The Compassion Challenge

There are few moments in the past 15 years, since beginning to practice mindfulness that I have felt outmatched by the challenges to my equanimity.

But the current political situation here in the U.S. is putting my practice to the test and I could really use the support of my friends and colleagues in the field to support me through what I am experiencing. This is not about who to vote for, or who not to vote for, but something even bigger and more timeless than that. It is about how to have compassion for the people we find truly, profoundly, deeply repugnant and fearful.

I am frequently inspired by Miller Williams’ poem entitled Compassion:

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

I admit that I “do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone” in Donald Trump, but I also am struggling mightily to bring my compassion practice to bear on this man. I have practiced Loving-kindness meditation many, many times over the years, and guided others in the practice, often incorporating “the difficult person” into that practice, but never have I found it so difficult to do so as I have with him.

When I am intentionally cultivating compassion and invite him into awareness the well runs dry, so to speak. I simply cannot connect with my usually-present wellspring of compassion because of my gut-level emotional reaction to him and his behavior. Perhaps this is not far from what a victim of violence might feel toward his or her perpetrator, but for me, this is a deep and disconcerting struggle.

In less reflective moments, I find myself musing wistfully about actual physical harm befalling this obviously wounded man, and that is also entirely unfamiliar. And frankly quite jarring and unsettling to boot.

I find myself mirroring the name-calling, ridicule and disparagement and simultaneously not wanting to be stooping to that level.

When I see the way all sides in the political debate retreat into divisive tribalism, name-calling, blaming and bigotry, there is a very deep part of me that does not want to be swept up in it as well. I know my strong opinions play a role here, but how do I find a way to bob on the surface of this tidal wave of hatred and fear and be able to truly look deeply inside and know that I have met difficulty with a truly open heart? This practice can’t only “work” on the easy, the mundane, the routine and the familiar. It has to hold us up and carry us through when the stakes are truly life-altering, if not outright life-threatening. How do I find my feet in this tsunami of reactivity and find a way to navigate forward with some sense of clarity, wisdom and most of all, compassion?

And once my feet have been located, the big question for me is about the way forward. Is there an action that can rise above my reaction? There is the practice of “fierce compassion” that calls us to mobilize when there are wrongs that need to be righted, as Sharon Salzberg says “to feel outrage when it arises . . . and to cultivate power and clarity in response to difficult situations” but it’s that clarity that that seems remote and inaccessible at this pivotal moment in history. I find myself mirroring the name-calling, ridicule and disparagement and simultaneously not wanting to be stooping to that level. I have to admit that I’m a bit ashamed that I find myself doing this and that has my head spinning. My options feel narrow and mostly insignificant. I am overcome by fear and easily seduced by the fleeting pleasure inherent in schoolyard taunts and snide Facebook posts.

I don’t know what to do except to breathe, to give myself compassion for the fear and terror that rises in me for the future, for myself, for my friends, for my children and for this planet

I have to say I was inspired by what appeared to be a throwaway line in President Obama’s convention speech: “Don’t boo. Vote” That sums it up but I’m left asking if this is enough. Just silently voting seems so incredibly small, which is how I actually feel, when I think about it. And I want to be bigger. Bigger than this small self of mine, bigger than the rhetoric and the bigotry, big enough to hold myself tenderly and soothe my trembling heart.

I don’t know what to do except to breathe, to give myself compassion for the fear and terror that rises in me for the future, for myself, for my friends, for my children and for this planet. Maybe this is enough, to collectively take a moment (and a breath) to pause and let the visceral reaction to this predicament run its course, so that collectively we can breathe out together and do what needs to be done. I take some small comfort in knowing that many of us across this country and around the world are also feeling some version of this dread and that we share the common humanity of that experience. But somehow that isn’t enough to sustain me. What is a person to do? I really don’t know.

 

 

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