Category Archives: Compassion

Praying for Difficult People

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There are some things that we are told when young that never stray very far from our thoughts. One of those things, for me, was this: “If you feel anger toward someone, or hatred, pray for their wellbeing. From that time forward, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue feeling angry toward them, or to continue hating them.”

Many years later, I read the Dalai Lama’s instructions regarding meditating on compassion. He instructed that one should envision those who we find difficult as if they were our mother—holding up a mother as a person that we are accustomed to loving unconditionally. (In reality, the mother image may not work for everyone—think wire coat hangers and “Mommy Dearest” for instance—but one can just as easily envision them as someone else that we love without reservation, just because.) If one is a Buddhist, then one knows that in the infinite lifetimes we have lived, each person was at some time our mother, our father, our sibling, our best friend, and therefore received that type of love from us before. I find with this practice—as I did with the advice I received growing up to pray for those toward whom I feel anger—that it changes your perspective. How can you envision someone as your dearly loved one and continue to hold their difficultness against them?

I discovered the same thing on a grander scale listening to Pema Chödrön talk about tonglen. The practice of breathing in the suffering of all living beings and sending out happiness and freedom from suffering to all living beings with your exhalation builds on your altruistic nature and orients you toward compassion for everyone. It is like taking that advice about praying for difficult people, or the Dalai Lama’s instructions, to the utmost level—developing a loving relationship with everyone at the same time. It helps to establish, I think, a natural inclination toward compassion and love in all of our encounters with fellow beings.

Why don’t you give one of these practices a try today? Think of someone who has felt like a thorn in your side and pray for his or her wellbeing, for his or her happiness and freedom from suffering, for the same things you wish for yourself. Or imagine that person as your dearest loved one and pour out toward him or her, in your mind, all the love and affection you would give him or her if they were your loved one. Or take 5 minutes sitting comfortably, in silence, focusing on your breathing, and imagine with each inhale that you are taking all the suffering of every being around the world into yourself, and with each exhale you are sending back to them happiness and joy and health and love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference the first time (many people tell me it does—it took me a few times). Don’t give up right away. Keep trying, and I promise it will make a difference in your life and your relationships. I’d love to hear how it turns out—drop me a note in the comment section below. Peace and love be yours.

Pictures and Words

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As you may know, the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook started out as a way to make people aware of this blog if they were interested in reading it. But then it took over and largely supplanted this blog, and as of this writing there are more than 53,000 people who have liked the page. So I’ve turned my attention more and more toward content intended primarily for those people, mostly shorter thoughts, quotations, and shared articles, with only occasional forays into longer blog pieces. The pictures and quotations cover the same topics I have been focusing on here, Twitter, Facebook, and iTunes podcasts: mindfulness, meditation, compassion, peace, love.

I noticed that photographs with quotations are very popular on Facebook, and tend to get shared around quite a bit. I have been trying my hand at making my own, using my photographs and my own thoughts, and they seem to have gone over well. I thought that I would offer a slideshow of some of the initial efforts here in the blog. I would welcome your feedback and suggestions about doing more of these in the future.

Peace and love be yours.

Be Present with Love

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“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” ~ Buddha

I think that of all of the Buddha’s teachings, this may be the most important, the linchpin to all of the others. Mindfulness leads to right action, right thought, right speech, right livelihood, and so on. One might venture to say that they could not be practiced without first being mindful.

The way in which this teaching intertwines with the Buddha’s other teachings reminds me of what Jesus said when asked which of the Ten Commandments was the most important: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” In other words, every Judeo-Christian teaching derives ultimately from those two—love God, love your neighbor.

From a Buddhist perspective, loving God translates, I think, to an all-powerful respect and love for creation. Loving one’s neighbor is the equivalent of the Buddhist teachings about loving all creatures in the manner that you would love your mother and showing unfettered compassion for them. In fact, Jesus equates loving God and loving oneself and one’s neighbor by saying “the second [commandment] is like [the first]…” Loving God/creation is tantamount to loving your neighbor; loving your neighbor is, in effect, loving God/creation.

