Category Archives: Compassion

#1000Speak

Yesterday I was supposed to take part in the blogging event 1000 Voices for Compassion. 1000 bloggers writing posts about compassion, kindness, support, caring for others, non-judgement, care for the environment, etc., all published on the same day (Feb 20th) to “flood the Blogosphere with GOOD!” I first heard about it from my friend Lisa, who has a blog called Flingo. I have a fondness for the number 1000 and as you might already know, compassion is one of my favorite subjects.

But things didn’t go quite as planned. I came home in the early afternoon because Eric was working late and I needed to take the dogs on their second walk. It was supposed to rain and then snow, so we went a bit earlier than usual. My plan was that after we walked, we’d all get in the car, go to the feed store to get dog food and treats, then to the grocery store, and hopefully we’d get back in time for me to finally take a shower (the whole day had been so busy, I hadn’t had time yet), and I’d feed the dogs dinner and write my blog post before Eric got home.

That’s not what happened. At the beginning of our walk, Ringo stubbed his injured toe, and I thought we were going to have to turn around and go straight home, that I might have to take him to the vet after all, but I checked his foot and it was fine, and he went on without any other issues. I however was close to the end of my rope. I’d been worried about him all week. My mind was absolutely fixated on it. It was the same old story — I had myself in knots trying so hard to do the right thing, to not make a mistake, to keep him safe, but was so anxious something would go wrong, was so aware that no matter how much I prepared or how hard I tried, something could always go wrong. I worried I should have taken Ringo to the vet sooner. I worried that we weren’t caring for the cut “right,” that maybe we shouldn’t be walking him so much. I worried it would get infected. I worried that maybe his foot or even the whole leg would have to get amputated. I worried he’d get so sick he’d die. This is how my brain works sometimes, kind and gentle reader. Losing Obi and Dexter to cancer has given me a weird case of PTSD when it comes to my dogs.

I was feeling frazzled. So when Ringo picked up the black knit toddler’s glove he’d wanted to get each time we walked past it, I didn’t tell him to drop it this time. He walks so nice when he’s carrying something that it’s tempting to just let him. Sometimes he finds a plastic water bottle or tennis ball or a single adult sized glove and I let him carry it for as long as he wants. It keeps him occupied (this boy gets bored on walks) and from eating other stuff off the ground he shouldn’t because something is already in his mouth. The kid’s glove was really too small, and I thought to myself “it’s probably a bad idea to let him have that, and for sure Eric wouldn’t want me to let him,” but in the moment I decided that something that would make him walk nicely for me for even just a single block was worth what I thought was a minor risk.

I was wrong. I let him carry it for a block, and as we rounded the next corner, I turned to tell him to drop it. At the same time, a dog in the yard we were passing started barking at us. This next part all seemed to happen in slow motion — I realized the challenge of the dog in the yard had made Ringo decide to swallow the glove. I threw the leashes down and grabbed Ringo, putting my fingers down his throat. I could feel the glove, but my fingers were too short and kept slipping. I couldn’t get a good grip and Ringo was biting down, fighting me. I had to pull my hand out and quickly try again. This time, the glove wasn’t there. He’d swallowed it and was looking at me like “what, Mom?”

He seemed totally fine, and there was nothing else to do but get home as fast as we could. My finger was bleeding and my hand was bruised and scratched up, my breath was shallow and fast, and I was crying a little. I called the vet as soon as we walked in the door and he said that even though Ringo would probably pass it, if I didn’t want to risk it, I could bring him in and they’d induce vomiting so he’d throw it up.

This wasn’t the first time Ringo ate something he shouldn’t have. I knew all too well the anxiety of waiting for something to pass through — rocks, sticks, a wooden peg from one of our dining room chairs, part of a leather glove. Wolverine, Hoover, Danny Glover, Ringo Blue is notorious for eating anything he can get in his mouth, no matter how gross or seemingly inedible. We once had an emergency vet recommend we walk him wearing a muzzle. We laughed at her suggestion, not because we thought it was a ridiculous idea but because we knew Ringo would just try to eat the muzzle. He doesn’t have a bed or blanket in the crate we leave him in when we go to work, and there’s no cover on it. The curtains that used to hang down near his nighttime crate are tied in a knot up high so he can’t reach them and are missing a chunk of the bottom corner to evidence why. I say “leave it” or “drop it” at least 50 times on every walk. Ringo can’t be left unsupervised in the backyard, and even supervised he can only stay out for 5-10 minutes because he’s gets into everything. The only time he gets to play with soft toys is for a few minutes while I’m watching him, taking it away as soon as he starts to try and shred or rip it — I don’t care if he ruins a toy, but any part he chews off, he wants to swallow. We pulled him out of daycare because they weren’t watching him closely enough when he was outside and one day he ate a bunch of rocks and sticks and got sick.

dannygloverI took Ringo straight to the vet. I decided I’d rather get the glove out of him than risk what might happen if we left it in. When we walked in, the girls at the counter called out “Mitten Boy!” One of them took him in the back, and about five minutes later, our vet came up front with a rumpled black glove in a plastic bag.

We ran our errands and I got my shower, but I didn’t write a blog post. I worried that Eric would be disappointed or mad that I’d let Ringo carry the glove, but instead he was grateful I’d taken care of him, got him to the vet. He kept telling me what a good mom I was, that he was sorry I’d had to go through that, was so glad Ringo was okay. I didn’t even beat myself up for it, which is pretty unusual. Usually if something goes wrong, I’m quick to blame myself, smash myself to bits for it, but this time I didn’t. I could see things for how they were. It was a dumb mistake. It wasn’t intentional, and I dealt with the consequences. I’ll know better next time. And of course, I would never hurt Ringo on purpose.

