compassion

It Might be Time for a Change

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A few months ago, on one of my little adventures in the bush, I had an experience that I just can’t forget. I had decided to go for a walk to explore the bush along the edge of a clearing. The clearing was roughly square-shaped, and I walked along one full edge, intent on checking out the corner, which had some vague interest for me. As I walked, I was pleased to find an abundance of wild strawberries growing in the clearing! I stopped to pick a few, savouring their intense flavour. Along the way, I came across a little pile of cut firewood; someone was obviously going to come back for that some day. The bush was pretty thick, but to be honest, I wasn’t looking into it much. I was distracted by the strawberries.

As I got close to the corner, I could see that there was a little opening in the trees where a couple of them that had fallen down in a wind. With one more step, a flurry of activity erupted from the bush. Grouse — local people call them “chickens” — flew every which way, as though with that one step into the bush I had tripped an invisible laser-alarm, and they could not sit still. I hadn’t seen any of them until they all moved — their camouflage is excellent — and after they flew away only one remained.

This one, lone bird did the strangest thing, this thing that I cannot shake the memory of. It was crouched on the ground, among the fallen leaves, again invisible against the background. It shuffled forward and I could see it again, and it made the strangest sound — exactly like a puppy whimpering. It did it again, a little shuffle and a distinctive whimper. I couldn’t believe how much it sounded like a puppy. It did it a third time, which allowed me to reassure myself that’s exactly what I was hearing.

How strange, I thought, and then realized that there must be a nest of young ones nearby, not yet able to fly away to safety. I was pretty sure I knew where it was — to my left, behind a log and near the point I had seen all the adults fly away from. I was very tempted to walk over and take a look, but the pitiful display of this lone grouse made me hesitate and ultimately change my mind. It had intentionally stayed behind when the others flew away to sacrifice itself to this strange, upright predator. It drew attention to itself with its cries and movement, making sure I could both see and hear it, the pathetic whimper as if to say “eat me, I’m weak and defenseless — an easy meal.” I just couldn’t satisfy my curiosity — to find the nest and see the little ones — after what this adult bird had done for its young.

But not just for its young; for all the young that were in nests nearby. I knew from the number of adults that there must be at least three nests, and this one stayed behind to save the young of them all. You know, all around the world we see incredible acts of sacrifice by people for their children, but not as often for others’ children. I, for one, had never seen such a display first hand, of an animal so willing to die that it would call out to the predator to ensure its strategy of misdirection and ultimately, its sacrifice, would be successful.

There is not much I can say. It was humbling. That grouse showed intelligence, compassion and courage. And it’s just a bird, with a brain no larger than half a walnut. I guess courage, compassion and intelligence don’t have anything to do with brain size, but it does make me wonder if I have been letting myself off easy, not demanding much of myself lately. My idea of an act of courage these days is to go into a crowded room where I don’t know anyone. Compassion consists of smiling respectfully at strangers, whatever state they are in (i.e. sober or not, poor or not), and my intelligence has been primarily engaged in knitting and dreaming up floor plans for tiny houses. I think it might be time for another challenge. I think it might be time for an extreme compassion adventure! It might even be time for a sacrifice, and damn it, I had better not complain, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be whimpering on the ground, hoping the predator will eat me instead of the children nearby. Wow.

I took this photo of a spruce grouse in winter as it crossed our front yard and driveway.
I took this photo of a spruce grouse in winter as it crossed our front yard and driveway.

Celebrating Life

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Today has been an amazing day. Darren and I went to Willie’s funeral today.

I didn’t know Willie directly, but I’ve heard of him lots. He helped out at a couple of the organizations I volunteer with, donating his time and equipment to spray paint some bookshelves, for example. He owned and operated a painting business that painted anything and everything, but mostly interiors. He was known around town to be very helpful, always willing to donate time or help someone out. He was active in his church, and the pastor kept saying how he loved the church, and the people in it. His impact on the community was evident in the number of people there — around 400, we figured, which in a town of less than 4,000 is a lot! (That would be like over 100,000 people showing up for a funeral in a city of a million.) I know his wife a little, and I’m very good friends with one of her very good friends, so I feel a kinship.