“And who is my neighbor?” Jesus was asked. “Everyone,” he answered. I believe the Buddha would agree.

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All I Do Is Talk Talk

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“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.” ~ Buddha

For much of my life I’ve been a talker—an incessant talker. When I was a kid, my dad would say I “suffered from verbal diarrhea.” Okay, he was still saying it when I was an adult. It was an apt description.

I could talk a blue streak. I was often quite funny, and occasionally squeezed in something meaningful. But 99 percent of what I said might charitably be called “babble”—and that might be a generous estimate of the worth of what I had to say most of the time.

It has taken me a long time to learn judiciousness when it comes to speaking—truthfully, I’m still learning. The process has moved along in stages—learning first to choose my words with care, to say much with few words. Then, learning that silence can speak volumes and is often preferable to speaking. More recently, learning to put speaking aside in favor of listening.

And I mean really listening, paying attention to the person speaking, being present for them and mindful of their words and their “non-words”—the things they’re not saying. What I used to think was listening was really me paying half-attention while figuring out the next thing that I was going to say once I could cut in.

I think that what the Buddha called “right speech” sometimes is best put into practice as no speech. I think that “I’m here for you, my friend” or “Go on, I’m listening”—and then being silent—is far preferable to any advice I might conjure up on a moment’s notice. Saying nothing sometimes says everything.

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Love

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My last blog post considered hate, musing about whether it is possible to live without it. I marveled at how casually it is used in everyday speech (does anyone really hate spinach?). And I attempted to make the case for “non-hate”—love.

But I find that love is a complicated concept as well. Or, maybe I am making it more complex than it needs to be. It’s been known to happen.

It seems to me that the word “love” is thrown around as frivolously as “hate”:

  • “I love peanut butter.”
  • “I love my new car.”
  • “I love the Mets.”
  • “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

The word is used with a casualness that robs it of its meaning. Can you really love peanut butter? I mean, it’s one of my favorite foods, but…it’s food. Would I put my life on the line for peanut butter? Sacrifice for it? Work for its freedom from suffering? Of course not. So how can I really love it? Because those are the things you do for love.

When we so readily say “love” when we actually mean “like a lot,” or “enjoy,” or “find pleasure in,” what does it really mean when we tell our significant others, our children, our parents, “I love you”? Gee, thanks…you put me on a par with your Subaru…

How do we answer the call to show love to all beings? Do we even know what that means? I’ve struggled with this a lot lately, as I’ve been wrestling with hate. In that last blog post, I shared my ponderings about whether it is okay not to hate people who have committed heinous acts, like Osama bin Laden and Hitler. I’ll refrain here from exploring the companion question, which is if it is possible to love everyone, even people like that. Let’s save the opening of that Pandora’s box for another time.

So I will return to the question of what it means to love. I don’t think it requires approval of a person’s actions, or liking them, or wanting to be close to them. I think it means feeling compassion for them as beings who suffer—just like me and you—and who want to be free of that suffering—just like you and me. I think it means wanting them to be free of their suffering, even wanting to be the instrument of that freedom.

I mentioned in that last blog post the example of the Dalai Lama’s attitude toward Chinese government officials. He certainly does not condone any of their atrocities, but I have heard him say that he has compassion for them, is concerned for them, and wishes them to be free of their suffering. My interpretation: he feels love for them.

Is there a difference between showing or feeling love for someone and loving them? Perhaps, but I think it is razor thin, maybe just semantics.

In my mid-twenties I was testing what I perceived to be a calling to the priesthood. The rector of my parish asked me to deliver the sermon at Sunday Mass every so often during that time. One such Sunday, the topic of my sermon was love. The sermon lasted 45 minutes and I had barely scratched the surface! The groans from the congregation were audible and frequent. I promised myself I’d never try to bite off a topic that broad again. Oh well…

Hate

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“God, I hate Didier Drogba.”

