Thursday, January 13, 2011

Compassion in Life’s Crucible

Love prevails despite overwhelming evidence – thorns have roses, tears have heart and trauma has strength. Like the earth from which you emerge, and the Love that sources your life, you have incredible resilience to get back up after a setback, dust yourself off and keep moving forward with grace. In time you find that there is wisdom in wounds, perspective in pain and growth in grief. As much as you want to run, learn to stay with the pain. It is preparing you for a life of depth and compassion. Stand fearlessly in the flames of suffering with an open heart and a strong will.

The crucible of your life experience has fused you into the capable and compassionate person you are. This can’t happen without a few cracks and scars. The only people who get through life unscathed are those more interested in self preservation than genuine connection. You carry your burn marks as a reminder that you have stood in the middle of suffering, your own and others, without shrinking back or hiding the pain.

I will never forget the time I had to hold my two year old son down while doctors performed a lumbar puncture. He looked at me with such betrayal. It broke my heart to hear him scream, but hurt even more to see his confusion that the people he thought he could trust most in the world were in this moment his torturers. They might as well have stuck that needle in my spine and twisted it the way I felt that day. Many parents know the agony of watching children suffer and being unable to remove the pain. It’s a universal experience, at least for anyone who dares to get close enough to another to care.

Compassion is not just a platitude. It’s a bodily experience. The ancient Greek word for compassion was “splagchnos” which was also the word used for bowels or intestines. This was the word that Bible writers used to describe the compassion Jesus had for those who were suffering. Splagchnos means what it sounds like it means. It’s a guttural word that indicates a visceral reaction. The bowels were regarded by the Greeks as the site of primal passion, while for the Hebrews they were the site of more tender affections, like kindness. Compassion has many faces and modes. Compassion is a bodily reaction that leads to a deep desire to alleviate suffering. It isn’t a surface response, like “isn’t that awful”. It is a passionate sense of being burdened by suffering and wanting it to end.

Science reinforces the physical basis of compassion with an understanding of mirror neurons. Neurons fire in your brain when you perform actions. Mirror neurons fire when you see someone else perform an action, giving your brain the sense that you are performing the same action. Mirror neurons explain why you smile at someone who smiles at you, or yawn when someone yawns. Mirror neurons explain why kids pick up the same mannerisms that they have spent years mocking their parents about. And most importantly, mirror neurons explain empathy. When someone is suffering, it’s more than metaphor to say “I feel your pain.”

Many people are feeling this bodily compassion for the victims of the horrific assassination attempt and fatal shootings in Tucson, and the victims of flooding in Australia and so many other global tragedies. Its also the anniversary of the massive earthquake that tore Haiti apart. It’s one of those times when there doesn’t seem to be enough room in the world to hold all the pain. And yet the space in our collective heart is larger than any pain.

The group who will create a guard of love and protection around the Tucson funerals this week to ward off the hatred of protestors will be dressed as angels with white wings. This is compassion dressed in white and expressed in a bodily way. The stories coming out of Australia of young children drowning to save their siblings is compassion in action. Compassion has to be expressed in some form or other, or else it slips back into being a platitude.

What wisdom do you draw from your tough times? What flood of emotions do you feel about friends and family in Australia? What wisdom will we all draw from the Tucson shootings? What growth will emerge from the grief?

Begin with tears. Eyes shed tears to find focus. Tragedies remind us all to recommit to our highest values. Beyond all the speculation and political finger pointing, pause in compassion for innocent victims of violence and confused perpetrators of violence. Feel the pain, then let this felt pain turn into compassionate action. When you hold this compassionate space, everyone and everything becomes a mirror, reflecting a universal love that holds all pain and all joy in absolute and unconditional embrace.

May all people dwell in peace and loving kindness, beginning with me, beginning NOW. My heart is open. It’s been bruised, burned and broken. But it’s still beating and has greater capacity for love than any amount of pain or hatred.

Ps- please visit Soulseeds for affirmation and kindness resources.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Slowing the Pendulum, Practicing Balance

This is my annual jetlag talk given around 24 hours after arriving back from Australia. It’s said that jetlag lasts one day for every time zone you cross. In that case I should be back to normal by September. When one of the kids asked me the time on the flight home, I said, “Where? In Sydney, Auckland, LA, Chicago or Michigan?” Jetlag is a strange, disorienting experience. You feel out of sorts, out of balance, for several days. I now understand that jetlag is caused by messing with the body’s need for daily cycles of darkness and light. The body clock considers light and dark its alarm for when to rest and when to get going for the day. So when the body clock is confused, your body loses its balance. It’s not just a travel problem. We spend too many daylight hours under unnatural light, and then at night we sit with the glaring light of fluorescent bulbs, televisions and brightly shining alarm clocks. Most of us are lucky if we experience solid darkness for 5 or 6 hours out of 24. The human body is built to follow nature’s patterns. It needs exercise and sunshine and it needs darkness and rest in order to heal and restore its balance.

