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. 

 

How to broaden your horizons while stuck inside

10 mins read.

A news alert just popped up on this screen to say “Need a vacation!? Here are 8 gorgeously located movies to watch on Netflix.” And if we watch them, our mind will go to those places, albeit leaving our physical body on the sofa munching homemade popcorn.

Carrying directly on from this article, Living in a virtual world.

mirror worldIt seems like our mind can go anywhere, so let’s go somewhere uplifting. If I can go to the Caribbean or London from home, why can I not also visit the Pure Land from home? As I explain a bit in this article:

Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it.

Buddha Maitreya said in Ornament for Clear Realization that because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure; and when they purify their minds, they will inhabit Pure Lands. Even if I dream I am in a Pure Land, it is no different from being there, even if for just a little while.

Once we get rid of all the obstructions from our mind, our body will also go where our mind goes because for a Buddha their body and mind are the same nature, not different like ours. One way to understand this is to think of a dream – if my dream mind dreams that I am swimming in an ocean, my dream body is also swimming in an ocean.

Unfettered

Not only is our mind not in any way restricted by physical objects or time, but it has this amazing potential for deep bliss, for love encompassing all living beings, for wisdom that sees all objects of knowledge fully and simultaneously, for being everywhere all at once. It is because we have this formless mind, which is not in any way fixed, that we have the potential for enlightenment, our so-called Buddha seed. You have this. dark clouds

When we attain enlightenment, our mind is universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — everyone is appearing to our mind and in our mind, like reflections in an unobstructed  mirror. Not separated from them by the illusion of dualistic appearances and conceptions, we can now help everyone every day.

A mirror with two cloths

Buddha gave his 84,000 teachings precisely because we have this potential – if we didn’t, there’d be literally no point in him explaining how to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Try wrapping your mind around this for a moment:

In Ornament for Clear Realization, Buddha Maitreya gives three reasons why Buddha’s mind knows all phenomena directly and simultaneously: (1) Buddhas directly realize the two truths of all phenomena because they have completed meditation on the two truths being one entity; (2) Buddhas have complete knowledge of all phenomena being of one taste in the state of emptiness; and (3) a Buddha’s mind is completely free from the two obstructions. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 379

Here is a hopefully helpful analogy to illustrate at least that third point. We can think of our mind as like a mirror that is capable of reflecting (or if you like, holding) every single object in the universe.

Right now, however, it is covered with two cloths – a thin veil just on top of it and a thick cloth on top of that.

mirror obstructedFrom our perspective we don’t know we are a mirror because all we see is darkness and confusion. We may get glimmers of light, but generally we blink out at a world narrowed by obscurations and, having no idea that we’re doing it, grasp onto this shrunken world as if it really existed. Like William Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Our deepest level of awareness, or root mind, can potentially be everywhere and love everyone all the time. However, we are normally confined to our small selfish ego capsules feeling ordinary, fixed, and limited. This self-grasping and our other delusions are like a thick cloth obscuring our vision and rendering us unaware of how extraordinary we can be. Through spiritual training we learn about these delusions — how they function, how they harm us, where they come from, and how to remove them both temporarily and ultimately.

One conclusion we can draw from this, as Geshe Kelsang teaches in How to Transform Your Life, is how it is possible to maintain kindness and respect for everyone (including ourselves) despite our delusions:

Just as we distinguish between a person and his or her ­delusions, so we should also remember that the delusions are only temporary, adventitious characteristics of that person’s mind and not its real nature. Delusions are distorted conceptual thoughts that arise within the mind, like waves on the ocean—just as it is possible for waves to die down without the ocean disappearing, so it is possible for our delusions to end without our mental continuum ceasing. It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being.

When we remove the thick cloth of our delusions permanently through the wisdom realizing the true nature of things, already there is light and happiness and freedom shining through. However, our mind is not free from all obstructions yet – we are still like the mirror with a thin veil over it.

mirror unobstructed 2We are liberated from our own suffering once we remove the thick cloth of our delusion-obstructions, but we still need to do some more spiritual practice to remove the veil of obstructions to omniscience, which we do on the so-called “three pure grounds”. These cause things to appear to us as somewhat existing outside the mind, the so-called “mistaken appearance of true existence;” even though we no longer believe or buy into this. We know we’re dreaming now, we have control. Our own mind is pure and free, but with this dualistic appearance we are not able to  be everywhere all the time helping everyone.

A Bodhisattva on the eighth ground has abandoned all delusions and their seeds, but he still has the imprints of delusions in his mental continuum, rather as wet sand will retain a footprint even after the foot has moved on. These imprints of the delusions are obstructions to omniscience … Imprints of delusions are effects of delusions, but not causes of delusion. They are however, causes of mistaken appearance. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 431

On the final stage of our spiritual journey, wisdom pulls away the veil of mistaken appearance and reveals a Buddha’s omniscient mind, like a mirror that can reflect everything directly and simultaneously.

Only Buddhas are free from the imprints of delusions and the mistaken appearance of true existence to which they give rise.

