Compassionate Presence

October 11, 2010

There is a lot of sadness around us. As Buddhists would point out, that’s because of the almost constant attempts to control, predict, grasp or fearfully run away from (or avoid) it all. They also teach that everything is temporary but not to the point of existential meaningless where nothing seems to be connected or to have meaning. It is to teach that whatever is, will ultimately change. “Where moth and rust corrupt” in the tradition of your early years of teaching.

To say that compassion is the only thing that is ‘permanent’ is probably better understood if it is said that when all things and people are gone, what seems to endure is compassion.

We remember a person’s character of caring and self-sacrificial love for others. That seems to stay with us when they are gone. It won’t be their temporary ownership of a Heisman trophy in the trophy shelf of the back room of the mansion (that the next mansion owner will likely try to sell to the highest bidder on EBay). Neither will it be the amount of political or financial power one accumulates during this relatively short lifespan.

Instead, what will endure will be the extent we are able to be truly present in the moment with others in such a way that we can fully accept and take them in a loving and unconditional way. It is in those moments we find avenues of reaching out and truly connecting, as kindred spirits, so that we can be agents of compassion and healing. As we form a community (which knows no boundaries), we join in something that is greater than ourselves and become more fully mindful that we are truly connected with all others and all living things.

We gain a keener sense of this in the practice of meditation. That’s because in this sedentary activity, we first learn to be fully present with ourselves. (How many people in your life are really there with you – who aren’t frantically eying their Blackberry or looking at their watch while they speak at you with no eye contact?) Learning to be fully present in the moment with ourselves yields learning to be fully present with others. We need then learn to be open and present with the Spirit Who created us.

Now all of that sounds like a Hallmark card on steroids but a lifestyle of being truly present in the moment, . . . being at home with yourself, others and your Source . . . brings you to compassion. I believe this life of compassionate mindfulness is at the core of all world religions that seem authentic.

These core teachings are present in all religions but are more, in my opinion, intentionally taught in Buddhism. If you’re interested in reading some more on this, take a look at Jack Cornfield’s The Wise Heart. ISBN: 978-0-553-80347-1 (0-553-80347-6)

Holy Moments

(Written when I was Interim Executive Director of Canopy of Neighbors):


I work for an organization which enables seniors to remain in their homes or apartments as long as possible. We help them thrive and remain relatively independent – preventing them from having to go into an assisted-living institution.

It’s called Canopy of Neighbors.

We do this through a network of volunteers and groups which give their time to do the kinds of things you and I already do to help well-aged friends and loved ones. We give them rides to doctor’s or therapist appointments. Help them get their prescriptions. Sometimes we help them with confusing bank-account or bill-paying tasks. We flip their mattresses or set their clocks ahead or behind twice a year. We change a light bulb that is out of reach – anything to prevent them from stacking kitchen chairs and making a perilous climb and risking a fall.

We also enable them to come to free yoga classes and coffee gatherings where there are featured speakers on health and aging topics. There’s even a monthly luncheon at a local restaurant which offers a low-cost fee for everyone.

I spent a couple of hours this week talking with a couple in their 90s, answering their questions about joining the membership. They are impressed with Canopy. They live in a grand old home in a neighborhood where, in time, only the wealthiest could afford. Homes of doctors, senators and CEOs. Their home was full of life. Paintings filled their home, his paintings. Their furnishings reflected world travels and a lifelong engagement with their children, their careers and themselves. They even have a beautiful Australian border collie who has been part of their household for years.

As I summarized my organization’s services and patiently answered their questions, in my peripheral vision, I could see their daughter. She was in from out-of-town, looking a little frustrated. She’s been here before with them, I suspect. Their hesitancy. Their resistance to get involve with anyone outside of their family for their personal needs. And yet they knew they could use some assistance here and there.

I couldn’t help but think that they only reason they were a little hesitant to join is that it might imply an inability to be independent. Perhaps some giving up of control. Having ‘outsiders’ involved in potentially unknown changes in their lifestyle.

They are truly dear people. Talented and very intelligent. But my heart goes out to them because they seem so frail. He’s a retired but working artist, still holding an office with studio privileges in the local university. But his Parkinson’s is already affecting his mind-to-speech abilities. He drools as he tries to construct his sentences.

