Compassion  —  The Body Speaks

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series The Body Speaks

Com­pas­sion is a mis­un­der­stood word. Com­pas­sion is some­times equat­ed with “feel­ing sor­ry for,” and is often used as a blud­geon… “If you had an ounce of com­pas­sion, you’d look after me and do what I want.” And yet, in the Zen world, the com­pas­sion­ate act could be a kick in the ass. It’s often abrupt, and direct, and challenging.

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Look­ing for more on this topic? 

Check out my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

Wayne’s “East­ern” book takes you by the hand and helps you to find peace of mind. Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall is a Zen-based guide to liv­ing life ful­ly and deeply.

Today, we turn to the Heart (4th) Chakra zone  —  the zone of Compassion

Per­haps it goes with­out say­ing, but let me say it anyway.

This series, and pretty much everything else that I write, has to do with self responsibility.

It’s scary out there!

Per­haps the great­est error that peo­ple make is to assume that their prob­lems, solu­tions, pas­sions, and dis­ap­point­ments are some­how con­nect­ed to some­thing “out there.”

We propose an alternative.

Accept every­thing, and deny nothing.

Notice, I did­n’t say “approve of” every­thing. We still live in a phys­i­cal uni­verse, and some stuff needs to be avoided. 

On the oth­er hand, I con­sid­er it the height of dumb to walk around like Mary Pop­pins, whistling hap­py tunes, and hop­ing that the big bad world will sud­den­ly behave itself, prefer­ably in Technicolor.

It’s an interesting walk, this. 

It is “very Zen” to talk about what is, and what is not real.

The short form is that the only thing that is “real” is the here and now, or the present moment.

Past and future are just sto­ries we tell our­selves.
And the joke is, we don’t even have a self.

Brad Warn­er, wrote a book called “Sit Down and Shut Up,” which is a fol­low-up to his quite excel­lent “Hard­core Zen.”

Here are a cou­ple of quotes.

Self is just a men­tal con­struct, an idea, a way of under­stand­ing real­i­ty, a slot with­in our heads into which we place a cer­tain por­tion of what we experience.” 

Sit Down and Shut up, Page 21

There is some­thing, some seg­ment of the vast and wide uni­verse, that you carve out and call “self” and say belongs to “you.” It’s an odd idea, you know, that “you” belong to “you.” When you were very young, you noticed this aspect of the uni­verse, and your par­ents and teach­ers and friends all told you in overt and sub­tle ways that this some­thing was your unique “self.”…
You accept­ed this expla­na­tion and based your inter­pre­ta­tion of all your expe­ri­ences on this way of look­ing at things.
…Bud­dhists claim to have dis­cov­ered that this ordi­nary and near­ly uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed way of look­ing at things is absolute­ly untrue…
And they say that if we throw away this false view of things,absolutely every aspect of our lives will become immea­sur­ably better.” 

ibid. pp25-26

Warner’s book is an exploration of the writings of an old Zen master named Dogen.

Dogen reminds us to always come back to “this con­crete place.”

This con­crete place is the present moment –
the only thing that is “real” and “for sure.”

Let me quote Warn­er again.

Notice he says, “come back”  —  as if we had some­how left the con­crete place where we are right now. How can we ever leave where we are? But we do it all the time. In fact, most of us are sunk so deeply into our own men­tal images that we can bare­ly even rec­og­nize where we are any­more. We need to learn to come back to a place we have nev­er left. It’s absurd. But that’s the way it is.” 

ibid. Page 26

So, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the heart.

Well, there are two things to talk about. First, the heart area, on the chest side, is sort of like a lay­er cake. Many, many emo­tions lie dor­mant and unex­pressed in this region. It’s not unusu­al, when press­ing into this zone, to see sad­ness and grief, anger, then laugh­ter emerge, one after the other.

If you shift to the upper back, specif­i­cal­ly the back shoul­der mus­cles (exclud­ing the top of the mus­cle) and the mus­cles that lie to either side of the spine between the shoul­der blades, you get all the respon­si­bil­i­ty stuff.

Or per­haps bet­ter put, the over-respon­si­bil­i­ty stuff.

Our language conveys the dual nature of each side of the body.

On the chest side, we get com­ments like,

  • Her heart was­n’t in it.”
  • It’s hard to trust enough to be openhearted.”
  • He was good hearted.”
  • Of course, appar­ent­ly, hearts swell, and are bro­ken.
  • And true feel­ings are heart­felt.

On the back side, we

  • Shoul­der burdens”
  • Get our backs up,
  • are either spine­less or “have spine.”

– all expres­sions of will­ful­ness, or the lack of it.

Because the heart has always been con­nect­ed with love, (and boy, there’s a mis­un­der­stood word,) and because of the delud­ed belief that we love the oth­er per­son (as opposed to our inter­nal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the oth­er per­son) we think that love is some­thing we “do” to others.

In our view, love is simply one more way of being in the world.

Love is actu­al­ly a verb  —  an action  —  a way in which I choose to engage with the world.

