What if we could, at all times, strip away all the stories and stick to the truth? What would the truth look like?
Without the stories, all the reasons we think we are right and someone else is wrong, or vice-versa, the truth is actually naked and simple.
The truth is that all our acts are either an expression of fear, or a longing to be loved—without exception what we do, or what we withhold has its origin at these two seeds. Understanding this truth is liberating and it is the path to deep, compassionate living.
One’s ability to grasp and then embrace this truth emerges from practice. When we are faced with a confrontational exchange, an act of hatred and violence, or a betrayal, these are the moments we test our deep understanding and acceptance of this truth. These are the specific moments when we get to make a choice to either feel compassion or to react out of our own fear, our own habits, and our deep desire to be loved. Reaction is habit, responding is thinking—and thinking is focused exercise from which compassion can sprout. All the rest is just mental activity.
I remember a particular story that has helped in my understanding of this to a whole new dimension.
After graduating from engineering school, I was sent to a university in northern Brazil, where I was hired to help establish an energy efficiency center for the campus. I worked closely with the professors in the engineering department, and with the senior college students who were part of the program. Leading this group was Jose, a professor who had, like me, graduated from the University of Colorado, but many years earlier, and who had spear-headed the project with the help of the USAID foundation and the professors back in Boulder. I served as the link between the two schools, and being a native Brazilian, I was also a perfect fit for the project.
Jose and I did not get along very well. At first I thought that the issue was cultural. I had been living in the US for over 10 years at that point, and felt at times that the differences in communication were solely due to the predominant ‘machismo’ culture, specially present in northern Brazil.
I soon realized however, that the issue was not just that. Jose was the only male professor (they were all men as a matter of fact!) who drove me crazy. He micro-managed my work, and used every opportunity to show his higher status in the organization. He never complimented anyone, but seemed to find issues with everyone’s work. Over the months, he and I engaged in some heated discussions.
Looking back, I think I left every one of these exchanges feeling that I was right—I am sure he felt the same way.
Today, when I find myself trying too hard to be right, I know that I am forgetting this essential truth. Had I been able to see past the arguments, what I would have found was the pain, the fear and the longing for love that existed in him. I would have been reminded of my own fears, and my own need to be loved. And, when we are able to recognize that, then the fight is over. The pain within me, is the pain within you—it is the pain within everyone. At that time however, I knew this in theory, but not in the practical sense that was needed to calm me during these exchanges, and help me replace my anger with compassion.
But over the weeks, a colleague of Jose, another engineering professor involved in the project, began sharing stories about Jose’s past. Some of these were recent, such as a tough divorce, cheating, fighting. Some of it was buried deeper, and involved Jose’s relationship to his father and the pain and suffering that he had been subjected to as a child. When I learned of these stories, I felt ashamed for my lack of compassion.
At that time, I believed that Jose’s past, his story, was important—that knowing about it was a necessary element to help me shift my perspective. But, deep compassion is devoid of this need.
Deep compassion is not resultant of our understanding of someone else’s story, it is just simple and raw, and ever present.
When I learned of what had caused Jose so much pain, I was able to shut-down my need to be right—but what I felt then was pity, not compassion. I felt sorry for Jose’s pain and let it slide more often whenever I saw his pain surface in the form of confrontation and other unkind acts.
I left the project after my 4 month contract came to an end and moved back to the US to resume my thesis and begin work at a firm in Los Angeles. Over the years, I would think of him and feel deep sorrow for his pain, and great regret that I had not been able to see past his behavior to the essence of who he was. I thank him, and this experience, because since then, I have tried to arrive at the same place of understanding, but without relying on having to know the story behind it all.
When we can find in our enemies the pain and longing for love, beneath the surface, we release this need to be right.
We do not need to stay put and take in the beating—if we can, we should extract ourselves from the situation, but we can do that without holding on to the need to be right and the negative feelings that come associated with that.
In the Buddhist saying, resentment is like holding on to a hot stone in our hands, waiting to throw it at our ‘enemy,’ but all the while we are the ones being burned. Letting go of that hot stone takes discipline of the mind; letting go of that stone and replacing the feeling of anger and resentment for compassion, that is true awareness.
No one is ever perfect at doing this—we are tested on our forgiving skills all the time.
Learning to forgive, and see past the negativity being projected onto us is like taking a shower, or brushing our teeth—we do not take care of our hygiene once, we do it all the time. And so it is with forgiveness and the practice of living a compassionate life. Of all the practices I engage in everyday, this one is on the top of my list.
When I am faced with what seems like confrontation, and feel tested on my ability to see past my own fears in the moment, I know that I am practicing real thinking and expanding my awareness. I also know that my choice to not react positively impacts myself and those around me.
Pulling the weeds of past resentments is important. As we forgive others—and especially ourselves—from our past behaviors, we prepare the soil of our minds to receive the healthy seeds of compassion and love. And as it is in nature, that which we plant, we collect. But, as in nature, weeds will grow again and again unless we keep our fields clean.
Remember, this practice is a daily ritual, just like brushing your teeth, taking a shower and watering your plants!
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Assistant Ed: Terri Tremblett/Ed: Bryonie Wise