That is what floated to the surface of my consciousness after he scored the winning penalty kick in the UEFA Champions League final last month. I’m glad the words did not actually pass my lips. But still, it’s the thought that counts, no?

Is there any positive aspect to the word “hate”? To my mind, it is the antithesis of love, and love is the highest of callings, the calling that should be the basis of living. I was reminded by visitors to my Facebook page recently, when I wrote about anger, that good can come of anger. Further, anger in itself is not a “bad” thing, no more than joy is a “good” thing. It’s just an emotion, if a very powerful one. They were right, of course. But where is the silver lining in hate? What good can come of hate?

And how can we distinguish it these days from just run-of-the-mill annoyance, dislike, and irritation? Consider:

  • “I hate spinach.”
  • “I hate Republicans/Democrats.”
  • “I hate rainy days.”
  • “I hate the Dallas Cowboys.”
  • “I hate wool sweaters.

Maybe one doesn’t like the way wool sweaters look on them, or the way they make one itch, or the way they smell if wet. But does anyone really hate wool sweaters? I mean, they’re inanimate! They should, therefore, be incapable of instigating such an emotion, shouldn’t they?

I don’t really hate Didier Drogba. I’m a Liverpool FC fan, and he plays for Chelsea, so of course he frustrates me when he plays well at Liverpool’s expense. But I really know little about Didier Drogba, the person off the pitch. And even if I knew him intimately, what could possibly merit my hatred? Hurting me, my family, my friends? Is committing murder grounds for being hated? Multiple murders? Genocide?

I lately find myself considering the idea that I should strive not to hate anyone. But how far can I take that before it appears heretical in some manner? Is it okay not to hate child molesters, but simply to be repelled by their actions and distressed for their victims? Is it okay not to hate Osama bin Laden, but disdain his terrorist acts and feel compassion for his victims and their families? Is it okay not to hate Hitler? I think you see where this is headed.

I’m looking to the Dalai Lama’s example, specifically his attitude toward the Chinese government that has occupied his country for over 50 years, killed thousands of innocent Tibetans, imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands more, and attempted to systematically erase one of the most beautiful cultures on earth. Does the Dalai Lama hate the Chinese officials responsible for those atrocities? No. He prays for them, feels compassion for the suffering they experience that leads them to act as they do, and holds out hope that they will soon see the error of their ways.

Is he naïve? Some think so. I don’t. I see his attitude as the apotheosis of “non-hate,” to coin a phrase. Or, as it is sometimes known, love.

The Big Uneasy

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I just got back from a trip to New Orleans on business, and it was a real eye-opener. This was not the first time I’ve been there since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, but it was the first time I had ventured away from downtown and seen what Katrina hath wrought. Though I’ve heard many tales from friends and colleagues who live in New Orleans and were displaced by the storm, this was the first time I really saw the lasting damage that it had done to the populace.

Riding a public bus out to the Jazz and Cultural Heritage Festival, I saw building after building boarded up, uninhabitable even if someone wanted to open a business in them. Houses lay in ruins. Open lots were full of weed-choked debris. Though the touristy part of the city, downtown and the French Quarter, look relatively unscathed, the rest of the city and surrounding areas are, for lack of a better word, seriously scathed.

Barely a sentence seems to be uttered by Orleanians without mention of Hurricane Katrina. It might be tiresome if the hurricane’s terrible legacy weren’t so evident. Katrina changed everything there. Amazingly, the citizens and their leaders have done some amazing things in the almost seven years since. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt. A new school system (or, as educators down there prefer to refer to it now, a system of schools) was created from scratch essentially, and in the next two years every single school will be in a new and thoroughly reconstructed building. Yet something like 3 out of 10 residents have yet to return, and the homeless—always front and center in the past—seem to outnumber the tourists in some parts of the city. Nothing comes easy these days in the Big Easy.

The ghost-like nature of the boarded-up businesses and homes reminded me a lot of what I saw last year in Belize. The parallels are startling. Both are incredibly beautiful places full of lovely, warm-hearted people. Both are suffering from crushing poverty. Both have economies that are entirely too dependent on tourism, with little prospect for developing alternative sources of income. Both are populated with the husks of former houses and businesses. Think of it—Katrina turned New Orleans into a third-world country.