Sitting with compassion

Here’s anoth­er way of look­ing at it. I’m always try­ing to find a ref­er­ence on Google to the facial expres­sion that is com­mon­ly seen in paint­ings and on stat­ues of the Bud­dha. I know I read this some­where, but the Bud­dha’s smile is called, “The smile of infi­nite compassion.”

Now, com­pas­sion is yet anoth­er mis­un­der­stood word. Com­pas­sion is some­times equat­ed with “feel­ing sor­ry for,” and is often used as a blud­geon  —  “If you had an ounce of com­pas­sion, you’d look after me and do what I want.”

And yet, in the Zen world, the compassionate act could be a kick in the ass. It’s often abrupt, and direct, and challenging.

Infi­nite com­pas­sion is rec­og­niz­ing that we are all the same  —  we are all caught in the same loop. We are all caught up in mak­ing up sto­ries about our past, and fear­ing our future.

We are caught to the point where we think our imag­ined ver­sion of real­i­ty is not only true, but should be swal­lowed whole by our near­est and dearest.

Or, we equate com­pas­sion with res­cu­ing, and exhaust our­selves try­ing to fix oth­ers. And then, we are shocked! shocked! to dis­cov­er that the recip­i­ent of our bogus com­pas­sion is nei­ther thrilled, nor changed, but cer­tain­ly expects us to keep up the res­cue. It’s all so nuts.

Just Do It!

I’m not going to do what I’ve been doing with this series of arti­cles, and give you five or six sug­ges­tions of things you can do.

Rather, I’m just going to sug­gest, ever again, that you “hit the mat” and start meditating.

The ulti­mate com­pas­sion­ate act, the clear­est and clean­est way to be in the world, is to “be” in the world  —  in this moment  —  ful­ly and com­plete­ly, is to learn to meditate.

From the cush­ion, you non-crit­i­cal­ly and non­judg­men­tal­ly watch your own men­tal gym­nas­tics and games. You see your thoughts arise, like bub­bles in soda water, insub­stan­tial and mean­ing­less, if you leave them alone. They arise, and they burst.

So what does this have to do with compassion, or “love?”


The only tru­ly lov­ing, com­pas­sion­ate act is to be present with anoth­er.
Not to fix, not to change, not to blame, not to manip­u­late. To be with. To “sit with.”

Compassion, then, is being with one’s self while being present with the “world.”

In oth­er words, to be deeply and inti­mate­ly present with what­ev­er is going on. With­out judg­ment, cat­e­go­riza­tio­nand with­out the need to “do.”

A lov­ing act is an action, but it’s the sim­plest action of all. Let me quote Brad Warn­er again.

Zazen, in spite of its appar­ent lack of activ­i­ty in the usu­al sense, is the purest form of action. It’s action reduced to its barest essen­tials, the action of sim­ply sit­ting there and pay­ing atten­tion.… or you could say it’s the bal­ance between thought and feel­ing. When these two oppos­ing sides are per­fect­ly equal, they can­cel each oth­er out, thus caus­ing both body  —  the mate­r­i­al side  —  and mind  —  the spir­i­tu­al side  —  to appear to drop away.” 

ibid. page 45

You could say that love and compassion are encapsulated in sitting with, and paying attention to, both ourselves and our present reality.

One of the ways Dar­bel­la and I do this is through what we think of as engaged dia­log.

  • I speak about what I am doing to myself, the sto­ries I am telling myself, the dra­mas I am cre­at­ing, and the emo­tions I am man­i­fest­ing. None of what I am doing inside of me has any­thing to do with her, or the sit­u­a­tion. My job is to report what I’m doing.
  • Her job, in that moment, is to “sim­ply” sit and lis­ten, with­out judg­ment and with­out attempt­ing to fix any­thing. Any fix­ing required would be my respon­si­bil­i­ty, and only my respon­si­bil­i­ty, because I’m mak­ing the mess I’m sit­ting in.
  • Then, we trade. Dar­bel­la talks, and I sit and lis­ten  —  and strain to resist rush­ing in with solu­tions  —  giv­en who I am, and what I do for a liv­ing, this is one of my great­est challenges.

The love and compassion part is the willingness to sit and be present. Again, I say, without judgment. It is what it is.

If your heart’s been hurt, that would be all about you and how you chose to see the sit­u­a­tion. Most peo­ple hate to hear this. So much eas­i­er to blame oth­ers, so much eas­i­er to shut down, so much eas­i­er to curl over and be pro­tect­ed from the cold, cru­el world. Except think­ing and being this way does noth­ing more than shut you off from expe­ri­enc­ing life.

Once you real­ize and ful­ly accept that no one can hurt your heart (except for you of course!) it’s just plain sil­ly to have it slammed shut, just in case. All that gets you is phys­i­cal pain, and the deep and dis­ap­point­ing dis­con­nec­tion from your life and from others.

Be com­pas­sion­ate with your heart. Spend some time silent­ly sit­ting, being present with your­self, breath­ing into your heart, and just lis­ten­ing. I have a fun­ny feel­ing you may be sur­prised at what you learn.

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