It is human nature, I think, to tend toward self-absorption; to think more about our own wants and needs than those of others; to consider an outcome more desirable if it benefits us. Having children can expand that circle of desire outward, but however often we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves, for many of us compassion does not necessarily come naturally.
For me the most effective teacher in this area has been the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, which works something like this: whenever I am struggling with something, I sit and breathe in the tension of all the other people in the world who are struggling with something similar. Yes, that can be difficult and scary, and initially it seems to make things worse, to take that world of pain into my heart.
But then, as I'm holding them there, I look within and find the parts of me that can still find joy, or gratitude, or peace, and I breathe what joy and peace I can find outward, sharing it into the lives of all those who struggle with me. This practice helps on several levels: it puts my problems in perspective, keeps me mindful of the struggle of others, helps me tap into my own forgotten reserves, and gives me a sense that I am giving back.
And so today I invite you to breathe with me: breathe in your fears and challenges, and add to that consideration for all who struggle with similar issues. Hold that breath, just for an instant, and find the joy that's always bubbling somewhere deep within. And then breathe out that joy, sharing it with the world. And feel your heart opening -- just a little. It's all good.
Growing up in a small town north of Cincinnati, I lived at the edge of a small development, next door to a farm. Our house had picture windows, front and back -- living room in front, dining room in back -- and I vividly remember sitting down to dinner in the evening with the cows watching us through the picture window.
So I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the scent of manure is not as unpleasant to me as it might be to some (I am reminded of the inscription on a statue of Mark Twain near the volcano on the big island of Hawaii: "The smell of sulphur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner.") But what did surprise me, a little, was my experience taking this picture. There's a lovely little red barn nearby, and as many sheep as there are cows. It was a lovely foggy morning, with that sort of blueness coloring the air, so I parked my car across the street, got out, and walked over with my camera.
The sheep -- which I mostly wanted to photograph, as their white coats were glowing in the fog, completely ignored me; in fact, turned their backs on me and continued chewing the grass beneath their feet. But the cows looked up and quietly watched the entire time I wandered up and down the fence, looking for a line of sight between the raspberry bushes. And so I eventually stopped trying to get a good angle on the sheep and shot the cows.
This might sound odd, but in shooting the cows, and in looking at this image afterwards, I felt -- and still feel -- this settling feeling in my heart, a sort of God's-in-his-heaven-all's-right-with-the-world sort of feeling. I think it has something to do with re-connecting with my childhood, that sense I had when I was young, sitting down to dinner with my parents, of safety, of home, of this is where I'm supposed to be and life is good.
And so I thanked the cows, put away my camera, got back in my car and drove away; they watched me, turning their big heads, until I was beyond the trees.
The shape of night, the shape of day, the shape of color, the shape of us. What holds all this? Who made this miraculous mold, and then cast everything? Imagine the form that poured all forms, and then try to conceive the Being that whittled out the Holy Spirit from a single thought that took over the Inconceivable. What can entwine all this in its arms? What a container there must be that some, still hung up on names, call... God.
The danger of those days
(you know the ones --
when there's way too much to do
and too little time
and nowhere to turn
and the clouds are rolling in
and responsibility churns
relentlessly overhead --)
is not that we won't complete
all our self-assigned tasks;
it's really this: if there are too many,
we may just have forgotten how to live.