opposed to trying to fix something. From there I begin to realize it’s not up to me alone to figure out what to do, and I can release the anxiety, pressure and self-concern of trying to get it right with the appropriate measure of compassion. This partnering has a call-and-response quality to it, asking me to simply show up and be available, making it possible for compassionate action to emerge of itself from this place of being receptive and listening and responding; letting go of self-concern frees up my energy and broadens my view, enabling me to be more intimately connected with and responsive to the whole of life. By not restricting or being selective about what I allow to touch my heart, not only do I discover I have an infinite capacity to hold in it whatever I meet, I also find that I have limitless resources to depend upon and access, and I can let compassion itself lead me along without trying to harness and control it.
“Taking it all in” also addresses those poisonous winds I mentioned above. It doesn’t matter what side I take, what my politics are, where I align myself spiritually – wherever I find myself along these and other spectrums, adhering strongly to my beliefs and ideas and opinions limits my scope of and connection to reality. I may say: “I listen to the other side of things, I take it all in, I’m open to other people's views and ways of life,” when in actuality everything is passing through pre-established filters for the most part, sorted and judged, then accepted or rejected. To truly take it all in, one must become aware of the filters, the biases, the tendencies that he or she has developed and fortified over the course of time and experience, then be willing to hold them loosely, set them aside and step forward to meet the world as it is, face-to-face. To do so is to have a willingness to be vulnerable and uncertain, to encounter the unknown and the unknowable, and to keep making your way along, eyes and heart open. Yes, it can be frightening and unsettling and discomforting, and yet it seems so very essential. It calls to mind one of my favorite quotes:
“People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
In one of those conversations I had, a friend asked: “How are you keeping your peace in all of this?” I considered it for a few moments and found myself replying: “I’m not. All of this is my peace.” It was one of those wonderful moments of saying something before knowing what I meant, then getting to be curious about it. First off, I realized I didn’t have any thought of “my peace” before the question was asked, and that even now there is no such thought. Considering it further, I see that I am not creating and upholding a peace that is separate or disconnected from what is, nor am I insisting on it feeling, looking or behaving a certain way, nor am I trying to hold it still or keep it unstained. It is a peace made of a willingness to be buffeted and battered by the winds, to be cold, chilled and weary; a willingness to receive the generous warmth of the shining sun, to feel comforted, encouraged and enlivened; a willingness to show up again and again, exposed and vulnerable, stepping into life; a willingness to trust the unknown and being uncertain, to reach out a hand and collaborate with the whole of life, co-creating what is to come.
To bring this post to a close so I can step more fully into the life of this day, I offer this:
May we be unsettled. May we be uncertain. May we hold loosely what has been and what should be, leaning more fully into and moving forward with what is. May we not try so much to be compassionate as to be compassion. May we be less and less ourselves, and ever increasingly who we are as we journey along together.