I’ve known for years that an essential stepping stone on the path to realizing our full potential is compassion, but I was amazed – at breakfast during a recent retreat – to watch as layers of confusion were pealed away to reveal the true nature of compassion and it’s enormous power to transform lives.
There are specific meditiation techniques for developing compassion and I had always bristled a bit at that… “Do I really want to have more compassion? Do I really want to feel more of the pain of the people who are suffering all around me?” During the retreat, breakfast in the main dining hall was silent – no conversation. I had finished breakfast one morning, had plenty of time before my next session and was sitting quietly sipping my tea and in a relaxed, meditative mood, my gaze fell on some uninteresting piece of furniture. I was well aware of the people around me – most of them strangers – and gradually, without moving my gaze, my attention widened to include all of the room within the periphery of my vision. I was more and more aware of every person in the room. I was also aware that I always have conditioned reactions to anyone I see, – “oh he looks intelligent”, “she looks like an interesting person”, “I don’t think I’d want to get to know him,” “wow, she’s hot…” But these reactions were falling away like scales, leaving me sensitive, vulnerable, alive and connected. I was still aware of individuals – a blue shirt over there, red there, a tall person, a large person, short, young, thin, old…but there was no judgment or emotional content in this awareness. Most surprising, I began to get the uncanny feeling that these were not individuals but One Person, and it’s not quite correct to say that I was observing the One Person, that I was part of the the One Person, or even that the One Person was me. It was more like there was no me.
I knew that soon I would get up to go to my class and, finding the situation quite fascinating, I began to look around at faces. I smiled at how easily I could let reactions fall away, at the tremendous sense of compassion I had for every person I saw, yet with no inclination to feel sorry for a sad face or even glad for a happy one. I laughed at seeing this unfamiliar way of connecting with others. As I contemplated the fact that I would be in the proximity of many new faces in the coming days, even if just in passing, I realized that these moments of contact might be quite new and interesting. As I thought about meetings in which I could leave all my emotional baggage behind, all I could think of was “I don’t have to have a long term relationship with you, I don’t have to sleep with you, I don’t have to have a conversation with you, we don’t even have to make eye contact, but I can love you as deeply as I love anyone, and though I will probably never see you again, in this brief moment – whether you know it or not – we have become good friends.
Then I thought of an experiment. In the coming days I would pay particular attention to the people around me and I would try to find an un-beautiful face. It was the most entertaining game I’ve ever played. Many times throughout the day I would smile, or grin or occasionally burst out laughing because I found that I could not do it! Every time I allowed my conditioned responses to fade into the background – not disappear but simply fall away – I would see not only a face of tremendous beauty, but it was as if a door had opened giving me a glimpse into the heart of a being with infinite capacity for love, compassion and joy. In that instant there would often be a conception such as “This person seems sad”. But as I looked deeper I would see that she is just contemplative, and serious, but maybe quite contented. “This person seems upset – no, just old. Perhaps he’s had a stroke some time ago.” “She looks happy – no, that smile seems to hide some deep hurt.”
The day after I returned home I had to make a trip to the hardware store, and driving down the street I saw way ahead, walking toward me on the sidewalk, an old man shuffling along, bent over, a face contorted with grumpiness – a curmudgeon if ever I saw one. “Aha!” I thought. “A chance to find one un-beautiful face!” Just as I passed him I glanced over and in a split second saw him turn toward me and smile. I laughed and laughed at what a fool I am to have missed so much. For all the years I’ve spent trying to figure this out, it is astounding to see that if I just leave my Self at home and see what is actually in front of me, there is compassion in abundance, everywhere.
Next Clue: Warnings and Confessions