Compassion or Despair

“What Motivated You ?”

“It is just like a person who is on an extended journey along a long road. Becoming sick halfway [or perhaps he has had an accident], he is exhausted and suffering extremely. He is alone and without a companion . . . .  Suppose a person comes and, standing to one side, sees that this traveler on an extended journey along a long road has become sick halfway [or has fallen]. He is alone and without a companion . . . . 

“[The second person thinks]: ‘ If he were to get an attendant [or an ambulance], emerge from being in the wilderness . . . and were to be given medicine and be fed with nourishing and delicious food, be well cared for, then in this way this person’s sickness would certainly subside.’” (AN 5 162 at AN III 189).

I had a phone call earlier this month from a man who works in the communications and public relations department of the rehab center I was in last year after my bicycle accident. He’d heard that I was happy with my treatment there, and he wanted to interview me to get a fuller sense of my experiences at the facility. He assured me that it would take about fifteen minutes. I was skeptical and hesitant at first, because I now know that there are very few options for “acute rehab” in our area and that, given the nature of our current healthcare situation, patients are usually sent to whatever one has a bed available. I did want to go to this one, but there was no guarantee I would get there––I was lucky that a bed opened the day I had to leave the hospital. I don’t think a marketing campaign is really needed in this situation. However, I am very grateful for the excellent care I received, so I agreed to talk with him. I honestly didn’t suspect that the conversation would be as thought-provoking and therapeutic as it was. Maybe neither of us did. We spent over an hour talking. 

He began with questions about the accident itself. So I started explaining how on September 3 of last year I was lying on a damp bike path with the darkness of evening steadily approaching and no help in sight. I told him how I was reflecting on death and on the ten Perceptions of Girimananda (and their distortions), while practicing mindfulness of the in- and out-breath, mixed in with on-the-spot metta, compassion, joy, and equanimity. I didn’t tell him about it in those very words, though; I told him about it through stories. I talked about pain and about the details of my attending to my own care needs within the relational framework of the personalities who were caring for me, and of the limitations of the care system. I spoke of friendliness and kindness as my primary intention and responsibility––and how these wove in and out of my healing. I spoke about the focused work required and about the joys. Our conversation unfolded much in the vein of “Alice’s Restaurant”: stories and reflections. There were sometimes tears in my eyes and uncomfortable tremblings in my heart.

About midway through our talk, he asked me a question that I had not thought about before: “Why did you do it?” He clarified that for me with, “Why did you put forth effort in these ways to get well?”

I began to understand his question as “What motivated you?” 

“Well,” I answered, “Don’t we always just do our best to get well?” Is this even a question? It feels obvious that we do, but, in truth, sometimes we don’t––in fact, often we don’t. Some of us can’t motivate ourselves to practice meditation daily, for example. Or we can’t do the PT exercises or take the walk we intended to take. 

What about you? What is it that leads you to act on behalf of your own well-being? Or not to act, if that is the case?

Neurobiologist Dan Siegel reported that a group of physicists once defined energy as “that which makes the potential actual.” In Buddhist teachings wise effort is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. It refers to the energy that is used in service of wholesome behavior, i.e., that behavior which leads to the well-being of ourselves and others. I think this idea relates to my experiences at rehab last year. I think that why I did those actions has something to do with wise effort and with compassion and, interestingly, with not-self, anatta.

Ajahn Chah, a great Thai Forest meditation master, is purported to have said that 80 percent of the unskillful behaviors we do, we know are harmful to ourselves or others. He said we continue to do them because we don’t have enough “wisdom factor”––meaning that we don’t really see the depth of the suffering we are creating for ourselves and for others. Probably the actions that we are doing that accelerate the climate crisis are like this. We don’t see clearly.

Do our actions stem from wisdom, compassion, or despair-desperation? Why do we act wisely when we do? Why don’t we in those times we don’t?

I included the simile from the Buddhist teachings at the beginning of this essay as a way for us to possibly begin to frame an answer to the public relations man’s question. Bhikkhu Analayo uses this story repeatedly in his writings to explain how compassion is understood in early Buddhist teachings. Compassion in this context is not considered to be the same as “feeling another’s pain as one’s own”: that is, empathy. In the story of the man stranded on the road, the second person simply sees this other person’s dukkha––the distressful, challenging situation that has arisen––and when he does, at the very same time he understands immediately that there is something that can be done to improve the situation. He just knows this. Often such a person has the impulse to do that helpful thing. This is the compassion element: the confidence that something can be done to alleviate the harm, which is often coupled with the impulse to do that very thing––ASAP. Energy is aroused in this person, and, sometimes, there is an accompanying feeling of joy.

“Mindfulness is the ingenious method of turning an obstacle into an object that can be known.”

–– Bhikkhu Analyo, Satipatthana: The Direct Path.

I think it was mindfulness that allowed me to see myself as a person stranded on a road, far from home, all alone. I felt the pain and knew the fear, but I didn’t identify with them. I somehow knew that further harm could be eliminated, and, to some degree, I understood how that might be accomplished. As my bike and I were in midair, I heard the fully formed thought, “Meditation is mind control.” In another moment, I might have questioned that phrasing and tried to find another way to word that thought; but I knew in my heart what it meant. I had to take care to not let my mind run rampant when I hit the ground. I had the necessary tools that could restrain such behavior and to help “not make it worse.”  And, with “not making it worse” underway, I stepped onto the path of healing––not knowing, really, how it would unfold, but knowing it would. 

Even as I practiced meditation and wise reflection, I cultivated a deep, visceral letting go––a relaxation in my body, heart, and mind. I accepted the faith that was offered in the well-practiced thought: “My life can take care of itself.” I opened my arms wide and received all the compassion, kindness, and wisdom that were spilling towards me––from within and from without: so many people rallied to help me. I was and am extremely grateful for all of it, and sometimes I even rejoice thinking of it. So, I can answer that PR man’s question by stating that, through seeing the situation on the bike path clearly––both the harm already done and the potential of more harm arising––an innate, compassionate urge arose in me and I acted. Or maybe it is easier to explain than that. Maybe it is in the letting go that that the wise energy arises.

Forty-three years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed in great physical pain and even greater mental fear and confusion, having just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. At some point in the struggles, I just gave up and fell into a mantra-like meditation I’d been practicing. I was too weak to do anything else. It was then that I noticed that the body had not given up. I could actually feel that every cell in my body wanted to live and that each one was doing its best to survive. Maybe that is the answer to why (or how) we act on our own behalf and in support of the well-being of others. Maybe when the mind quiets down, there is both a knowing and an energy.

What is it that motivates you? How do you nourish wise action? What is driving your actions in response to bodily pain, disability, or illness? What helps you to act in the face of the challenges your neighbors and friends and family face? What about your actions in regard to climate change? To national and global crises? Are you motivated by compassion or despair––despair with its faces of greed, anger, delusion? How do you calm and quiet the frenzied confusion of your own heart/mind in challenging situations?

“Only death is certain.

The time of death is unknown.

What shall I do?”

–– Traditional Buddhist Inquiry  

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