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.