Notes on a Journey of Compassion

A reflection on Thích Nhất Hạnh, including how compassion can help us see ourselves and others more clearly and gently.

Notes on a Journey of Compassion

Reflections for friends on Thích Nhất Hạnh

My Friends,

I wanted to share some kind, wise, generous thoughts with you. I found them a timely tonic and affirmation.

As some of you know, I just wrote a book entitled "Reasonable Hope," and it is about self-reflection, seeking wisdom, experience, and human agency (freedom). Without pretense, given my historical, scientific, and philosophical training, I am sensitive to how we humans project our issues and beliefs onto others. Some of why I love the discipline of philosophy is because it supports me in seeing others - and most certainly myself - from many different perspectives - multi-dimensionally, if you will. For me, this means seeing others in ways that intentionally aim for truth while minimizing toxic, and sometimes coercive, biases.

This cultivated perspective has led me to appreciate how some can unwittingly project their stuff all over others, and how being reactive and not aware, not being present and not being thoughtful in a relaxed, and balanced ways, makes most of us very susceptible to other’s (our society’s, our boss', our lover's) stuff. In listening to and learning about others in philosophical ways, I have come to cultivate the practice, and art, of not projecting my metaphysics, values, and interpretations onto those whom I am privileged enough to listen to.

When we aim to not project, but to listen as if an open vessel, then we can deeply learn where another person is coming from. I have come to realize that these practices of listening are magic making. So I was excited to learn what a Buddhist master had to say about compassion. It pleasantly turned out that his insights, while grounded in the self, also support breaking through ego distortions. So the practices support seeing others, and understanding others, in profoundly truthful ways.

Interestingly, as is hinted at in the above paragraph, compassion can be a complex philosophical topic because there are the technical issues of the "me" and "other," "exchange."  Where do  "I" begin and end? Where does "other" begin and end? And where and how do "we" "connect" as "one." How can we have compassion for "other" and not put our "stuff," onto the other? Phenomenologists talk about this, and the Christian mystics - including Edith Stein - really thought about it too. But those technical points and ways of approaching things will have to be a conversation for another time. They are relevant issues and they can be discussed in the context of what I am about to share with you, it’s just that Thích Nhất Hạnh’s approaches are uniquely, and accessibly, Buddhist. And so for now, I want to share some reflections with you that, to me, capture the magic of compassion.

I’ll indulge in just one more quick, but profound, point before sharing more of the nectar; Working in this spiritually motivated way is such a gift, and garners insight after unexpected, non-directed, insight. It is perhaps ironic, and yet not surprising, therefore that the analytic disciple of non-normative listening, in the context of a breadth of understanding, leads to, and supports insights about, being. That’s right, BEING.

It is only perhaps ironic because when a philosopher writes about spiritual motivation they mean it in an analytic sense: "Spirituality," in a first-order, phenomenological sense, is defined as thinking about your thinking or, experiencing your experiencing. It is an approach that is like looking at your experiences as you experience them. Being aware of your breathing, for example, is a spiritual practice in this sense.

So spiritually speaking, I welcomed the opportunity one Saturday after work, to attend a lecture by Thích Nhất Hạnh. It was the culminating event of a two-week retreat being held by the master here in Ontario.

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a leading Buddhist teacher and author of such calligraphies as "No mud, no lotus," "Peace in One’s Self, Peace in the World," and "I Love Your Beautiful Smile." The experience of learning from him was graciously exceptional. And so, here I want to try to capture and share some of the essence with you, while supporting what technically is called "non-normative listening" and what Hahn called "compassionate listening."

When we entered the auditorium at 3pm, we were told to prepare for a two and a half hour experience with no intermissions. Upon entering the auditorium - which we travelled through the bustling and, in hindsight, noisy city core to enter - we soon succumbed to shocking and profound silence and heart peace. Nuns and monks on the stage were leading mindful-meditation for half an hour prior to the participants receiving the teachings. The teachings, as I said, were on compassionate listening, yet this format reinforced, in preparation for instruction, how mindful meditation is key to transformative and loving listening.

When you listen with mindfulness, compassion grows.

Thích Nhất Hạnh began; "When we engage compassionate listening …..when listening to another……. we allow ourselves to understand their suffering. …. And, as you listen with mindfulness, compassion grows."

This really resonated. As a trauma therapist, I bear witness daily to the fact that some of what stalls sufferer’s growth through the trauma is that so many people who love them cannot bear to hear, to listen to, to bear witness to, their suffering. The particulars of specific suffering can be especially difficult to witness. And so they don’t hear the suffering, and they rush to fix, cure, comfort, soothe or distract. Such habits do an injustice to the realities of suffering. As well, such habits fail to recognize that suffering has the potential to garner wisdom - this points to at least some metaphysical reasoning as to why there is suffering: Those who are compassionate to suffering would say that suffering makes us reach deep inside ourselves to find something more than what is, or Something More in what Is.

