This post is the eighth of twelve in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapter Thirteen. Participants are encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (5 min read)
Where does compassion begin? Pema Chödrön observes,
In working with the teachings on how to awaken compassion and in trying to help others, 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: Ourselves in the World; Taking Back our Projections; The Middle Way.
1. Ourselves in the World. Pema tells us that Compassionate Action is one of the most advanced practices. Perhaps this is because it is a practice that is not secluded from the world; instead, it is a practice amidst the world. Since the world includes ourselves, there is no false duality of me/them. For example, there is no hatred for “them” without hatred of “me.” To truly see the other person for who they are, whether that be a friend, family member, homeless woman on the street, or an enemy. Pema tells us it 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 unpleasant happens. We begin to be annoyed by the very people toward whom we are acting compassionately. Say, for example, I offer to do things for the elderly widow next door. Eventually, she begins to ask for help in situations that, to me, seem superfluous. I find myself tensing up when she calls and come to see her as entitled, and I resent her. It is possible, however, that she doesn’t feel entitled. She may actually see me as just wanting to help and simply accepts my kindness. When I first offered to help, I had an inflated sense of myself as a Kind Person. When I fall short, I feel disappointed in myself and guilty. I project on to her, like a movie projector projects onto a blank screen, an image of entitlement to relieve my feelings of guilt. Simply put, I blame her for my feelings. 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 unresolved issues will come up; we’ll be confronted with ourselves.
In the case of my attempt to help my elderly neighbor, to accept her neediness and loneliness is to allow my neediness and loneliness. At a deeper level, I may need to work on accepting the approach of my waning years and mortality. To despise or deny these things in her is to reject them in me. 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. The way to have real compassion for ourselves and others is to practice taking back these projections. The slogan that Pema introduces us to “Drive all blames into oneself” is about taking back our projections, but not to punish ourselves with blame; we are to take back these rejected parts of ourselves so we can practice accepting them. When we deceive ourselves that they belong to someone else, they are inaccessible to us, and we are unable to work on accepting.
3. The Middle Way. We will never be able to take back our projections unless we address the core distortion in reality that makes us see the world as good/bad, right/wrong—the illusion of dualism that we addressed in the last post. Many of us are so conditioned and feel so compelled to think dualistically that we never even realize there is another way to see the world. 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 weren’t so painful, we wouldn’t try so hard to push it away—driving the blame on to others. If it weren’t so painful, we wouldn’t grasp so hard at being right. Pema observes,
The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller… 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.
The beginning of the end of conflict within ourselves, our relationships, and even between nations 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 begins with being mindful of our pain and our comfort and 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.”
Seat yourself for meditation. Be aware that you are sitting. Next, follow your natural breath for a few moments.
Think of a time recently when you lapsed into blaming someone. Ask yourself:
- What things that I dislike about myself am I projecting onto this person?
- How is it that I am blaming them for making me have these feelings?
- 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 do I recognize in myself?
- What does it feel like, physically, to feel compassion?
- Where in my body do I feel compassion?
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
Next Post: 6/28/20 and will focus on Chapter Fourteen
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series.