Saturday, January 01, 2011

A Little Bit of Compassion 1

A Crib in a boat in Soverato, a few nights back
A Little Bit of Compassion 1

As we start off 2011 it is no harm to begin this second decade of the 21st century on a positive note, a note of compassion. Having been long engaged in teaching (some 30 years) and in meditation practices (some 20 or more years) and having written a book on my experiences of using meditation techniques with both students and adults, I have long been convinced of the importance of compassion on two fronts, viz., compassion for others and compassion for one’s self. I have also read much from the experts in the field (The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Sogyal Rinpoche and the famous Irish Jesuit, author and spiritual leader, William Johnston); though readily admit the secondary importance of such reading to the vastly more important practice of meditation itself. Like everything in this world the theory will only bring you so far, real life practice will bring you much further. A judicious coupling of both will probably bring you further still. I have written about meditation in these pages before. See this link here: Some Previous Thoughts on Meditation

At the moment I am reading Professor Paul Gilbert’s wonderfully accessible, though typically erudite, book, The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010). Gilbert argues that while we readily accept the importance of showing compassion for others, especially others who are undeservingly down on their luck, we seldom, if ever, show compassion for ourselves. We, certainly those of us in the West, have been taught almost universally to be our own worst critics. Gilbert’s book, to my mind, is a tour de force, which argues cogently and in a very clear manner – indeed in a scientific manner – for the importance and efficacy of showing compassion for the self. Such a compassion for the self will allow us to be more compassionate for others and strengthen our own self-image, our own sense of self, and of course our own self-confidence and indeed competence in the world at large.

As a meditator and spiritual junkie of long standing I have for some time been conscious of the importance of waking up to reality (as the late great Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello put it), of being aware of the call to living in the now, of training the mind to rid itself of distractions by concentrating on the movement of one’s own breath, of quieting the mind so as to arrive at the Still Point of being (hence the title of my blog and that of my book. See this link here: Veritas Book) and a veritable host of other phrases meaning essentially the same thing. And this same point is made in all the great religious traditions, especially in Buddhism, though there are/were movements within all the main religious traditions which emphasise/d the same point to a greater or lesser extent. However, that system of belief, or more correctly that practice of meditation, as devised by the great Siddhartha Gautama, namely Buddhism, most deservedly gets the honoured place for its universal advocacy and continued sound practice of meditation throughout some 2500 years.

Essentially, then, Professor Paul Gilbert is saying nothing new at all.  However, he is essentially doing something new, namely proposing compassion as a scientifically verifiable (in practice and by everyday observation) way of dealing with life which we find ourselves thrown into without any forewarning – a point Gilbert makes again and again in this quite long book (some 592 pages including the index).

This book is divided into two main sections: Part I, which contains six chapters, deals with how science can illuminate the way our minds and brains work and why compassion can be a powerful healing process. Part II, the following seven chapters, like all self-help books and manuals, gives us the usual series of exercises along with lengthy introductions and commentaries that are at once enlightening and inspiring. For each chapter, Professor Gilbert gives us a lucid summary in his introduction. However, the most important point he continually makes is that a solid scientific base can be offered for the practice of compassion both for the self and for others. This the present reader found both instructive and enlightening, though in no sense ground-breaking as Dr Daniel Goleman has already published a scientific work in this area, though with an emphasis on the process of meditation rather than the practice of compassion, with the co-operation of The Dalai Lama and the help of a host of meditators and scientists.

Throughout the text I got the feeling that I was in the company of a pessimist and realist of the Schopenhauerian variety, and I hasten to add that I was in no way disappointed by this fact as I belong very much to the same camp myself.  Sometimes, or even regrettably most times, if the truth be admitted, writers of self-help books can be so saccharine sweet and so presumptuously and preposterously positive that one would think one were reading a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen.  Professor Gilbert reminds us again and again, rather like a Greek chorus, that we were born to be tragic creatures. Again and again he reminds us that we were thrown into life without our will in the matter. This is the Dasein of Martin Heidegger though he never alludes to philosophers at all, his preference being solely for scientists and psychologists. He tells us that we were born to die, that we were marked with the sign of death on our foreheads when we were born. This is humankind’s tragedy. He spends a lifetime building up a home, a family and possessions and then it will all come to dust in his death.

