Saturday, October 29, 2011

Learning Compassion

Immediately, when I read or hear the word, "compassion," I think of the two aspects of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to achieve nirvana, wisdom and compassion.  A Bodhisattva is a follower of the Buddha, one who wishes to throw off the shackles of attachment to worldly goods and thoughts, to help others, to achieve moksha, or freedom from the cycles of life and become one with the universe.  These two attributes are most difficult to learn, and even more difficult to put into practice. 

One personal goal I hoped to achieve by leaving my professional track in the information sciences was that of compassion.  I wanted it, and not like a new bicycle or bag of apples.  I wanted it like one wants a good pair of jeans or a cashmere sweater, something to last a lifetime and something that gets forgotten about but used all the time.  I sincerely desired to become a more compassionate person, as opposed to the cerebral, clinical, critical cynic that I am.  It was paramount at that time to make a foolish financial decision by leaving my student loan debts, contacts, career and home behind in favor of a period of personal growth and diminished physical goods.  The rationale was that I could always work, but I could not always be so unemcumbered to embark on such an adventure.  And I don't regret it.  I'm just wondering what happened to the zeal I had for wanting to soften up and get to my underbelly, to live in the bottom of the pot of human need and emerge with a new sense of humanity.

Lately, I have been reminded of my cruel humor and that I delight in others' failure.  While this may sound terrible, it is true.  I just can't wait to point out what someone has done wrong, and find it hard to hold my tongue.  I just want to give everyone advice, as if my thinking and knowledge are the right ones.  What about those lessons I learned in rural South Africa, about the importance of family, and looking out for one another as fellow humans, giving attention to a child because maybe nobody else does?  What about all that listening, and time spent observing and helping, rather than being the first to criticize?  There were entire days that would pass in SA where I wouldn't speak more than a greeting, and I sure did an awful lot of helping.

One theory is that, because the pendulum swung so drastically from "free, selfish American" to "poor, stranger, volunteer" it's now swinging back to the selfish American side again.  Instead of softly and gracefully transitioning back to this cushy, wasteful lifestyle, I whirled like a dervish into it, thrashing about, trying to find my way amid a cespool of wasteful gluttony, gasping and grasping at whatever I could find that seemed normal. 

Another is that, by choosing to live with my family, with whom I had not addressed several deep and large issues from the past, I compounded my difficulty of readjusting to American life, and have been failing miserably at achieving my goals because I just couldn't hack it.  I really only have those two theories, so if you have a better one, please send it my way.

By becoming a mother, I automatically have more compassion for babies and children, as this is a biological necessity for survival, I think. I must be sensitive to the needs of my child or he will not prosper, and that just makes sense from a scientific perspective.  Crying means something is wrong, whether it be company, diaper change, hunger, or sleep.  Movement indicates development, so once he starts moving a lot I must be more careful where he lays, such as, not from a high ledge or near anything sharp or precariously balanced.  Ok, that makes sense.  But I'm trying to make sense of this set of values that is cruelty/compassion, and that is not as clearly sensible.

In one of my classes in "library school," I enjoyed learning about information seeking behavior and sense-making.  All queries, informal or formal, are a person's way of making sense about the world.  As we study the different ways people can come at a problem, we can understand a lot more about them and about the discipline of information management (new term for library science) as a whole.  One big surprise to me was that most people, especially professors with doctorate degrees, will first ask a colleague when they need a question answered. That's right, they want to talk to a human being, not an encyclopedia, or a peer-reviewed journal, a buddy.  Medical doctors are the same way.  So now, physicians bring laptops or notebooks into the exam room and record their info into your digital chart, but you know what?  Even though they have access to the internet, to look up medical information in journals or or whatever, they don't do it.  They go next door to consult with their colleague or they rely on their memory to give you the information you need.  The South Africans I lived with placed their trust entirely in those with authority for their information seeking.  Need help with a tea, go ask the sangoma (traditional healer).  Want someone to help you fix the water, go ask the kgosi (chief).  Need help with your homework, go talk to the legkoa (white person).  It was pretty simple, you ask the person who knows.  You don't go to the internet and "google it," or ask around until you get the best deal. 

So far, what i have done to feed my query is the following:  sought out books, documentaries and web sources to remind me what is important i.e. sustainable food and living, composting and gardening, living a life of little carbon footprint.  I have been in communication with friends who are compassionate and seek the same kind of higher living and thought.  I have asked trusted family members to help me with my quest, and engaged them in some difficult conversations.  The key, it seems, is awareness.  Now that I am again aware of my quest, and aware of my shortcomings, I can begin to achieve success in my goal.  I don't see this as a terminal quest, but one that will take a lifetime.  Sometimes the task seems daunting, but mostly I see it as an exciting challenge.  The tough part is trying to explain to people how the moral compass fits into life outside the box of religion...

1 comment:

  1. i read this yesterday. hard questions you have. then i started reading this book, and you know how much i like epigrams, "radio shangri-la: what i learned in bhutan the happiest kingdom on earth" by lisa napoli (a fair book, kind of light on substance, but entertaining)
    from "the preliminary practice of guru yoga"
    grant your blessings so that confusion on the path
    may be eliminated.
    grant your blessings so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.
    please bless me so that i may liberate myself by attaining realisation.
    bless me so that i may liberate others by the strength of compassion.
    may all connections i develop be meaningful."

    i am not sure who the petitioner here is asking all these "favors" of, but i suppose it is more of a self-motivating mantra?
    here is the radio station jingle, the station the author went to bhutan to help out:
    "we are the station that makes you smile.
    we can help you walk a mile.
    and even when you stop and think
    we can make you dance and sing.
    always do your thing, on kuzoo FM.
    always do your thing, on Kuzoo FM.