The compassion cure


A guest article by a Buddhist gerontologist. 

Picture2I wrote Parts 1 and 2 of this blog while “coronavirus” was a new word appearing in a far-off land. Shrouded by an illusion of safety in my Brooklyn apartment, I assumed it would be like other diseases that popped up around the world in recent times, thankfully disappearing before spreading beyond localized areas. By the time Part 1 was published, the coronavirus had reached the West Coast of the United States and it was all anyone could talk about.

(This is Part 2 of Everyone Wants to be Seen: Observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist.)

Luna Kadampa, our editor, connected what I had written to the crisis by pointing to the impact it was having on our elderly:

Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.

In the mere weeks since that publication, the entire world has changed. Buddhists know everything is changing at every moment. Blink and it’s a whole new world. But we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime change. Tens of thousands have died. Millions have lost jobs. People are lonely. They are scared. I wondered if what I had written for Part 2 would still have relevance. And, given the cataclysmic scale of the pandemic, if any of it mattered.

What really matters?

What does matter when the world we normally see falls apart? How do we manage as we helplessly watch the pieces slip through our fingers? Without a spiritual path we might default to things that make the situation worse. We scroll news feeds for glimmers of hope or to justify our worry, look for someone to blame, take substances to numb the pain or indulge escapist thoughts on the one hand or hopeless ones on the other.

In Buddhism we take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They alone have the power to protect us from this calamity. Buddha is the wise physician who diagnoses our problem, Dharma, his teachings, is the medicine we need to get well, and Sangha is the community of kind nurses helping us to heal.

Our real refuge is buried deep within our own heart. It is our compassion, a wish for our self and others to be freed from suffering. Compassion has the power to vanquish all our anger, fear, and depression, and can lift others out of theirs, too. Which is what I discovered in the sixty years I spent with thousands of elderly people. It is the type of true refuge we all need in these unprecedented and perilous times. It is where I was headed with the second part of this blog when our entire world got turned upside-down.

The unseen friend of migrators

Picture 4In Part 1, I wrote about the decades I spent questioning anyone “of a certain age,” hoping they could make sense of a world that was nonsensical, contaminated, and oftentimes cruel. I was certain they could reveal some big meaning to life that eluded me. At a minimum, they could provide me with a reason to get up each morning.

While I never found a satisfying answer to all my questions, little did I realize how valuable those years would prove to be. In every connection with my elderly friends, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen, offering comfort and being comforted, I experienced an immensely important spiritual lesson. I just didn’t see it.

Lama Tayang (quoted in the book Universal Compassion) wrote:

Compassion is the unseen friend of migrators.

I think he meant this figuratively — that matters of the heart aren’t seen by our physical eyes. But for me it was literal. I couldn’t see that what was occurring within these interactions provided a large clue to the mystery I was trying to solve.

It took Buddha Shakyamuni to dispel the darkness of my mind. In my first Buddhist class, Gen Kelsang Rigpa, the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center Los Angeles, told everyone gathered how Buddha had explained that we are all searching for something. Naturally, I was hooked because by this time I’d spent half a century looking. The answer was so obvious it surprised me: “we all want to be happy”. Not just in the moment, but permanently — there is never a moment when we don’t want to be happy.

Picture3I wondered, “Could this be what I was seeking all those years?” It seemed so simple. Yet the moment I heard it, I knew it to be true. Gen Rigpa went on to explain that this wish is what drives all our actions, be it the pursuit of a career, a relationship, money, a reputation, or the myriad of other things we chase after. The problem, according to Buddha, is that these things don’t bring us the type of pure and lasting happiness we seek.

So if happiness doesn’t lie in these usual suspects, where can it be found? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang writes:

In the Sutras, Buddha says: “The fully ripened effects of actions ripen not on soil or stones, but only on consciousness.” This is because only consciousness has feelings, and only with feelings can we experience the ripened effects of actions. Virtuous actions result in pleasant feelings, non-virtuous actions result in unpleasant feelings, and neutral actions in neutral feelings.

We find happiness by cultivating virtuous minds like love and compassion that ripen back on us as pleasant feelings. And this is where all my years with my elderly friends rained down like a million blessings.

Cherishing others is the key that unlocks the prison of self

As the years unfolded, I began to notice something interesting. I observed that even in my darkest hours, no matter how pointless everything seemed, being with my elderly friends often lifted me. Even opening the door of the nursing home on my way in to work in the morning made me feel better.

I experienced this pleasant sensation as a small boy being cherished by his grandmother. And over the decades I experienced it time and again with my elderly friends and clients. Maybe it wasn’t a permanent release from mental pain, but it was at least a temporary parole. And it appeared to help them, too. Even those in the depths of depression seemed better during our interactions than before. Why?  Picture1

I believe one of the reasons that compassion is our friend is that it protects us from ourselves. It has the power to instantly eject us from that dangerous and painful prison of self. Geshe-la describes self-cherishing as an “excessive concern for our own welfare.” This “concern” can manifest as self-criticism and hatred, jealousy, anxiety, attachment or any of the many other delusions. It whispers insidious lies, telling us how much worse off we are than others and that the way out of our predicament is to work solely for our own benefit. And it never happens.