Balance is my theme. Nature models balance. Spiritual traditions teach balance. We crave balance. While on vacation, I was struck by an intense, optimistic energy around 2011. It’s going to be an amazing year, and the space of vacation fired me up to get all aspects of my life in optimum shape. I want to take my relationships, my community, my health, all my life aspirations to the highest levels of excellence. I want to have it all. I can have it all, just not at the same time. I have to pace myself and create balance in my priorities. What are your priorities for 2011? Are you setting your sights towards excellence? What are your issues around balance?

We crave balance and yet balance is so profoundly lacking in our lives. We create our own jetlag of consciousness, out of sorts with who we are and out of balance with life’s natural order. We live in multiple time zones, allowing the past to rule our current choices and letting the future drift onto the radar of our present experience far too often.

We tend to charge recklessly from one thing to its opposite, and the natural pendulum of life becomes more like a wrecking ball. Even as you read this you may be imagining that this is going to be an encouragement to slow down or spend more time resting. That thought is part of the problem, as you swing to an extreme. We go all of one way looking for the answers and when we don’t find them we think “what’s the point” and swing right back the other way. We are misdiagnosing our unhappiness.

You imagine that work is the problem and if you could just retire all your problems would vanish, only to discover that you aren’t comfortable with all the extra time alone with yourself. You imagine that a person or a place is the problem, only to see the same issues turn up in the new relationship, the new city, the new job. You imagine that the Republicans are the problem only to discover that the Democrats aren’t strong enough for your tastes.

The problem isn’t work, and the problem isn’t Republicans. The problem is your inability to stay in the middle, sourcing your life from your inner core that isn’t dependent on outer circumstances for contentment. This inner realization liberates you to live appropriately in any context without fixating on any one mode. There is a time to slow down, and there is a time to get a wriggle on. There is a time to change and there is a time to pull up a chair and learn from the current circumstance. Rather than looking for solutions in one extreme or another, the answer is found in what musicians call “Tempo Guesto”.

Tempo Giusto is free will to a musician. It means “the right pace”. The musician is free to discern the intent of the composer. Tempo Giusto suggests that you follow your instincts and create the performance that matches the context. The German word eigenzeit serves a similar purpose, much like the famous words from Ecclesiastes “there is a time for everything under the sun.” Learn from nature. Everything has its time, and you have the inner capacity to adapt to whatever is needed to manage the moment. Please note that “right time” is not to be confused with Island time. Remember the man who asks God, “God, how long is a million years?”

God answers, “A million years is like a minute.”

Then, the man asks, “God, how much is a million dollars?”

And God replies, “A million dollars is like a penny.”

Finally, the man asks, “God, can you give me a penny?”

God says, “In a minute.”

It’s all about perspective. This notion of right balance or right time is not an excuse for laziness. It’s a license for flexibility and intuitive wisdom.

Balance in the Traditions

Balance is one of the perennial truths. Perennial truths are nuggets of golden wisdom that turn up in many traditions. They are universal truths that individuals and cultures come to realize and experience in their own language and stories. They are often shown to be true by science, nature and instinct as well as spiritual traditions. They tend to be life principles that we innately know but often forget. Balance is one of these perennial truths. Let’s take a brief walk through some traditions.

Balance is a major emphasis in Buddhism. 600 years before the time of Jesus, The Buddha coined the phrase “the Middle Path” in an address to his monks-

“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by the recluse. What two? Sensual indulgence which is low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble, and conducive to harm; and self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and conducive to harm. The middle path, monks, understood by the Tath├ógata, avoiding the extremes, gives vision and knowledge and leads to calm, realization, enlightenment, and Nirvana. And what, monks, is that middle path? It is this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” I don’t imagine the Buddha would mind me adding “right time” to create a list of the Ninefold Path.

The Buddha understood the Middle Path, or balance, through his own life experience. He was brought up a prince, in great affluence. When he first encountered sickness and death, he realized that his protected life had not prepared him to deal with the reality of suffering. He rejected his upbringing and all worldly pleasures, and swung to the other extreme. He spent all his time meditating. He discovered that this also didn’t prepare him to deal with suffering. He concluded that neither extreme, indulgence or deprivation, was the path to liberation. Instead he proposed the middle way between these two. At one time the Buddha sat by a river and heard a lute player in a passing boat. He understood that the lute string must be tuned neither too tight nor too loose to produce a harmonious sound.

Now turn your mind to Christianity. On first reading, Jesus showed little patience with balance. He seemed to be a radical, an extremist. He said, “If you are not for me, you are against me”, ‘Give up everything and follow me” and “If you are luke-warm, I will spit you out.” In fact the word “balance” occurs very rarely in the Bible. When it does occur, it is the Hebrew word “Mozen” and the Greek word “Zugos”. Both words refer to the poles carried across your shoulders that balance two containers. Each container needed to be a similar weight and in right position in order to maintain balance. What is the meaning of the teaching? I like to think of this as two containers that hold two different but complementary things; like strength and compassion, independence and accountability, patience and urgency, hope and realism, conviction and openness. You need them both in some sort of dynamic partnership.