Even though I didn’t really know him, I cried a little. What made me cry? Thinking of how Barb, his wife, must feel. Imagining myself in her place, a new widow. Thinking of how the kids must feel.

Darren and I debated about whether to stay for the fellowship afterwards, and we decided to stay at least a little while. We ended up sitting across from some strangers who turned out to be very nice people, and we chatted quite a while, sharing philosophies on life, how to stay out of a rut, that kind of thing. We also chatted with our neighbours, friends, and people we know around town for various reasons. There was a wonderful feeling of community, and although there was some sadness, it was not completely mournful. After the funeral, the interment, and the luncheon, there was a memorial service, which we didn’t stay for; it had an open-mic component and I am sure it celebrated his life even more.

A page from a photo calendar I made (photo by me).

The truly amazing part happened after we got home. My honey and I sat and talked and talked and talked. We talked a little about what we’d like at our funeral or where to be buried (neither of us is very picky), and then we talked about what we had observed at the funeral, how we felt about it, and what the preacher had talked about and how sometimes we related to it and sometimes not. It was all good, some things we just see differently. We both also noticed how we were easily able to just allow others to have their own funeral experience, and not judge or mentally comment on them. Darren said that it’s quite a change for him and an indication of how comfortable he is in his own skin, and I agree! I have come a long way from the awkward, self-conscious, anxious, fish-out-of-water that I used to be in many social situations. I just wasn’t comfortable.  I guess I wasn’t always like that — sometimes, I wonder what my mom thinks when she reads my blog (my dad doesn’t use the computer). Does Mom say “that’s not right!?”  I bet my perception of myself is different from others’ view of me… Mom, feel free to comment any time! But I remember feeling quite insecure and fearful of some social situations.

I think some of my uncomfortable feelings were rooted in a deep inability to handle any kind of conflict between differing points of view. I just couldn’t stand the thought of debating with someone about something personal. If someone became too assertive, I just wanted to run. I’m not really like that any more; I enjoy exchanging views with people, especially if they are able to stay calm and logical, although I am also better able to witness/handle other’s raw emotions, even grief. It’s something I’ve learned how to do by necessity because of the volunteering I do. I’m able to put up a little distance between me and the other person and yet stay engaged in the situation — not withdrawing into a shell or wishing I were somewhere else. Sometimes I have to tell myself “you are not a sponge. This emotion/feeling in the air can go right through you” and that helps me somehow. And I never used to think of myself as very empathetic/touchy-feely, since I was so uncomfortable with others’ emotions, but perhaps I’ve grown in that area too.

Anyways, I just wanted to share that little bit. I will be thinking of Willie’s family, and thinking of ways I can help in the coming weeks and months. There are always lots of people around at first, but that tends to drop off, while the grief yet lingers.

Contradictions

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heavenly-cloudsA conversation with a friend recently, as we relayed our experiences and generally pondered life, reminded me that life is full of contradictions. Here are a few:

Heaven
Believing in heaven (some sort of happy place after death) can create the feeling that life here and now is purgatory — something to be endured, perhaps move up a level, or try to buy a way out of.
In this way, believing in heaven creates discontentment.

little-cemeteryFear of Death
Death is certain, and you’d think we’d have learned how to face it, yet the fear of death is the most universal of all fears.
We don’t like it when we re forced to realize our time on Earth is limited, but it can make us appreciate our life, and all the sweet moments, that much more. Or it can make us fearful, materialistic, and petty.
Many fears can be equated to the fear of death — for example, wanting to be accepted by peers = fear of rejection = life is “over” if we aren’t popular = fear of death. In this way, we blow things out of proportion and amplify our anxiety. And being accepted by our peers (as adults especially) probably just means we know how to toe the line, kiss the right asses, talk the talk, and avoid offending people who are probably too sensitive anyway!
Facing the fear of death is the one thing that gives the most freedom and life, yet most people don’t do it until they are old and don’t have much time left.
Some people seeking eternal youth get plastic surgery that makes them look old and fake. Youth (young people) are natural and real, not old and fake… and they’re also uncoordinated and inexperienced, but for some reason people don’t seek that!

