Inspiration for Compassionate Living:
Personal Stories in Spiritual Writing
by Bob Banner
We would probably all love to live more compassionately; have more regard for our fellow drivers, I mean humans, who cut us off on our busy travels to and from work. For those of us who have the time to read spiritual material in this ever increasing fast paced life, the writing needs to be poignant, effective, entertaining, moving and inspirational. It must be written in ways to encourage us to change.
Now that the axiom is all pervasive that change can only come about from within, I’ve been taking notes regarding the literature I read as to what I actually remember. Especially in moments when I could either continue with my habitual judgmental non-compassionate mode or suddenly see that particular moment as having enough slack and space in order for change to become a possibility. What is it that I remember from the spiritual literature that can help me change?
I’ve noted, when talking with friends or when I’m in those moments when change appears to be a possibility, that the personal stories found in certain spiritual material has much impact on me and inspires me in those moments of crisis, self-reflection, or intense emotional reaction. Intellectual analyses and insights are fine for their specific worthwhileness and use. But when it comes to daily living I find those personal stories to not only be genuinely helpful but reveal to me the author’s vulnerability, accessibility, and acceptance of their own imperfections. For too long I’ve read books after books on spiritual matters by authors who seemed to imagine that it was a sign of spiritual maturity not to include stories or anecdotes from their life. “Just keep pumping out the wisdom but leave yourself out of it” seemed to be the gist of that type of writing. I don’t know about you but I love the periodic humaness, the vulnerabilities, the difficulties, the humorous situation where the author “failed” and needed to listen and learn from what they in fact had been “teaching” or espousing. I find in those moments a bridge connecting their and my imperfections, thereby closing that ever so huge gap between student and teacher.
For example, Pema Chödrön (an American Buddhist nun and director of the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners), in her latest book Start Where You Are, writes about an incident that is not only revealing but humorous as well. As she walks down the hall in the Abbey she notices from afar a bunch of dirty dishes still in the sink. As she approaches the dishes, her mind begins to automatically fume at this one particular woman in her group. Her mind becomes totally engrossed in tearing this woman apart, this good for nothing, “who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves?” and so on. As she finally settles upon the scene of the dishes in the sink she sees her name “Pema” on the plate, cup, fork and knife. They were all hers! “Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.”
There’s something about knowing a teacher’s vulnerability to imperfections that’s simply not a “aha! see I told you she wasn’t perfect!” in order to create a one-upmanship relationship. There’s a deep appreciation of her humility and a trust for her own compassion for herself. How could I not really listen to and learn from such a person…
For another example, I was looking out the kitchen window at a retreat last month where I noticed a woman coming out of the woman’s dining hall. She was a large woman. And because of the meditations, my mind had slowed down to the point of noticing the automatic and immediate judgment of her being large.
Seconds after that judgment arose I thought of Jack Kornfield’s story (from A Path With Heart) about bowing to the good qualities in every human being. He had quite a difficult time with that particular ritual of bowing to every living thing that crossed his path, especially with people he didn’t like. So, he trained himself to see the positive in everyone and bow to those specific qualities.
My mind immediately went in front of her and bowed to an invisible yet known quality of hers. I imagined bowing to her knowing and feeling the shame that had arisen. I simply let the tears roll down my face becoming aware of how my judgments keep people away from me so I can feel “safe.”
Also in A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield writes about his bouts of lust and images of sexual fantasy during his earliest practice as a celibate monk. His teacher told him to simply label the thoughts and images but it didn’t help him. They only became stronger until he decided to expand his awareness to determine what other feelings may be there. “To my surprise I found a deep well of loneliness almost every time the fantasies arose… Then I noticed how hard it was to let myself feel the loneliness. I hated it; I resisted it. Only when I accepted this very resistance and gently held it all in compassion did it begin to subside…”
That moving paragraph has been so helpful for me. When I read it aloud to friends (both male and female) they silently agree and also are resistant to feel the often times loneliness behind the fantasies and would rather act out the “sexuality.” The amount of abuse and sexual addictiveness arising from our loneliness is vast and awesome. Imagine the strength and courage to “gently hold all in compassion” and let oneself feel and accept the loneliness.