In Matthew 11; 28-30, Jesus offered the gift of balance (usually translated as yoke) to those who felt heavy with life’s burdens. What did he mean? I imagine that he meant that when life feels overwhelming you have more options than you realize, and more capacity than you give yourself credit for. In my opinion the Christian teaching on balance is close to the idea of flexibility or skilful means.

Hinduism teaches the balance of karma. We tend to think of karma in too literal and linear a way, as if each action is balanced by some specific consequence in this life or another. I saw a bumper sticker that read, “If you can read this, I can hit my brakes and sue you.” It seems to capture the way we think of karma. Karma is not about justice or some sort of reassurance that others will get their just desserts. The way other people treat you is their karma. The way you react is your karma. Karma is a general worldview about balance. Things tend to work themselves out whether we understand the timing or outcomes or not. Balance, as Osho said, is staying in the middle while the universe holds the pieces in place. Your ability to stay in the middle is your karma, because if other people can push your buttons you will keep suffering.

Balance is expressed as moderation in Islam. Despite the recent surge of fundamentalism in Islam, balance is the essence of the religion. Balance is extremely important in Native American spirituality, which emphasizes the notion of harmony. In Navajo spirituality, the word “Hozho” indicates a deeply felt inner harmony. They used rituals to reestablish Hozho when it was lost. They had a unique way to honor returning warriors for example. The family talked to the local medicine man about what the man had experienced at war and they chose a ceremony based on the experience. Families were involved in the preparation and in ceremonial prayers, songs and dances. The ceremonies helped the Navajo war veterans and their families return to a state of balance, or beauty, within the universe.

All the spiritual traditions use their own language and stories to teach about a state of perfect equilibrium; mind, body and spirit in balance. The storms and changes of life can’t shake this balance. Not even a leaf stirs on the well rooted tree that is balance. It is a pond without the slightest ripple. It is the silence of a star filled sky. You know how to access your inner balance. You just forget from time to time.

Balance and the Inner Ear

As a global community, we seem to have lost our Hozho mojo recently. Our world is profoundly out of balance as evidenced by the awful and senseless shootings in Tucson. We have greater freedom than ever, but we don’t have the maturity to use this freedom well. We’ve multiplied our possessions, but lack the inner character to use them with integrity. Our homes are bigger and full of more gadgets, but the relationships inside them are broken. We have impressive, tall buildings, but short tempers. We have vast resources, but narrow viewpoints. We have more convenience, but less time to enjoy it. We have more medicine, but less wellness, more knowledge, but less judgment. We’ve learnt how to add years to life, but not how to fill those years with more life. We’ve conquered outer space, but our inner space lays undiscovered. The world is out of balance. The traditions and your inner wisdom know the way back.

Science has now revealed that the tiny hairs in the middle ear are the place where human balance is controlled. Information is passed from these hair follicles to the brain to stop us from losing balance. Nature is astonishing. It holds its own sacred wisdom. Consider this amazing connection. The Hebrew word for balance (Mozen) shares the same etymology as the word “ear”. Thousands of years before science revealed that our inner ear is the control centre for human balance, the Hebrews used the same word for ear and balance. Is this coincidence or some sort of inherent wisdom?

Coincidence or not, balance is a universal law. And the human body is built to restore balance. I love the fact that our balance center is in the inner ear because it suggests that we have inner wisdom if we are able to “hear” it. In other words, you have within you the wisdom to know how to restore balance in your life, and you have the wisdom to find the middle way.

Balance is a Juggling Act

Balance is a juggling act. What is your current challenge with balance? Maybe it’s the balance between work and play. Maybe it’s the balance between justice and forgiveness. Maybe it’s the balance between self worth and humility. Maybe it’s the balance of your own needs and the needs of others. Maybe it’s the balance between changing what you can change, and accepting what you cannot change for now. Maybe it’s the balance between striving and just being.

The beautiful wisdom of balance is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and you can change from one moment to the next. Some problems are not meant to be solved, just managed. Imagine yourself juggling a number of balls; work, family, health, friends, economic crises, global suffering and your own needs– and you’re keeping all of them in the air. Some of the balls, some of the time, are made of rubber. If you drop them, they just bounce back. The economy is an example of a rubber ball. It will bounce back eventually so keep this in perspective. But some of the other balls are more like glass. If you drop them, they may be damaged, or even shattered. They may never be the same. Take greater care with these.

Strive for balance in your life. Know what is most important and when action is important. At your core you have a balance that is neither rubber nor glass. It is not rubber because it doesn’t bounce around with circumstances, and it’s not glass because it can never be broken. It’s more like water which can be both gentle and yielding and tough and corrosive depending on the circumstance. It knows what to do and when to act. It is the source of your deep seated wisdom.

May you hear your inner wisdom whispering to you about balance and inner capacity. When despair grows and you feel overwhelmed by the burdens of life, may you know the gift of deep balance. When confusion reigns and disturbed people open fire on children and civic leaders, may the earth and all of its people be restored to balance. Namaste.