Buddha and Christ taught that paths to enlightenment (and the spiritual breakthroughs along the way are because they) are enabled by suffering. Christ’s suffering on the Cross was enabled because he suffered and submitted himself to the dessert for 40 days, and that ultimate suffering - symbolically, mythically, metaphysically - led to ultimate enlightenment and connection with God. Siddhartha, so surprised and shocked by suffering had to meditate on it, and dedicate himself to experiences of it, so he could transcend human suffering and become Buddha.

So the message is clear; we have to have the courage to listen to suffering. "Le coeur" is "of the heart," and so we have to be of our hearts enough to listen with compassion, not our habituated reactions - our variously socially conditioned and defensive or dissociative reactions - to suffering. Hahn talked about the mindfulness of suffering and this means for him that you can allow yourself to be aware of the suffering you hold inside of you.

The path to enlightenment is enabled because we can suffer.

Wow. Just hang out with that thought for a bit… this is what all therapeutic experiences aim to do. Such experiences aim to allow you to be with your suffering and they aim to support you in understanding the origins - and sometimes the why - of your suffering instead of more conventional engagements that can distract you from your pain. Hahn instructed that the Bodhisattva of Suffering teaches us to listen first to our own suffering with compassion. He said, "Breathe in and be aware of your suffering. Breathe out and feel it. Breathe in and feel your suffering in your body. Be mindful of what has caused you to suffer. In this way you can come to understand suffering."

This is a phenomenological principle too: to empathize with others, I have to, first, know essentially what I am. This also directs me to know who I am and then, I can healthily have empathy for another who is essentially like me but not me.

Consider that in a practical sense, Hahn says, to prepare for mindful compassion practice, do the following:

Step One: Be aware and say to yourself, "I am breathing in. I am breathing out."

Step Two: Be aware and say to yourself, "I am breathing in life and breathing out, I celebrate life."

Step Three: Know that every breath and every step brings us into the present.

Step Four: Breathing in,  "I am calm in my body. Breathing out I am calming in my body."

Step Five: "A practitioner of mindfulness knows to, and comes to know how to, take care of her body."

So, many of us know that peace begins with the body and when I breath in, I am aware of my body; "my ears, my eyes, my lungs …. and so many conditions of contentment and happiness that my body experiences." Thích Nhất Hạnh continued,  "In walking meditations, I am aware of the kingdom of God. In walking meditation, I can ask myself, 'Am I available to the kingdom of God?' If so, then you have mindfulness and so restoring this peace in the body is the first action of all peace." In this way, mindfulness allows us to reach for the conditions of happiness and bring the mind home to the body. Hahn would say that in this way, the practice of meditation is the practice of happiness and we come to recognize that there are so many conditions of happiness.

My friends, the idea is that if we know how to suffer, we suffer much less. And, if we come to know suffering then we know that suffering brings compassion and love.

To elaborate, he referenced a metaphor that so many of us are familiar with, yet his back to basics approach was like drinking ambrosia for the first time: Suffering and happiness are like opposite sides of the same piece of paper; on one side of life is suffering and on the other, happiness. You cannot have life without suffering and happiness. Similarly, you cannot have a piece of paper without there being two sides of the paper.

I also recall him saying, "My friends, the idea is that if we know how to suffer, we suffer much less. And, if we come to know suffering then we know that suffering brings compassion and love." On this point, the gist of what I recall him teaching is that if you know how to make use of suffering, you will find compassion. Recognizing your own pain, if you are willing to be with it in compassionate ways, brings enlightenment. We are mindful in order to recognize and embrace pain. And, in our mindfulness, we come to recognize that suffering has a role to play in our happiness.

Consider that just as a mother is towards her baby, so we need to embrace our pain with tenderness and the desire to understand. Loving mothers do not judge. When you look at your own suffering as suffering (and so acknowledge that this is what causes me pain), compassion arises, and then we can become freer from our suffering. We can become freer in our suffering. So, we aim to understand our own suffering and this enables us to understand compassionately others' suffering too, so they can understand it and have compassion for it, and so that all can be freer.

Thus the cycles between self and other continue; as with empathy, looking at the suffering of others helps grow compassion in your own heart. So when we listen with compassion, when we engage mindful compassion, then we are listening with the intention of helping the "other" - i.e., "someone else" - suffer less - and so, we help ourselves too.

Thank you, my friends.

Patricia Arnold, PhD

Stay Tuned...

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