This reminds me of a passage in the new book by Stephen T. Butterfield (The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra). Certainly not new to the genre of honest and vulnerable writing (since he has been published in The Sun numerous times) the following passage is a most vivid account of his bout with an unhealthy relationship.
The chain that kept pulling me back into my personal round of passion and abuse was my own desperate clinging… One day, after my chain had been yanked, instead of chasing her, I went straight to the cushion and sat there all night. I had realized that no matter what she did, the key to my health was in this practice, and as long as I was doing it, my mind was free. Thoughts of who she slept with, or how she had rejected me, were exactly the same as any other thoughts: they were “thinking,” that’s all, just like the memories of wrongdoing and the cramps in my leg. When the abandoned child having these thoughts finally collapsed and wept, because I had detached from his demands, I could hold my seat and give him love…(pps. 54-55)
Also, in the book, which is an autobiographical account of being a student (for twelve years) of the late Chogyam Trungpa and Osel Tendzin (known for the controversy of knowingly inflicting his students with AIDS) we find a confessional yet intimately honest tone regarding his deference to speaking up to Tendzin at particular moments. In the following passage Osel and Stephen had met accidentally in an airport. They were both watching a TV talk show about AIDS.
“This program is trivial,” Osel Tendzin said. “It’s cheap.” I would have thought that warning people about AIDS fulfilled the Buddhist idea of compassionate activity. I had the urge to ask “Why do you think so?” but pretended instead to agree with him. He was the Regent and I was the disciple. If somebody had missed something it was probably me — and I didn’t want him to know that I had missed it. I wanted to be important, like him, and to understand the world as he understood it.
In the guru/disciple relationship, this self-conscious longing for acceptance, regarded as a form of devotion, operates to intimidate the student into deference, when it would be far more valuable to look like a fool and speak up. Here was a priceless, fragile, short-lived opportunity, filled with uncontrived symbolism. If I had asked the right questions at that moment, I would have learned a great deal about the causes of the tragedy that was about to unfold around him, and around the presentation of Buddhist tantra in America. But I was paralyzed. Although I knew that I had as much power as Tendzin, I could not act from it…
After reading that passage I felt angry, relieved and very sad. Angry at him for not speaking up! Twelve years in Buddhist tantra and there’s no training for students to overcome their fear of authority and speak up and enter into that circle of power called “politics.” Relieved that he was honest, brutally honest about himself… relieved because I’ve been in that same situation numerous times and people who haven’t been in it can’t possibly understand how important that longing for acceptance truly is along with the fear of becoming an outsider if one speaks against certain norms of the specific group. And that insidious element that we picked up somewhere that tells us, screams at us that we are broken and in need of repair and only a Tradition can do the job of fixing us with all their rituals, mantras, sincerity, wisdom and power. And sad… sad because of the human condition… with its deceitfulness, cowardice, petty politics and power plays… not just in the political or spiritual world but in all human relationships.
A peculiar sense of compassion emerged for him and his struggles within the Buddhist tantra sangha — just as much compassion as I held for Kornfield and Chödrön. They are teaching me something very important — self acceptance, and that rather than continue indulging in that insidious notion that I am inadequate, broken and in need of repair, to be immediately fixed and made over into something else, I too can join them in having compassion for myself; thereby having the necessary space to have compassion for others.
Bob Banner publishes www.HopeDance.org, screens transformational documentary films, washes windows and is in a relationship with Dede Amescua Wheat and lives in San Luis Obispo. He can be reached at [email protected] or call him to wash your windows at 805.762.4848… He is also a CLYT, a Certified Laughter Yoga Teacher, believe it or not!