Monday, September 27, 2004

Compassion Heals

I'm reading a book now by Pema Chodron called "The Places That Scare You."

My meditation teacher turned me on to it. When she first told our meditation group about it, I thought: "Yipes, even the title is scary. Do I really want to read that?"

Anyway, it's really all about embracing the hurt, the fear, the depression or anxiety from which we tend to run. Chodron's not saying we should revel in feeling depressed or anxious, but rather to accept it as part of our human experience, just as we accept happiness, joy, peace. Her point is that when you learn to accept and be with these emotions or difficulties...they become less immense, less daunting to our experience.

Early on in her book she talks about a Buddhist concept called bodhichitta, which is defined as our innate ability to recognize pain in others and feel compassion. Bodhichitta wells up from within. It is God within, if you will, and it enables the hardest of hearts to connect--on at least some level--with others.

I recognize this. I feel bodhichitta especially when I see other people doing divine things, some little charity -- like the time we were at a barbecue in a park, and I saw my mother pile on a plate of food for a homeless man. I feel it, too, when I'm around children and I'm just surrounded by their innocence.

I also thought of something I recently saw that touched my heart deeply and brought out a whole room full of bodhichitta. I was spending the weekend away in the country with a friend and her two children. The youngest is a four-year-old girl -- a precious angel and very affectionate and sensitive.

One night, we were playing a board game on my porch. Outside, it was thundering, and the house actually shook with each strike. It was pretty wild out, and I had two old oil lamps lit because I knew it was just a matter of time that the power would fail.

We took a break from the game to peer out the window at the bursts of lightning that stretched across the black sky. Each time a long finger of lightning struck it would momentarily reveal the shape of the far off mountain tops and valleys below. We were awe-filled.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the little girl put her hand on the chimney of the lamp. It was of course very hot, but not being used to the workings of such antiques, she was unaware that it would be hot.

What happened next made me want to cry -- the humanity of it. She recoiled from the touch, and yelled "owwww." Then she stretched out her two arms and said, as if to hold us back from rushing to her side, "I'm okay...don't worry!" But no sooner did she get out the last syllable of that short sentence when she buried her head in the chair and sobbed.

We all jumped from our seats to comfort her, and we carried her in the house and ran her hand under cold water and put ice on it. She was indeed fine, and she didn't need medical attention. Nor did the burn cause blisters.

I think what brought out my bodhichitta, aside from feeling compassion for her pain, was her attempt at placating us initially. Perhaps she was afraid she'd be scolded for touching something she wasn't supposed to. Or, perhaps she just didn't want us to worry about her or make a big fuss. Maybe she was embarrased. But, as the pain became too great for her to hide, she acknowledged it and cried out for her mother.

The range of emotion she displayed in three seconds brought me to tears.

And if I can have bodhichitta for this little girl, can I have it for myself?

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