However, when we focus on others with an affectionate, compassionate heart we have no mental space left to obsess over ourselves. Our mind is completely pacified. Geshe-la writes:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

Compassion also is our friend because it purifies our mind. Compassion removes the blinders covering our eyes to reveal a beautiful reality that has always been there, like the sun shining behind the clouds.

In several of his books, Geshe-la presents the well-loved story of Asanga, who entered a mountaintop retreat to come face-to-face with Buddha Maitreya. After twelve years with no success he abandoned his retreat because he was discouraged.

On the way down the mountain he came across an old dog lying in the middle of the path. Its body was covered in maggot-infested sores and it seemed close to death. This sight induced within Asanga an overwhelming feeling of compassion for all living beings trapped within samsara. As he was painstakingly removing the maggots from the dying dog, Buddha Maitreya suddenly appeared to him.

Buddha kindIt was Asanga’s extraordinary compassion that purified his mind so that he was able to see this Buddha of loving-kindness, who had in fact been there all the time. We have the same potential, we just need to rely on our friend, compassion. And doing so starts by opening our eyes to the truth — that everyone suffers.

Geshe-la says this awareness does not make us depressed, rather:

Compassion gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we will come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

For Kadampas, the spiritual path is our precious Lamrim, or stages of the path. When we combine these teachings with compassion, our mind gradually transforms into a state of joy beyond our wildest dreams. But to do this we first must believe in the power of compassion. Our faith grows by remembering moments of transcendence when we experienced pure, unconditional love and compassion. We know that if we can experience one moment of transcendence, we can experience more. We need only to train.

Our freedom grows by shifting the lens from self to others

To cultivate our virtuous minds of love and compassion, Geshe-la suggests we start with our karmic circle. For many people, this is their family or close friends. The hearts of some are naturally opened by being with animals, such as was the case with Asanga. For some it is children. And for some of us it is when we are with the elderly.

Oftentimes the suffering of the elderly is manifest. At every turn they are confronted by loss — the loss of physical appearance, possessions, health, friends, and lifelong partners. Anyone who has worked with the elderly, particularly employees of nursing homes or assisted living centers, knows this to be true. If we have the courage to face the truth of this suffering we will find our liberation. And more importantly, we will free others.

In the early ‘90’s I was running a nursing home on the north coast of Ohio. One day we admitted a wealthy woman who instantly shattered our peace and harmony. I knew she was wealthy because she paid us to remove a bed from one of our rooms so she could have it all to herself. Barely an hour went by without a staff member stopping at my door to tell me of a new complaint: she didn’t like the food, the staff, the air conditioning, and on and on. I had an “open door” policy but given her socio-economic background I knew she wouldn’t visit me; I was expected to call on her.

A few days later I decided to pay her a visit. As I knocked on her door I realized I knew nothing of her medical condition. This wasn’t a big deal because I’d known people with every medical condition under-the-sun. Even so, I was surprised by what I saw when I opened the door.

“Come in,” a shrill voice called out. I took a deep breath and entered. I could tell she was tall because she stretched to the ends of the hospital bed and she was emaciated, couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. But what struck me was her body. She was stiff as a board. Her hands were contracted and curled against her chest and old age had cruelly driven her chin into her shoulder. She lifted her eyes and they locked on me as I crossed the room.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Williams.” I said. “You wanted to see me.” When she realized I was the administrator she’d been asking for she affected a tone stiffer than her body. “Mr. Williams…” and then she unleashed a barrage of complaints that I already knew, sounding rehearsed as if she were reading from a script.

I could tell this was a lifelong pattern. When this woman said “jump,” people either asked “how high?” or argued with her. So my response probably surprised her. I just stood there silently gazing into her eyes. All of a sudden, she became aware of me. “What are you looking at?!” she snapped.

“I’m just trying to understand you,” I said.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than her body went limp and she began to sob. It was as if the words, “I’m trying to understand you” had found their way to a secret linchpin that was binding her musculoskeletal system and involuntarily released her. I stood there stunned as she continued to cry. I’d seen extraordinary things in my career, but nothing quite like this. After a few minutes she composed herself and said bitterly, “You have no idea what it feels like to be me.”

I did wonder what it must be like being her. A prisoner in your own body, totally dependent on others for the basics like eating and toileting. She couldn’t even wipe away her own tears. What could I say as I gazed down at her, this healthy whippersnapper dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie there to solve all her problems? “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be you. But I’d like to try.”

Opening our hearts to the elderly in the time of Coronavirus

The initial epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States was a nursing home in suburban Seattle. Tragically, many more nursing homes around the country and world have experienced outbreaks. To date, one-fourth of all deaths in the United States have been nursing home residents.

As I read the stories, my mind is flooded by memories of all the nursing home residents I’ve known over the years. These are the people I have in my mind as I write this blog. They helped to shape and form the good aspects of the person I am today. I remembered the jokes, the kindness, the insights, and the tender and intimate moments.

cape of compassionAnd my mind went to the staff, particularly the nursing assistants who are on the front line of the front line. To me, they are true Bodhisattvas. Oftentimes they were cheerful, single mothers, making not much more than minimum wage, with little formal education. But they could write the book on how to cherish others. I think about how unfair it is for them to be in this situation. And I think about the deaths of all the people they care about and how this must be affecting them.  