Happiness
The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness but boredom (This from Timothy Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week). Yet I can be bored and happy at the same time (go figure)!
If you can face intense boredom and “stare it down,” you reach a place of happiness and peace.

Meditation and Seeking the Spiritual
Meditation, for long periods of time, is facing boredom (see point above).
If you are trying to “get good at meditating,” you’ve missed the point.
People try really hard to “find God” or connect to Spirit, when it’s omnipresent — everywhere at all times. It’s like searching for water in the ocean!

Compassion
We all have struggles we are going through (or have gone through), so we should naturally be compassionate… yet we aren’t (usually).
When we go through the toughest times, and don’t avoid the pain or deny what’s happening/our feelings, we break through to a place of peace, grace, and compassion (even if the trial is not over).

Children
Those who speak of the innocence of a child don’t know children. They can be extremely manipulative… and I wonder where they learn that!? The things that drive us crazy about our children they probably learned from us!
The people most likely to give advice for raising children don’t have any.  :)

Dealing with Suffering

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I went to the library the other day – it’s a great way to try out books you’re not sure you’ll like – and got an excellent book, The Deeper Wound by Deepak Chopra. It was written after 9/11, as the US was in a state of shock, mourning, fear and anger. The subtitle of the book is “Recovering the Soul from Fear and Suffering” so I had to take it out to read it, to see if I could glean any insight for the book I’m working on (see the About Me section). The rest of this blog is taken from pages 35-38 of The Deeper Wound, and I hope it gives you something to think about when you are faced with your own suffering, or trying to comfort a friend.

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On a practical level, nothing alleviates suffering like reaching out to another person who is suffering. Go and help, be of service if only in the smallest way. Each of us feels timid about reaching out to others; our society speaks of communication but mostly we drift like atoms in a void. It isn’t easy to reach over the walls built around our isolation, but any gesture–whatever you feel safe to do–is a step toward healing.

What if the pain that seems to be yours is not really yours? (And here I do not mean to belittle personal suffering, but only to offer a larger perspective that may help alleviate it.) The truth is that fear and anger exist outside ourselves. They are not yours or mine, unless we attract them. Negativity is an invisible parasite. It needs a host to feed off of, and the host is the ego. When you learned as a young child to cling to my toy, my candy, my pleasure, my happiness, at the same time your ego started clinging to the opposite: my scraped knee, my broken doll, my sadness, my pain. Absorbing an experience as “mine” was how you built your self up, developed a sense of individual identity. As we grew, we learned to see this self in a larger perspective, in the context of humanity. But when tragedy strikes, we often regress to this early state.
To counteract this, we need to find the spirit. For spirit can do one thing that your ego craves very deeply and can’t accomplish on its own. Spirit can help the ego escape that painful trap of I, me, and mine….
Spirit gives us access to an emotion that cannot be felt in isolation–compassion. Compassion comes from the root words “to suffer with,” and for that reason many people actually fear it. An audience member in Boston on a grey drizzly evening asked me, “How can I feel compassion for the victims of this tragedy without having it hurt me? I don’t want to be injured, I want to offer love and peace.” It was a very honest question, and I responded, I hope, on that level.
“Let yourself feel their pain. Let it come into you, and don’t be afraid that you’ll be injured. Trying to keep out someone else’s pain comes from fear for our own safety; in the name of safety we retreat behind our own private walls. Yet the truth is that your pain and the pain of the victims are shared. They make you human together.”
Compassion is one of the most honored and saintly feelings because it marches up to the front lines of suffering and says “Take me.” In this giving of oneself there is a direct experience of pain, yet in the giving there is love. Thus compassion has the power to dissolve pain by not avoiding it, but by trusting that love affords the greatest protection. By discovering that there is a reality–love–stronger than any pain, you mount your strongest defense.The Deeper Wound