OPEN WIDE

by on January 1st, 2015
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This is the tenth and final  post of the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapter thirteen. To find out more or to ask to be part of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.

 

Open Arms

Where does compassion begin?  “In working with the teachings on how to awaken compassion and in trying to help others”, Pema Chödrön  observes, “we might come to realize that compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.”   Her teaching on widening the circle of compassion can be divided into three parts.

1. Ourselves in the World.  She tells us that compassionate action is one of the most advanced practices.  Perhaps this because it is a practice that is not secluded from the world; it is instead a practice amid the world.  And since it includes ourselves there is no false duality of “us and them”.  That means, for example, there is no hatred for “them” without  hatred of “us”. Conversely, there is no loving “us” without loving “them”.  To truly see the other person for who they are whether that be a friend, family member or homeless woman on the street, Pema tells us, “means not shutting down on that person, which means, first of all, not shutting down on ourselves…This means accepting every aspect of ourselves, even the parts we don’t like.  To do this requires openness, which in Buddhism is called emptiness—not fixating or holding on to anything.”  Imagine being totally empty of all the stuff that crowds us with worry, regret, so that we are as open and spacious as the sky.

2. Taking Back our Projections.  Sometimes when we most invest in being compassionate—when we walk the talk— something surprising happens.  We begin to be annoyed by the very people we are acting compassionately toward.  Say, for example,  we offer to do things for the elderly widow next door.  She begins to ask for help in things that are superfluous, we find ourselves tensing up when she calls and come to see has as feeling entitled and we come to resent her.  When we first offered to help her it was perhaps idealistic.  We felt good about ourselves and imagined the happy scenario where we would be saying to friends “she gives so much more to me than I give to her”. But instead we feel taken advantage of.  Pema suggests that this type of experience is universal. She writes, “We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can’t handle them.  This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to benefit others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we’ll be confronted with ourselves.” In the case of our attempts to help the elderly neighbor, the sense of entitlement we see in her is likely a projection of our own sense of entitlement and the subtle manipulation of others.   To accept her selfishness and neediness and loneliness is to accept our selfishness, neediness and loneliness.  At a deeper level we may need to accept the approach of our own waning years and mortality. To reject these things in her is to reject them in us.  Pema suggests that our conditioned response of hanging on too tightly to our own way of seeing ourselves causes pain and one of the main escapes is to project the unwanted parts of ourselves onto others—mostly in the form of blame.   The way to have real compassion for ourselves and others is to practice taking back these projections.  The slogan Pema cites is about taking back our projections, but not to punish ourselves with blame, on the contrary “Drive all blames into oneself” suggests that we take back the these rejected parts of ourselves so we can practice accepting them.  When we deceive ourselves that they belong to someone else we can’t know that they are ours to accept.

2. Taking Back our Projections.  Sometimes when we most invest in being compassionate—when we walk the talk— something surprising happens.  We begin to be annoyed by the very people we are acting compassionately toward.  Say, for example,  we offer to do things for the elderly widow next door.  She begins to ask for help in things that are superfluous, we find ourselves tensing up when she calls and come to see has as feeling entitled and we come to resent her.  When we first offered to help her it was perhaps idealistic.  We felt good about ourselves and imagined the happy scenario where we would be saying to friends “she gives so much more to me than I give to her”. But instead we feel taken advantage of.  Pema suggests that this type of experience is universal. She writes, “We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can’t handle them.  This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to benefit others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we’ll be confronted with ourselves.” In the case of our attempts to help the elderly neighbor, the sense of entitlement we see in her is likely a projection of our own sense of entitlement and the subtle manipulation of others.   To accept her selfishness and neediness and loneliness is to accept our selfishness, neediness and loneliness.  At a deeper level we may need to accept the approach of our own waning years and mortality. To reject these things in her is to reject them in us.  Pema suggests that our conditioned response of hanging on too tightly to our own way of seeing ourselves causes pain and one of the main escapes is to project the unwanted parts of ourselves onto others—mostly in the form of blame.   The way to have real compassion for ourselves and others is to practice taking back these projections.  The slogan Pema cites is about taking back our projections, but not to punish ourselves with blame, on the contrary “Drive all blames into oneself” suggests that we take back the these rejected parts of ourselves so we can practice accepting them.  When we deceive ourselves that they belong to someone else we can’t know that they are ours to accept.

3. The Middle Way. We will never be able take our projections back completely unless we address the core distortion in reality that makes us see the world as “us and them”, “good and bad”, “right and wrong”—that is dualistic thinking.   Many of us feel so compelled to think dualistically that we never even realized there was another way to think. Pema points out, “We make ourselves right or we make ourselves wrong, every day, every week, every month and year of our lives.”  When we feel right, it is helpful to look at it; look at how we want the situation to be solid and permanent and certain; look at how we want to live in a world where we are right.  When we feel wrong we could also look at that; look at the inherent self-judgment; look at the assumption that something is wrong with us; look at how painful this is.  If it wasn’t so painful we wouldn’t try so hard to push it away—driving the blame on to others.  If it wasn’t so painful we wouldn’t grasp so hard at being right. “The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller,” Pema observes. “Wanting situations and relationships to be solid, permanent, and graspable obscures the pith of the matter, which is that things are fundamentally groundless. Instead of making others right or wrong, or bottling up right and wrong in ourselves, there’s a middle way, a very powerful middle way. We could see it as sitting on the razor’s edge, not falling off to the right or the left…It is powerful to practice this way, [otherwise] we’ll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again—to make ourselves or them either right or wrong.

“If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t make things completely right or completely wrong anymore… Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel secure and comfortable.” 

Pema speaks for us in asking some of the big questions such as “How is there going to be less aggression in the universe rather than more?”  “We can,” she tells us, “bring it down to a more personal level, [for example] how do I learn to communicate with somebody who is hurting me or someone who is hurting a lot of people? How do I communicate so that the space opens up and both of us begin to touch in to some kind of basic intelligence that we all share ?

She tells us that it starts with being willing to feel, what we are going through; it starts with being willing to have a compassionate relationship with the parts of ourselves that we feel are not worthy of existing; it starts with being mindful of our pain and our comfort and to practice experiencing them with equanimity. She encourages us that when we even aspire “to stay awake and open to what we’re feeling, to recognize and acknowledge it as best we can in each moment, then something begins to change.”

 

Exercise:

Think of a time recently when you lapsed into blaming.   Ask yourself:

Think of a time recently when you lapsed into blaming.   Ask yourself:

  • What of myself am I projecting on to that person?
  • What desired perception of myself am I holding on to so tightly?
  • What does it feel like to be holding on to myself so tightly?
  • Where in my body do I feel the tightness?

Now think of a time recently when you felt compassion. Ask yourself:

  • What of this person am I taking on to myself?
  • What does it feel like, physically, to feel compassion?
  • Where in my body do I feel compassion?

~~~~~~~~~

I can think of no better way to end this series than by quoting the final sentence of When Things Fall Apart:

 -May these teachings take root and flourish for the benefit of all ~ sentient beings now and in the future.-

~~~~~~~~~

 

Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at phazeltine@gmail.com

 

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