In another room, he’s got an unplugged collection of turntable, amp, radio, tuner unplugged and he hasn’t been able to reconnect them. It would take me or another volunteer probably half a day to rewire it. In other rooms, they say their computers are giving them problems and they claim not able to get back into using them. They can’t get their email working.

Her physical condition has left her barely able to move. She has had some disfiguring strokes and yet she is fully engaged in conversations. Reflective, insightful and empathetic toward others. But she says ‘I know we are vulnerable.’

I already know that whatever my organization can offer them, they will need more. Much more. They’ll soon have to contract with outside healthcare organizations for in-home nursing and home-care aids. How much longer can they remain in their lovely home? Who will take care of their dog?

They will be thinking their membership over and will let me know in their own time.

They both have had me thinking, today, of how frail we humans are and temporariness of life. We can get to the point in life where we are blessed with good minds, more-than-adequate resources and all the time we need to pursue anything we’d like. Yet our bodies wear out, out of our control. There is no Toyota to replace parts, even beyond their usual warranty. Our bodies die out from under us. They slip away from us, as do many of our component parts. ‘Moth and rust doth corrupt.

So today, I’m mindful that being present with others, in the moment, is the only place where the meaning and authenticity in life resides for any of us. When I left them, I touched their shoulders and genuinely told them it was a pleasure being with them.

When I got home, I embraced my wife as if it was our anniversary and said I had a great day at work because there were holy moments. ♦

Being Present in the Transitions

We do a lot of grasping throughout our lives  We like our stuff. We want to hold on to our things. We want to keep our activities and surroundings the same. We maintain the way we do things, the way we think and what we value. We go from day to day as if we will always have and control our life’s experiences. ‘To have and to hold to cherish’ suggest our wedding vows. “My Precious” said J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Gollum in  The Lord of the Rings.

But what is it that we hold on to? Pretty much everything. We prefer things around us to stay the way they are. We’re often ‘change-resistant.’ The way things are have become the way we do things around here. That goes for how we stack dishes in the cupboard, where we store things in the closet, the people we strangely judge as not as equal to us because of their differences. My gosh, we’ve put our socks in the same place in our dresser for years.

It’s probably why couples, at least in the first couple of years of marriage, fight over the way toothpaste tubes are squeezed, cars are parked in the garage and the lopsidedness of perception of household chore responsibilities. It is a miracle that two people can amiably negotiate the ordering of their household. Then there is the use of how we handle power. The extent that we can create an environment of fair and consensus-based decisions. If nobody ever modeled it or taught us or we never learned how to use our power and influence in decisions in an egalitarian way, we are doomed to a life of loneliness.

Not to mention that all this grasping and controlling, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how we measure our self-worth. We mysteriously think that if we have a lot of things or financial power, we are doing pretty well. House. Car. Gadgets. Job. Things, you know, <strong>my</strong> drill, <strong>my</strong> lawnmower, <strong>my</strong> position in the company. Keeping up with the Jones. Maintaining a lifestyle that approximates the TV and movie characters with whom we seem to identify.

This is immediately fertile ground for the topics related to personal growth and fulfillment. If we relentlessly strive to hold on to the way we do things and what we now possess, we don’t grow or mature. We wall ourselves into a nice little box. A person wrapped up in themselves makes for a pretty small package.

But our lives are full of transitions. Everything changes. This is why we cry at marker events like weddings, births, graduations and funerals. Things keep changing and the ceremonies frame the transitions to new changes.

There are few circumstances that bring us to face the temporariness of life more obvious than the first day of retirement or walking out of the courtroom after the divorce is finalized. This is because we’ve programmed ourselves to define who we are in our introductions. Like, Hello, my name is Bill and I am the Vice President at BigBox Corporation. Or Hi, I’m Sharon and I’m <strong>married</strong> <strong>to</strong> Bill and we have 2.3 children, we <strong>own</strong> a house in the burbs and I’m <strong>a member</strong> of the PTA and <strong>work</strong> as an investment broker for Too Big To Fail Bank, LLC.