A time of reckoning

Why am I telling you all this? Because when I look out of the window — as “stay at home” is morphing into “safe at home” here in Colorado — I can see that it is Spring; and Spring is all about new beginnings. We can become who we want to become, realize our fullest and most blissful potential. And this is a good time to do it, rather than sitting around feeling bored and powerless and sad. We have been projecting the causes of our pain outwards since beginningless time and look where that has gotten us. Now we could learn to do something different and really get rid of this pain once and for all.

quote about wisdomThis is a time of reckoning. I read a moving article the other day from a mother, here are some extracts:

The other night (or last night, or last month) I was putting my daughter to bed and she started to cry. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, and I meant it…. “What is all this even for?” she wailed. She didn’t mean the quarantine: “All of this, why are we even here? Why are we even alive?” I tried to put together a soothing platitude …

To her credit, she was having none of it. “I hate this, I hate everything that’s ever going to happen to me. Help me, Mama, please, please help me.” …..

Absent the scaffolding of the world as we know it, I’ve got nothing to say. So I did the only thing I could. I held her, and rocked her, and hoped my silence helped.

During this confusing global pandemic, instead of feeling trapped we can really think about who we want to be and what we want out of this life – which will depend on what we think we can get out of it. Even when we brave our first tentative steps out of our houses, we’ll be finding that there are fewer distractions from all those full gatherings, a lot of our entertainments will have dried up, external life is basically looking like it is going to be pretty tedious and full of masks and endless hand-washing yet for a while. But instead of feeling hemmed in and frustrated and anxious, “hating everything that is ever going to happen to me”, maybe we can use Buddha’s teachings to find agency and become free instead.

My daughter is saying out loud the questions that everyday life helps us forget. This quarantine feels like a time of reckoning, forcing us to look at ourselves as we really are. Maybe whatever world we build after this is over will be more honest about that reality.

Like that young seeker, we can take stock: Who am I? Where on earth (or elsewhere) did I come from? Where am I going? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? What do I want out of this life? What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I find lasting happiness and freedom? And how can I be part of creating that for others too?

These are important questions. Do I want to go back to the same life and world I had in the “old days” or do I want something better? Is that old life even sustainable? Where and who do I want to be in five years’ time, for example? If we just go back to doing the same old things, we won’t change; and if we don’t change, our world won’t change.

At the very least, this pandemic has shown us that it doesn’t work to ignore and neglect others given that we are all caught up in the same web of mutual dependence. The heroes these days, the people we are applauding at 8:00 pm, are the healthcare and other essential workers – essential to our lives and well-being, that is — rather than the glitzy millionaires. Who knows, perhaps this is long overdue.

I suspect this is not our last pandemic. Why would it be? And even without pandemics there is plenty of other pain in our world, not least the swarms of locusts in East Africa causing hardship and starvation to millions of human beings while barely making the news, and the trapped animals who are being chillingly “depopulated” in their millions due to the interruptions in the human food supply chains. Meanwhile all over the world people are still thinking to solve their problems using angry violence or selfish greed, simply setting themselves up for more.

Sherma in lockdownBuddha’s point is that the suffering will never end on its own or by us just by dealing with external causes, which is at best putting on a band-aid. This world, our whole world, is clearly suffering a whole lot of problems right now; and we can’t ignore it so much now that it is reaching everyone’s doorstep. When we have delusions and do negative actions we have no choice but to inhabit a world of suffering – sooner or later our karma bounces back on us. This world is a reflection of our mind and our karma. If we don’t change these, our experiences won’t change, and our world will just stay impure, unhealthy, and painful. In fact, it will get worse.

Be the change

We follow the crowd. We tend to follow what everyone else is up to. Right now we don’t really know what everyone is up to as we are not seeing them – so maybe we can think more independently? Or maybe not, I don’t know.

We are often waiting for other people to change – for example for the politicians to start behaving. Good luck with that. Vote for who you need to, but basically waiting for others to change is massively demoralizing because we have no control over them nor guarantees their motivation or behavior will magically improve. Please don’t misconstrue me as saying we don’t do practical things as well, as I talk about here – but you know what I mean.

Venerable Atisha said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Sherma 2 in lockdownWe try to tame others’ minds, but that’s not how it works. If our mind is uncontrolled and polluted by delusions such as selfishness, we’re as much a part of the problem as anyone else; and there is no way we can control others’ minds or behavior.

I was wondering what would have happened if Buddha had waited for everyone else to change? Where would we be now? Prince Siddhartha figured samsara out when he left the palace and saw in turn a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. This is bad, he thought, I can see that this is bad. Life is based on a crumbling edifice of sickness, ageing, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, or feeling basically dissatisfied.

Rather than just putting his head back under his soft luxurious royal pillow or immersing himself in his palatial distractions, Prince Siddhartha decided to do something about this. He got rid of the two cloths from the mirror of his mind, and gave 84,000 teachings to show how we could do the same. The path to enlightenment is now all laid out for us in black and white.

It is not as if we don’t have the potential to follow this path, like countless people have done already:

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resFrom this point of view sentient beings are like enlightened beings. Their root mind, their own mind, is completely pure. Their own mind is like a blue sky and their delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. From another point of view sentient beings mistakenly identify themselves and are harmed by delusions. They endlessly experience immense suffering as hallucinations. Therefore we need to develop compassion for them, and liberate them from their deep hallucination of mistaken appearance by showing them the real nature of things, which is the emptiness of all phenomena. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I don’t know what we are waiting for. We can complain as much as we like about other people, but it doesn’t help a single thing.

To conclude, we can use the creative role of our minds and actions to go beyond all suffering to the Pure Land of liberation and enlightenment, or we can ignore this potential and keep trying to stick band-aids on our gaping wounds, staying in the impure lands of samsara. It is our choice.

Okay, enough from me. Please leave comments.

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