Monday, January 7, 2008

An icon of sympathy

I've been thinking about the sadness of my last post. And I think it may be connected with what Pema Chodron says about the heart of sadness. She describes that as an aspect of bodhichitta, a result of practicing compassion: a tenderness for all mankind, an awareness that whatever hurt we may feel has been or is or will be felt by others as well.

I took this photo in Taipei because there was something so incongruous about this larger-than-life inflated figure. Taipei seemed to me to be littered with icons of cuteness, so to have one such icon with its welcoming upswept arms and yet a tear in its eye was very odd. I was doubly intrigued to open the photo when I got home and discover that the figure seems so connected to the obvious distress of the man on the left side.

And then, today, I read in the Gospel of Thomas, "How miserable is the body that depends on a body, and how miserable is the soul that depends on these two." Where does the pain and sadness come from? So often they are entangled with our bodies – our physical manifestation in this world. Either the pain is specifically in the body, i.e., physical, or it’s related to our interactions on the physical level with other bodies, or our longings on the physical level for other bodies, or our failed attempts to meet soul needs with body foods and actions.

I suspect that as long as we stay tangled up in the physical, thinking it's the only plane of existence, the pain will continue. But I think it's also true that that pain doesn't go all the way through to the soul. For me that seems to be one function of meditation: to remember that whatever sadness or hurt or confusion I feel at the moment is really just in that moment, and just in the body.

If I take the time to tap into the me that is more than that moment and that body, then I can find whatever reserves of joy or pleasure are stored within me. And then, restored to that awareness, I can take the time to practice tonglen. Like the figure in the photo, I can be larger than my own life: I can breathe in my own distress and pray in sympathy for all those who feel the same, and I can breathe out my awareness of pleasure, of the life that resonates beyond the petty concerns, and imagine holding that out as a gift to others who suffer.

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