Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on November 14, 2014

As a writer I believe that the hardest thing for me to author would be a dictionary. Can you imagine coming up with words to describe that many words? Yet in a way, we each do this internally and here is the problem with that. We use many words that we never even look up, but have just understood by osmosis from the context in which we hear them used around us. And the dangerous part of this is that with some words we end up not with the gist of the word, but perhaps the gist of the gist of the word, or worse just something we imagined it means. We really never sat down and thought it out. For me, the word "Compassion" is one of these.

Of course I know what the word means and use it all the time, but what does it mean? If I really double down on it, I find that my understanding of it does not go very deep. Perhaps it is because compassion is one of those "spiritual" words that I just assume I don't fully understand, although in actuality I must have some compassion in there somewhere, but perhaps working under another name, an alias.

Am I compassionate? Are you compassionate? I am not sure that I have ever stopped to consider what compassion is. If I check the dictionary, it tells me that compassion has to do with "others," someone beyond or other than our self. Actually, the etymology of the word states that compassion means "to suffer with." Perhaps we have compassion when we realize that in this world we all suffer to some degree. I love the etymology of words, but what is even better is when I finally realize by personal experience what the word refers to, when I finally get it.

And I don't like to be told how and to whom I should be compassionate. Instead, I am curious to find out where I am naturally compassionate. It has to be in there somewhere. In my experience, perhaps compassion is when I finally put someone else ahead of (or equal with) myself, but how does that happen? I only have my own story, so of course I'm telling that.

As a child, my first compassionate feelings were for animals and all of the suffering that we find in Mother Nature, where almost every creature struggles to find something to eat and at the same time tries not be eaten. It occurred to me much later to feel compassion for people too, probably because I was not around many that suffered. Even today I sometimes feel I like animals better than people. I can relax around animals and dogs like me.

Probably my first true sense of compassion for others came when I first met my wife Margaret, and that is a story, a moment I will never forget. Of course I found her very beautiful, but as locally-prominent musician I had met all kinds of beautiful women. Back in the day, ladies liked musicians. So how was Margaret different?

When I really contemplate it, perhaps the main difference is in how I responded to Margaret. All those years when I was single, I had been looking through life for someone like myself to love, but a women. I was always afraid I might miss her in the warp and weave of life. I had this idea that the "great being" that I was would someday meet a great being that she was and the two of us would come together and be One. But the reality of meeting Margaret was quite different from that. As the Buddhists point out, expectations seldom are our friend.

I met Margaret in a bar called Mr. Flood's Party in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I sat down next to her on a barstool and we began talking. There was a little banter, but when that nervousness finally settled down and our eyes locked, something completely else occurred than what I had imagined (or expected) all those years.

I cannot explain why, but as I gazed into Margaret's eyes (and soul) in that noisy barroom I realized, and for the very first time, that there WAS no such thing as two kinds of being or beings, but only the one being, with two kinds of people or persons. In that instant, whatever expectations that I had about the woman that I was searching for all these years vanished, like popping a bubble. It was immediately crystal clear that I had just imagined all of that, made it up. In that first moment of true connectivity I was getting (for the first time) some actual information and it was not as I had imagined it.

The reality, as strange as it may seem, is that I realized (once and for all time) that there is only one "Being," one kind of being. As the great Greek philosopher Parmenides said, "Being alone is," and right then I realized that I had always been alone -- forever. In fact everyone on the planet is alone, yet all together. It has never been any different.

Or as my dharma teacher pointed out to me, the word "alone" could also be read "All One." This dichotomy I had imagined, that there were two beings that could merge into one, was just another dualism that did not stand up to the reality. I had always been alone together with all other beings.

Summing it up, I realized in that moment that there was, and had been all along, just this one being. In other words, the two separate beings I had imagined, Margaret and myself, could never become one because we were already, and had always been, One. We never were two. Now, this may seem to you that I am playing with words here, but there was no abstraction in that moment. This was a realization that has never left me to this very day.

And as to the sense of our "Oneness," Margaret and I, of course, were two personalities, two persons. But my imagined separation or dividing wall between the two of us was not to be found. It just was not there. We were already one. This is what is called by the Buddhists a "realization." It was not something I abstractly understood, nor was it an experience that would come and go over time. No, it was a one-time realization that, once attained, has never changed one iota.

And that moment was "It," my equivalent to the falling in love we all hear about. In that oneness, for the first time in my life, I found myself caring for another person as much as I did for myself. There was no difference between us. Whatever wall there initially was between us as separate persons was recognized and seen to be nil -- no longer there. Never was! Instead, it was one being and two persons. As the Spanish say, "Mi casa es tu casa."

And since I was used to taking care of my own person as well as I could, I suddenly felt the same for Margaret and her person. I responded to her person as I would to my own person. And since she was younger and less experienced in the world, at least in my opinion, I also felt protective of her like I had never felt for anyone before. In fact, I felt that if I did not care for her like I would for myself, that she might not be able to find her way in this tough world we live in and might have a difficult time surviving. I couldn't stand the thought of that. Perhaps I was being overly protective, but I was all about protecting and caring for her.

Always before, in the ladies that I courted, I had walked on. I did not feel personally responsible for them. That was their own business. But with Margaret that all changed in an instant.

And think about this. I had met thousands of people in the world, but never one that I felt responsible enough for to put their wellbeing ahead of or on a par with my own. Of course, I always wished everyone that I met well, but I had never just dropped what I was doing and mixed my responsibilities with those of another. So there was this mixing that took place. How do I interpret all of this?

I feel that the breaking of the seal that separated me (in my mind) from other persons, if it was ever to break, had to start with some one person, and Margaret, for me, was that person. And this moment effectively was the birth of compassion in my life, my first taste of putting another person ahead of or on a par with myself. For me, this was a huge realization.

Because this was such an important event in my life, I want to be clear about it. Was this the "love" that I had searched for all my life? It was, but like all expectations that I have had, my cobbled-together ideas of what love was supposed to be were just what I had made up from what all of the experiences, movies, books, peers, etc. allowed. This must be why the Buddhists suggest we not speculate, not build up expectations, but instead investigate.

I often write that this same phenomenon takes place in learning meditation. Before we finally actually can meditate (and not just practice meditation), our expectations must give way to the actual experience of meditation itself. And in time we realize the difference between our made-up expectations and reality. Our expectations aree the first casualty to the real experience.

And I am looking here beyond the physical attraction that I felt for Margaret to something deeper. And the "deeper" is what I am writing about here, that beneath or behind the physical is this infinite sense of responsibility, which actually is compassion. Behind, beneath, and beyond "Love" is compassion. Compassion is the basis of love and it occurs when the imagined duality of the self and the particular other dissolves. A seal is broken. Mixing takes place. What is left is one being that is responsible for itself, including all persons who qualify.

Of course, when Margaret and I started to have children they became part of this inner circle of compassion. We put their welfare ahead of our own. And like the drop of water that falls into a quiet pool, the spreading circles which enclose that drop spread, and include more and more as time goes on. In the same way, compassion starts small and increases over time, including more and more of life within its embrace.

The more our compassion takes hold, the more individuals we feel at least some responsibility for. It no longer has to be just the wife and kids, but whichever people we meet that we somehow feel responsible for.
And of course not all relationships are romantic, so we can extend our responsibility, our ability to respond to others wherever we naturally feel it.

This may seem like a long story to get to this very simple point that beyond any physical attraction in a relationship is the compassion that holds it together.

This is how I find these important words like "Compassion" must be treated, by following them out in experience.

[Photo-sketch of my wife Margaret shortly after we married.]