I came away from my few days in New Orleans moved by its plight, choked up by its pain, saddened by its losses, but encouraged by its resiliency. The people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes need our prayers and energy as much as our business and resources, and we need for them to return to vibrancy, health, and prosperity in order to restore our universal shared energy and peace.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 3

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Some items recently posted to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook, www.facebook.com/dharmabegin.

Love Thine Enemy

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

I’d like to pass along one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received: If you are angry at someone, if you think of them as your enemy, pray for them. You cannot remain angry at someone you pray for; someone you pray for… cannot long be considered your enemy. my own experience has borne this out.

Somewhere along the line I learned to practice putting myself in the shoes of those who would hurt me or make me their enemy. I usually need to let the hurt subside first, but when it has I can ask, “Why would they do this thing to me? What suffering must they be enduring that leads them to act in this manner?” Then I remember that everyone wishes to be free of suffering, friends and foes alike, and I pray that they will be free of suffering.

Sometimes I can manage to say those prayers with the sincerity of someone praying for a loved one or dear friend. Other times it takes a little more time, a little more distance from the pain. But once I pray sincerely for them, the hurt and anger melt away, and all that’s left is compassion.

How Do People Perceive Me?

“I don’t really care how I am remembered as long as I bring happiness and joy to people.” ~ Eddie Albert

I can be really hung up on how people view me now, as well what kind of mark on will leave on the world when I inevitably pass from this life. It amazes me that I still sometimes hesitate to do what is right because of thoughts about what “people” will think. Family, friends, coworkers, people… I wouldn’t know if I tripped over them – dear lord, what will they think? [insert dramatic shudder here]

In retrospect, it makes me laugh. There really should be some LOLs here. It seems so silly. Why should I care what it says on my tombstone? I’ll be dead. But in that moment, it still brings me up short. I think it’s right to take seriously what kind of world I leave behind, but not because of how I’ll be remembered for it. Because I believe it is my responsibility to leave behind as much love as I found when I entered it, and hopefully more.

Some Things I Hope We Can Agree On

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God.” – Thomas Jefferson

God, deity, higher power, energy, universal interconnectedness, angels, protectors, anti-gremlins (okay, I made that one up) – it doesn’t matter to me what you call it. Or if you don’t call it anything. Or if you don’t even believe in “it.” I don’t care, because I believe we don’t need any particular religion to connect and to agree on a few things:

1. We respect and care for others and ourselves
2. We show love and compassion to all
3. We seek to be happy, free from suffering
4. We are committed to growing ethically, spiritually, emotionally, etc.

I’m certain the list could be longer. But if you and I can agree on just one of those, that’s a great place to start building a friendship. I’d like to think that I could build such a friendship with each and every one of you.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 2

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Recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Anger

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – The Buddha

Most of the time, when you succumb to feelings of anger, it eats you up inside and makes you sick emotionally and physically, but has little or no impact on the person with whom you are angry. I think that speaks volumes about the value (or lack thereof) of anger.

As many Dharma Beginner members pointed out, there is some value to anger as a motivator, something to prompt you to act to right wrongs. My former boss used to refer to that as “righteous indignation.” I can see what they’re saying, and I know from my own experience that anger can be useful. Personally, I prefer now to find my motivation in compassion, in generating bodhicitta.

Mindfulness of anger, as with awareness of any emotion, is paramount. To be aware of feelings of anger and be able to ask why are the keys to turning anger into something beneficial.

Enemies

“We cannot learn real patience and tolerance from a guru or a friend. They can be practiced only when we come in contact with someone who creates unpleasant experiences. According to Shantideva, enemies are really good for us as we can learn a lot from them and build our inner strength.” – The Dalai Lama

In the heat of the moment, and even for some time afterwards, it is so hard to recognize the lesson, let alone learn from it. So one of the ways in which I can measure my own progress is by observing how long it takes me to “emerge” from the unpleasantness and remember that unpleasant situations are learning experiences. Every once in a while I will remember as the unpleasant situation or experience is still occurring, and that brings joy and helps the unpleasantness to melt away.