The only way to tackle this thorny question of mortality is by engaging in the practice of compassion for self and others. This practice, while it won’t make us ecstatically happy, will bring us the necessary equanimity to live a fairly content and even prosperous life, though it will always be a contentment that will have to accept that despite its successes, all its efforts will end in final failure, namely death. Now, this message, to this reader at least, is far more realistic that believing in a fairytale world of another life, though I’ll admit that if such brings the reader some measure of hope, please continue to embrace your dreams.

Friday, December 31, 2010

A Timeless Story

The Final Word of 2010

Self at Trevi Fountain, Rome, some nights ago!
 We all instinctively hate the word “final.” How many parents or teachers say to younger or older children, “you’re not allowed to do that, and that’s final!”? We love the word “beginning” and all that it entails: the joy of setting out and all the various expectations of the journey and the almost paradise-like feeling of expectation of reaching our destination. And yet we know that there will be a final setting out and a final destination for each one of us. As Paul Gilbert re-iterates like a chorus in his recent book that I am currently reading, The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010): we were born into this world, neither with or against our will, just found ourselves here as we grew in consciousness of that rather random and chance act of the copulation of our parents (scientifically speaking) – random and chance insofar as any one of many millions of sperm could have fertilized the mother’s egg on any random number of occasions. Thinking about the chances of our arrival in this world could be infinitely deceased if we were to add other factors like the chances of this or that woman meeting one’s father, the chance encounter, the train taken, the job accepted or rejected, the health of either partner etc. Think about that extraordinary infinitesimally small number, one in literally billions when all parameters are added into the equation. Does this mean that we are significant or insignificant beings? I’ll leave the pondering of that question to the good reader of these lines.

Anyway, I am writing these few lines from my family apartment in Isca Marina, a very small seaside town some ten kilometres south of Soverato in Calabria, Southern Italy. Being many miles from my home in Dublin, Ireland gives me some little more objectivity, if not insight, into beginnings and endings this the final day of 2010, that is December 31st of that Annus Domini.

What comes to mind is a story I would like to share with the readers of this blog. It is a traditional American Indian story with not a little insight and wisdom into life. Again I owe the thought of placing this story here both to a pupil I had the privilege of teaching last year and to the author of the above mentioned book. Both used this story in order to get things straight in their minds. With this background given, I hereby offer this story as one suitable for all of us as we end one year and begin another or as we end one task and begin another. As I’ve pointed out in my opening paragraph, every beginning and every ending are always against the background of our mortality.
The Story:

One day an old American Indian chief was walking by the river with his grandson, thinking about what wisdom to impart to the boy, the living symbol of the future generations of his tribe. Finally he told the little boy that our human minds are similar to the river along whose bank they were walking: they were both ever-flowing. But within the water there were different currents, and likewise, said the old chief, there were different and contending currents within our human minds. Then, he used another image from nature to point out the complexity of the human mind – wolves. He continued that he himself, like all others, can sometimes feel two contending wolves in his mind – one is gentle and kind, and is a peace-seeker and a peace-maker, while the other one is angry and aggressive and is a hate-maker and a war-maker. The little boy listened and nodded his assent to these words from the old man’s mouth. Finally, as the story goes, the young grandson looked at the old chief and asked the obvious question: “Who will win, Grandfather?” The old man replied wisely: “The wolf that I feed!”

New Year’s Wish:

So my New Year’s wish for my readers is simple. May you have the strength of mind and the wisdom to feed the gentle and kind wolf within you over the coming year. Auguri tutti e felice anno nuovo da Isca Marina, Calabria, Italia.