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. 

 

Everyone wants to be seen: observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist

A guest article.

(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.)

Being seen by others

I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.1960s-grandmother-in-chair-hugging-vintage-images (2)

They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought,These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.

Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.

Learning to see others

The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person isTo perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.

At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”

I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.

This man’s search for meaning

Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.

Davis Funeral Home Edited

Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.

A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortune sums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,

I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.

The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.

Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”

I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.

As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.13.59 PM

Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”

Finding the path

After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.

The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,

Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.

The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:

Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.

In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually

…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.

jail Blog

In Buddhism, delusions are described as those states of mind that create suffering and virtuous minds as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this Worldand the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”

In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism senior is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider elderly an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered young elderly by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)