On a side note, I find that people who act unpleasantly do not appreciate being thanked for the lessons that their unpleasantness provides, nor being told that they are a cross that you gladly bear. A word to the wise. 😉

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1

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A collection of recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Laissez-Faire v. Micromanagement

“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet.” – Diane Ackerman

Achieving a balance between laissez-faire and micromanagement is tricky. We accept that change is a fact of life, inevitable, and remind ourselves that the more detailed the plan we construct, the more likely it is to go awry. A life that follows strictly along a meticulously laid out plan is illusory.

Some degree of planning and preparation is necessary, though, isn’t it? Eating healthy requires real planning, I find. Being a vegetarian adds to the challenge. So where do we draw the line between obsessive attempts to control life and flitting about on the wind without any direction?

Perhaps it is at the point, still hard to discern, when “planning” one’s life becomes “attempting to control” it. (I say attempting, because I don’t believe we ever reach a point at which we are truly in control of life.) The practice I try to embrace is “flexible” planning—don’t make your plans rigid, but leave room for the unexpected (which, if past is prologue, really should be expected) and be ready to adjust. Expect things not to turn out as planned. Or, minimize your expectations, and thereby minimize disappointment. Not always easy for me to accomplish, but I’m working on it.

The Common Thread

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have long held an ecumenical view of religion, and never believed that my religion was any better than anyone else’s. My belief was that god, the higher power, whatever you call it, manifested itself differently to different people, in ways that were meaningful and understandable to them. But underlying all of the surface differences, they were constructed on the same basic foundation.

True, in their attempts to live out their religions, some people go astray and lose sight of the sameness of everyone, the inextricable connectedness of all beings. That does not, however, diminish the fundamental similarities of the various religions as they were originally conceived. One may try to establish that their way is the right way, their view is the correct view, but the things they do to distinguish themselves, to make themselves appear unique, in my opinion lead them away from the universal shared values of love and compassion.

Flexibility of Mind, Body and Spirit

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” – Everett McKinley Dirksen

A yoga teacher was making a point about achieving balance by keeping flexibility and ease in poses, and avoiding rigidity. While the students were in tree pose (standing on one leg, other leg bent at the knee with the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg, arms raised straight above the head), the teacher wandered the room, lightly poking the students on the shoulder. The students that were rigid, with locked knees and clenched jaws and gritted teeth, would teeter and drop out of the pose. The students that maintained ease in their pose, who were not overly rigid, teetered…but then regained their balance.

Have you ever been in a tall building and felt it sway? If buldings were not designed with flexibility that allows them to move in the wind, they would risk collapse. It’s not much different with us. If we go through life inflexible, unable to deal with anything less than our imagined ideal, we are destined for pain, suffering, and eventually collapse. The ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life, to “roll with the punches,” to “bend in the breeze,” is essential to the presence of mind needed to progress toward enlightenment.

Human-ness and Saintliness

I read a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s brother about the Dalai Lama’s fascination with technology and invention as a child. His brother said the Dalai Lama’s favorite invention was super glue, second only to the invention of the stuff that removes super glue.
Reading that, I was reminded of the thing I love most about His Holiness: his human-ness. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly special person. And he is just a person, like you and me. He often refers to himself as just a simple monk, which he really and truly is. And yet, he also is so much more.

Two of my great spiritual inspirations have been Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Obviously, they were two amazing people. But what first attracted me to them was how they were both very human, with all the frailties that come with being human. I read each of their autobiographies (The Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness, respectively; I highly recommend them) as a young man and was amazed by how flawed Thomas and Dorothy were, how matter-of-factly ordinary, how much like everybody else. Their extraordinary accomplishments and the example they set for me were all the more remarkable in light of their human-ness. I couldn’t believe that these amazing, saintly people were little different from me. That never fails to encourage me