In between all of the band time, I have been taking a course in Contemplative Psychotherapy. My version of fun. This year, we study Compassion. One of my favorite subjects. Lately we’ve been learning about the difference between what Buddhists call relative and ultimate compassion.
Relative compassion is a creation of the mind and of the false self. Therefore, it is subject to all of the confusion and danger that comes from attachment, craving and aversion. We want to help and that want, that desire, immediately clouds our vision in the way that desire clouds our vision whether we are desiring an object or desiring a feeling. We want not just to help, but to see ourselves helping. Desire carries with it aversion, and relative compassion puts our conditioned and biased experiences onto another’s situation. The ego can never truly be compassionate, because the ego is only ever looking to solidify itself.
I have always been empathetic, sensitive to others’ needs, stepping in to help, and with the exception of carrying baby strollers up subway stairs for pregnant women and rescuing animals from Brooklyn streets, it has often ended badly. My intentions were always so good, and yet my empathy usually didn’t see the whole picture, and so what I thought would be helpful usually backfired, or I spent a lot of time and money trying to help, to only realize that I was delaying a lesson someone needed to learn.
An example of this is dealing with a friend with drug or alcohol addiction. I would extend myself to help, sometimes for years, and it was only when I had to draw the hard line and, in my mind, set a limit to my compassion, that they were able to take care of themself.
I see relative compassion so close to creating co-dependency, again because the ego depends on the feeling that the compassionate act will give it. When I had to see myself as the mean friend who threw the person out on the street when I knew they had no place to go, only then could real change happen in that person’s life. It was only when I stopped being attached to the feeling of being Clem the Angel and found a neutral field of truth underneath my own needs that real change could happen for both of us.
Ultimate compassion is what you find when you fall beneath the ego and conditioning. In this place beneath thoughts, emotion, personality, I experience true compassion, an expansive energy that is the field on which we stack our reality. When I live from this place, then I open to truth. Then, when action is required it is not Clem who is piling a big stack of her needs on to the situation, but a deep connection and love that animates her actions.
I was walking the dog down the street after rising from a deep meditation, and I was open and neutral. A man was walking toward me at the far end of the block, and he was screaming at someone or some thing, a barrage of violent curses. He was obviously mentally ill, and yet from the minute my attention went to him I felt peaceful, compassionate, and just held him in my heart as he came down the block, screaming. In this place of truth, I saw that there was nothing to fear.
Everyone on the sidewalk rushed to get away from him, and I just kept strolling, letting my dog sniff about and stop where he wanted. The man came closer and I could see his ragged clothing, his face reddened by exposure, his body tensed with anger, and yet in this openness, it didn’t feel like anger. It felt somehow involuntary, and I could deeply intuit a peacefulness at the bottom of his outburst. He got about 10 feet in front of me, yelling all the way, and then his body relaxed and he looked me in the eyes and said,
“How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m doing okay.”
“Is that a pug?”
“Yep, that’s Henry.”
“He looks like a fat little pug.”
“Yeah, well, food is pretty important to him. Take care.”
He walked past me, calmly, easily. Then, ten feet behind me, he commenced screaming at the world.
I can see that this story could illustrate my descent into nihilism, that I would put my life in the face of a potentially dangerous person without the proper self-preservation instinct. However, at all times I was aware, on the street, in this reality, trusting that I was seeing the situation clearly, continually falling into openness and still prepared to grab the dog and run, should awareness tell me to do that.
More than anything, what I felt was trust in this field of awareness. This man and I were no different in those moments he was coming down the street. I felt open and ready to give him what he needed, and was there for what consciousness would require from me. If he had asked for money, or help, or needed to hurt me for some reason, my response would have come from truth and I would have trusted the response. I would have given him what was in my pocket, crossed the street, protected the dog, whatever reaction was required. I guess he just wanted to have a relaxed conversation for a moment. As we spoke I radiated love for him from the compassion field.
It is not for me to know if that was the best action, but in those moments, it was unquestionably right. Maybe I was just there to give him a moment of non-reactive calm.
Without ego, without reaction, without preference or judgment, one is in compassion. When there is no reactivity, then response comes as it should. When we truly fall into emptiness, neutrality, non-relativity, there is only compassion. It is energy not impulse. It is a field, not action. This energy expands infinitely.
What is really interesting is how much easier it is to be compassionate to others than it is to oneself. On the stage, when I fall out of the moment, what is there is a berating voice, warning of upcoming potential disasters, or negative thoughts of defeat. I’ve always felt that any harsh criticism of my playing could never be as wounding as the things I hear in my head. Anything hurtful you can say about my playing can never be worse than what I’ve heard already, upstairs.
I know by now that these thoughts are my ego, trying to protect me from disaster. I know that it’s that deep layer of shame at the bottom of my personality, nagging me to give up before I begin. I’m grateful that my years of meditation have clued me in to these patterns and have given me a way to step back from them, observe them and let them dissolve.
I guess they will always be there. These patterns of thought, though painful, are comfortable and familiar, and I can’t do anything to stop them. I can stop listening though. I can fall into this open awareness, this sea of compassion beneath the ego and realize that here, it all dissolves. I will play well and I will screw up. I will watch fear and shame, and compassion will dissolve it all. I will play as I will play. I will live as I will live. I will act as I am to act and from this place, it is as it is.
When you let go of the ego you see that there really is no ego, after all. My self is your self, this infinite bliss at the base of all reality. If I see myself as this neutral vibration, then I see you that way, I see all of reality this way, as a vibration of bliss. This is truth for each being. We are that.