We broadcast who we are by defining ourselves by what we do and with whom we are in relationship. Somehow, just us and our own interests, likes, passions and allergies and phobias aren’t enough. We even tend hold on to the things we don’t have but aspire to have or do. We spend years holding on to our careers (and roles) because we think that if we keep doing the same thing with ourselves, things won’t change. We won’t have to give up anything.

Career wise, we pursue excellence in what we do. We pursue further training. We try to meet company goals. We seek to excel and win the approval and admiration of those who are higher up on the corporate latter. Throughout our lives, we seek to hold on to our position, our title, our salary level. We pursue tenure as if craving for oxygen.

Frankly, there isn’t much in life that we don’t strive to keep the same. So unless we are creative artists and musicians seeking new venues and textures in our work or performances, we strive to keep things as they already are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This brings us to transitions.  There are changes foisted upon us or self-chosen migrations to different experiences we feel we must make. We resist change and frankly haven’t cultivated pursuing change in our lives in order to grow.

If we define our sense of who we are by what we do and with whom we are in relationship, when those things change, our life can seem to unravel – at least in our mind. Like it or not, despite our overwhelming predisposition to prefer things to stay the same, they don’t.

But what happens when the people who once related to us only by our position in the company are not there. The social circumstances, once resulting from relationships we had, may disappear. We’re now looking at different visual imagery throughout our day. Our daily communication with others has remarkably changed – maybe stopped in several ways. The phone. The emails. The conversations, the meetings, the written reports. Say, presentations, deadlines, calendar management. Social obligations.

  1. Who we are in the company has no significance (although who we are as a person is huge).
  2. What we do for an external group is no longer a valid means of weighing our self-worth.

The fact is, a corporate position, salary and power doesn’t add anything to our worth. (But note that nobody in America thinks this. That’s why we seem to be obsessed with holding on and adding to what we have and can control.)

The absolutely transforming thing you get when you are beyond your full-time career years or are experiencing less of a socially connected life is that you can come home to yourself – to be at home with yourself.

Come home? you ask as you fiddle through your now empty calendar on your smart phone in vain. Come home as if I’ve been away? you continue to muse. But where I have I been that I would come home?

Well, that’s the point. Where have we been all these years? Chances are that we’ve not been real present with our spouse or significant other. That’s because we’ve put so much more of ourselves in our careers because we thought that would bring ups more or ensure that we keep the level of money we needed to maintain control of our lives. More of what we like – what we’re used to. ‘Keeping things the way we like them.’

But sometimes at transitions, we find that we haven’t been very present in our lives to begin with. Some of us couldn’t be present in the moment with our spouse for the time it takes to eat a meal. We’d feel uncomfortable with moments of silence (as if is mandatory that one or the other of us has to be laying down a bed of words to dispel the silence).

Check this out. When you are in the room with your significant other for ten minutes, do you know how they feel? At the end of the day, if you were magically transported to a college classroom and you were asked to write an essay on what is most important to your spouse, how many sentences would you be able to scribble out?

Complicating almost any transition is our lives is that we haven’t been very present with ourselves, those closest people to us or even the transitions and changes themselves. How present are you with yourself, those around you and what is happening in your life in this very moment?

“Riley, do you love me? “Peg asked.

Riley responded: “Well I live here, don’t It?

Do you feel that who you are, without any career position or social relationship, is just as it (you) should be? Do you feel that if you suddenly found yourself living in a totally new context, that whoever you’d meet would find a good and worthwhile person in you? Do you feel that in whatever context you’d find yourself in, others would find you to be a worthwhile human being who positively contributes to their existence?

This is a far cry, another planet or cosmos if you will, from the daily striving to get, hold on to and protect what we have and have been for all our previous years. It’s an entirely different orientation to life.

It’s not the money. It’s not the investments that may or may not be working for us while we’re sleeping. It’s not the house, the car, the boat, the property, the career. That’s because when all of the ownerships and responsibilities into which we’ve placed our energies are gone,  all we have left is ourselves. To whatever extent we’ve been able to be present in the lives of our most significant others, it comes down to< now. What we’re left with is just us. Can we even be present, in a comfortable and loving way, with ourselves?

You see, it comes down to this moment. Be present in the transitions. Our lives are full of them.

The good news is that you’ve got a wonderful and noble person along with you in all of these transitions and change – you.