It seems no matter where in the country I worked, all caregivers held the same superstition. They believed residents died in threes. So when one died, they would brace themselves for the loss of the next two. At the time of completion of the second part of this blog, of the 120 residents of the suburban Seattle nursing home, a total of thirty-seven have died.

Every night at seven o’clock the people of New York City stop what they are doing to recognize essential workers. People in isolation open their windows wide. Church bells rings. Pots clang. People in the streets clap as they walk by. Some cheer. We unite in a collective inner wisdom that understands something profound is happening in the midst of all this suffering. We salute the courage of caregivers. We rejoice in compassion.

Over to you. Comments for this wonderful guest author are warmly invited in the comments box below. 

 

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 39 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “The compassion cure”

  1. I’m reading this very “late” catching up with emails in my inbox.

    The experience of lockdown I’m sure has made many of us (I can only really speak from my own experience) understand what it is like to be isolated as so many elderly folks are in society. Just having an inkling of this, compassion has arisen in my mind and I’ve been able to look beyond my own experience and find peace.

    Thinking of the last week in my mum’s life (she died on her 87th birthday last December) when my sister, nephew and myself were at her bedside I have suddenly understood that it was my own love, compassion, and wish to do everything in my power for my Mum to have a peaceful death, that bought peace to my own heart.

    Thank you for the reminder that compassion is always the cure to the pain of our own self-cherishing mind…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so very much Guest Writer for writing this very enlightening article to help us to develop our minds of compassion so that there will be no room left for our self cherishing 🙏🏻❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. yes, i’d agree ‘something profound is happening amidst all this suffering’ ,,, it’s your compassion, your love-driven courage and compassion that is / has governed your life. now that’s moving, esp. on this day. keep going. i hope to follow ! merci.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement, Chondzin. I feel very fortunate to have found a path after stumbling in the dark for so many decades. The mere belief that sentient beings have the potential to find freedom is in itself very liberating to me. And to know this potential lies within each of our hearts is immensely comforting. While it may take a while to make the compassion universal and to remove the delusion of self-grasping, I know it is possible. Our kind Sangha members, some of them leading the way, some steering the boat and some shepherd-like, make it all possible. Merci beaucoup!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This article reminded me of the importance of the elderly in our society.They have so much to offer and often endure extreme suffering .We can all be kind and compassionate to them and remember their contributions to our world.We have all benefited from their kindness.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is all so true, Anonymous, particularly the way we have all benefited from their kindnesses. Thank you for the encouragement to be kind and compassionate.

      Like

  5. A perfect, beautiful teaching for all of us. Not only are elderly people all our kind mothers, who need our love and caring and protection — but they give us a special gift in showing us very clearly the sufferings of aging, sickness, and death. We must purify our minds through compassion and all the Lamrim teachings without delay! Thank you so very, very much.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you soo much for such a heartwarming article Mr Williams.
    We cannot fully know what it is to be another person…thier trails and sufferings…joys and happiness but if we just try to understand one another a little more it does make a huge difference.
    Just a kind word…a smile …a greeting can make a difference to someone ‘s day.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Hazel, for highlighting the huge difference a smile or kind word can make. I agree that sometimes it’s as simple as that.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello, Sheila. I’ve always loved the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I’ve thought the same thing about our elderly, particularly the roles that neighbors and friends play in supporting them. Your strength and kindness clearly are very meaningful to this woman. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you Mr Williams. Your wonderful article is very timely because my mind was just going a bit “stiff” around an elderly lady I know, who probably should be in an assisted-living situation due to dementia is setting in. This person leans heavily on me, has done for years, emotionally and otherwise, even though she has very caring family members around. I was just starting to feel like I was closing down a bit when I read your article. It has caused my mind and heart of compassion to open up towards this person again. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sheila – So happy to hear of your turn-around…this is a potent reminder of our responsibility to dig deep at those crucial moments of wavering. And it feels good, right? It’s so clear in those moments that the compassion is the protector of all. (and of course thank you, Greg, for your beautifully rendered shout-outs to empathy and humility. Terrifically inspiring)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow what a beautiful article…and I believe it is from my dear friend, Gregory Williams. I love the message that we don’t have any idea what it is like to be another. I love that he broke down the crusty exterior of this suffering lady by just trying to understand her. Compassion knocks down all barriers. In my work today I met a mother who lost 2 children in one year: a 7 year old to brain cancer and a 6-month old to “silent pneumonia.” I felt such deep compassion for her. I was swept away by her story, her grief, and her determination to move on for the sake of her living child. Compassion allows us to get out of self and into loving others. It is the most beautiful and beneficial mind; it is the essence of living a spiritual life. Thank you very much for inspiring me today. Thank you to all essential workers, the heroes of this time.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for your kind words, dear friend Brooke. How fortunate for this mother to have had you there to hear her story. I know you brought much comfort to her. Thank you for your essential and beneficial work with children and for sharing your insights on compassion.

      Liked by 1 person

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