I did freak out a little later, thinking about what might have happened if instead of swallowing the glove, it had gotten stuck where I couldn’t reach it, that Ringo could have choked on it before I could get him to the vet. That’s how life is — no matter how diligent we are, no matter how prepared or careful, we can’t control everything. Shit happens. Every moment of our life comes ripe with risk. We are never safe, even when we imagine we are.

The only thing we can do in the midst of this chaos, the only thing we can trust is compassion. We forgive ourselves when we make mistakes. We let others help us. We are kind to someone who is hurting, comfort them however we can. We try as best we can to ease suffering where we find it. We don’t give up.

Day of Rest: More on Compassion

birthdayorchidsI’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In Feast it was the focus of our week, and Rachel introduced us to Kate Read and her work at Home for the Highly Sensitive. Kate references research on her site that “compares orchids to sensitive folks and dandelions to hardier people.” The suggestion is that someone who is HSP needs more specialized conditions and care to thrive, is more easily impacted by environmental factors including the energy of other people.

I am an HSP. I only discovered the label, the criteria in the past few years, but I’ve always known something was different about me. Actually what I thought for a long time is that I was simply crazy, confused, broken. I felt things so deeply, struggled with feeling raw and tender. I got easily overwhelmed by other people’s energy and my environment. I was told I was too sensitive and that my perception was wrong so many times that I learned not to trust myself. I looked outside myself to know what was “true” and how I was supposed to react. I let external expectations shape me, my thoughts and behavior.

This isn’t just my problem. Anyone living in a Western culture is potentially handicapped by two core and contradictory beliefs: you are basically bad and you are supposed to be perfect.

We assume that we are born basically bad — imperfect, flawed, broken animals. We come into the world with a black mark on our soul (“original sin”), and we must struggle against this fundamental nature even as we believe we will never be able to escape it, at least not without divine intervention. This belief turns our whole life into a desperate cycle of sin, repentance and penance. Every thought, feeling, and action are subject to judgement. We are keenly aware of when rules have been broken, when punishment is justified. We look for who is to blame and we lash out in increasingly aggressive ways. We pray that someone will save us from ourselves, from the conditions of our lives. We feel helpless, bewildered.

We also assume perfection is the goal of all our effort. It is suggested to us that if we work hard enough we can have perfect relationships, homes, children, bodies, and work. And what we can’t achieve through direct effort, we can buy. The external expectation we’ve internalized is that we can be perfect if we just work hard enough and purchase the right stuff. If we aren’t perfect, it’s our own fault. In this way, (because perfection is actually impossible), we live with a constant sense of not being enough, not doing enough, not good enough. This striving for perfection and falling short also breeds comparison and competition, aggression towards the self and the other.

Either way, we can’t win. The antidote to this dilemma, this confusion, to all of it is compassion. And to cultivate compassion, we must begin with self-compassion. We must befriend ourselves, allow space for all that we are, notice how we’ve internalized the assumption that we are basically bad and the expectation that we should be perfect. We can cultivate an awareness of how we get hooked, to notice this and pause before falling into habitual patterns in an attempt to get ground under our feet.

In a recent Daily Dharma Gathering talk, teacher Angel Kyodo Williams suggested,

The doorway to liberation from the tyranny of mind that rejects parts of ourselves is actually being willing to sit with those parts of ourselves [that make us uncomfortable, that we wish away and try to ignore] and allow ourselves to feel the discomfort, to notice the quality of discomfort, to become aware of where this not being okay with parts of ourselves sits in our body, where it is that we carry it.

So rather than moving away, we make space for ourselves, all that we are. We allow things to be as they are. Angel went on to offer,

Allowing ourselves to feel, connect with, and create space for the parts of ourselves that we are most uncomfortable with, that we feel the most aversion to, gives us the opportunity to lean into love for ourselves and no longer be contracted and held in bondage by those areas that we move away from, and because we move away from them we’re not allowing ourselves to experience our whole lives.

In our fixation with perfection, and our belief that we are basically bad, we lose ourselves, we limit our experience.

The most basic truth, the one thing we all have in common, is that we just want to be happy, to avoid suffering. The problem arises in the ways we attempt to create or capture that happiness, the ways we define happiness. We make attempts to avoid suffering, to get safe and comfortable, and we actually end up generating suffering. We are confused about what will make us happy and how to get there. We get hooked, we get stuck, and end up repeating over and over methods that simply don’t work. We fall into blame, judgement, jealousy, depression, addiction, aggression, craving, competition, and self-aggression. We think that perfection is possible, and get caught up in all the ways we fall short of it. We think we are the problem rather than seeing the standard, the search as the problem. We cut off our connection to our basic goodness, our fundamental wisdom, our natural state, our basic nature which is open and spacious and compassionate.

In a free video introduction offered by Sounds True of an upcoming class with Pema Chödrön, The Freedom to Choose, Pema discusses the traditional Buddhist teachings on “Three Difficult Practices,” which are:

  • Acknowledging that you’re hooked, developing awareness
  • Doing something different — choosing a fresh alternative
  • Making this a way of life

It seems to me that I, that we all can apply these practices to all of it: being an HSP, external expectations of perfection, the internal sense of failure and falling short, our avoidance of the things about ourselves that make us uncomfortable, our bewilderment and confused attempts to find happiness and avoid suffering, the ways we generate suffering for ourselves and others — all of it. We can stay with ourselves and notice. We can allow whatever arises, make space for it. When something comes up and we feel ourselves get hooked, starting to move in the direction of habitual patterns, we can pause and notice this too. Maybe we might even choose to do something different. And if not, we can notice that too, without judgement and with gentleness. And we can keep trying, for as long as it takes. This is practice, this coming back, this not giving up. This can be our life, if we choose it. We can make space for all of it, and as Angel Kyodo Williams suggested, “space is love.”