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The Heart’s Pure Instinct

COMPASSION … We had just checked our bags at the airport when I see about a dozen guys in tan khakis. We get closer and I read the words Emergency Medical on their shoulder badges. I ask where they’re heading.

Puerto Rico. We’re replacing a team that’s been there a while. He seems glad to be going. I say, Good luck . . . and thank you.

Meanwhile, we are leaving Atlanta after three days of good food and conversation, happy strolls under tall trees and a gentle October sun, and much laughter. After hide ’n seek, tricycle races and bedtime stories with a toddler, and basking in the pure bliss of baby’s smile, we are heading back to our safe, comfortable, peaceful home.

Home. So close and yet so far from Puerto Rico, Dominica, Houston, and Santa Rosa  . . . from the Congo, Sri Lanka, China, Peru, Afghanistan . . .  from monsoons, mudslides, fires and earthquakes, typhoons, and wars. So close and yet so far.

Sometimes the suffering of others seems huge and unfair . . . and hugely unfair while my good fortune seems unmerited and almost embarrassing. And sometimes the idea of Karma just feels mean, doesn’t it? Yes, to look deeply at my own thoughts and actions to better understand my part in any event is helpful to me and is part of being accountable to myself. Still, I have no right to impose that scrutiny on anyone else’s life. The only response to others’ suffering that makes any sense at all is compassion. The only response that is both natural and always justified is compassion.

So what is compassion? Today, my definition is this: Compassion is the energy that reveals the heart’s pure instinct, its kindness and its faith, toward all our relations. To simply be present with others, feeling a natural kindness toward them and having faith in their ability to be with, work with and learn from whatever Life is bringing them. All these aspects of compassion—presence, kindness, faith, love—are states of awareness that already part of our deepest nature, our Buddha-nature, our Inner Being. So sometimes, by grace, we will just drop into these states. But because we’ve grown many-layered shells around our Inner Being, it’s also good to see these aspects as skills that we can practice and improve on.

One way to practice is, of course, notice when you’re not feeling present or kind or trusting and then intentionally make a shift through prayer or meditation or affirmation. But another way to practice is simply to take note of them when they’re happening. That is, enjoy the awareness and the beauty of compassion, of being present, of feeling kindness. Take note and enjoy the joy of loving.

PRESENCE …  Our first day in Atlanta: I am walking into the kitchen when I glance through a window into the backyard just in time to see a huge hawk turn his head and meet my gaze. He is sitting, human-like, in a chair. After annointing me with his untamed eyes—and bringing me completely into the present moment, he takes off through the neighborhood on wings wider than I am tall. I run to the window to see him swooping under tree branches and over backyards all the way down the block. The thrill of his wildness stays with me for hours.

KINDNESS  …  Two days later, James and I watch the next-door neighbor mow her small front yard with a push mower. My blue-eyed grandson is mesmerized. She says when he’s a little bigger, she’ll hire him to do this. To me, to smell the fresh-cut grass and to hold his small hand as we lean against the car and watch—is everything. I feel the kindness in the neighbor’s words, in the soft light of late afternoon, in everything green and growing, and in the way Mike teaches James to do push-ups and sit-ups. I feel the kindness in the way my daughter and her husband care for their little ones and entrust their care to me. 

FAITH . . .  Last morning in Atlanta: James stands on the low stone wall between his family’s and his neighbor’s backyards. He is carefully shoveling some good dark soil from a large terra cotta pot into the dump truck (aka my hand). Then the truck drives around the valley road (the rim of the pot), crosses the invisible bridge to the next pot and dumps the dirt onto the roots of the tomato plant. We listen to the three green tomatoes on the vine say thank you. Then my hand drives back around the rim of the Earth for another load. Because this is how things grow, and how the world works.

LOVE …  It’s Sunday night and, lying in my husband’s arms, I marvel to him at how good people are. I can tell, I say. But we can’t go around in awe of each other’s goodness and beauty—if we did, we’d never get anything done and we so love to get things done! But really, I think this extreme lovableness of humans is there, just waiting for a reason to excape its conditioning, its shell of nice, boring normalcy. And when and if we scratch the surface, we find a hero.

We’re heading to Puerto Rico, he said.

We’re here to love . . . is what I hear.



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