“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
The teachings of Pema Chödrön set me on a path to be a better person and possibly a better psychotherapist and clinical supervisor. Seeing others as my equal, even those with whom I disagree or who cause me to feel distressed. Finding equanimity within is the foundational step to being able to have compassion, which I believe is similar to what Carl Rodgers called unconditional positive regard. As a therapist, if I cannot find this state, I cannot be fully present with my client.
Knowing my own darkness is another necessary journey. I know too well that those aspects of others that I find repugnant are merely reflections of my own shadow. Standing still and looking at other people’s shadows can allow me to see deeper into my own darkness if I do not separate my struggle from theirs. Even though we are all different, we share the same world, with similar problems and coping methods. Understanding comes from knowing myself and compassionately loving myself and then repeating that process for others.
In my formative years, conservative religion was a constant in my life. However, even as a small child, I was a questioner, and blind faith never sat well with me. My trepidations about religion did not mean I always hated church attendance for I loved singing and learning. My problem was I learned by creating pictures of the Biblical stories. I could see them, hear the conversations, and got to know the Biblical characteristics, all in my mind.
When religious rules and tradition cropped up, that did not match my internal pictures; I began to realize that those rules and rituals were other people trying to tell me how to act and believe rather than even part of the spiritual teachings. This disillusionment increased as I heard church leaders deride different beliefs, often telling fantastic stories to demonize the religion. My reaction was to strike back by learning about other religions by reading the materials from that religion and attending their services.
In my life long exploration, I believe I have begun to understand more deeply the difference between religion and spirituality. Humans need a system of belief to make sense of their existence and to lay a foundation for personal ethics and morality. I call this system of belief spirituality. In my definition, spirituality may have little or nothing to do with a belief in a supreme being, but rather foundation ideas about the meaning of life and the morality of living. On the other hand, spirituality may include all or some of the foundational concepts of any religion. The key is the application of these beliefs to day to day living. Without an attempt to apply spiritual concepts to living life, religion is merely a social group. Thus, a religious person can be spiritual, but a spiritual person may not necessarily be religious.
Today was a glorious day for a bike ride. The weather was great, and my pace was good. I left happy. On the way out, I saw a homeless man struggling with a caravan of shopping carts and other wheeled contraptions. He said something to me, but I did not understand him. On my way back up the path, I slowed when I came close to him. He asked if I had a trash bag, and I responded, “no, sorry, I don’t.” Then he offered to pay me to go to the store and buy some for him. I responded that I didn’t have the time, which was not true; I could make the time. I rode on.
This interaction haunted me as I rode to my truck. I have more than enough why is it hard for me to go out of my way to help another person? I complain about our society not caring, and I just rode by and did the same. When I got home, I shared the story with my wife, who supported my idea to return to the bike path with a sack of bags and a bit of food.
The second ride was equally as beautiful. When I reached the man, he was shining with gratitude and said, “You are one in a million.” It is sad that such acts are so rare. He was another human and needed some simple assistance. Helping him was my way of putting feet to my belief in being there for others. It does make me exceptional, merely aware.
My parents raised on Biblical stories including the loaves and the wishes. I never saw the story as Jesus’ miracle but rather as asking people to share so everyone can have enough. Listening to this guy’s need and doing something directly to help him will not change the world but it was a spiritually right act.
I have realized, thus far in life, I have always worked toward a goal. Even though reaching the goals were not as lofty as my original thoughts, the goals gave me purpose and direction. At this stage in my life, I miss having a goal to guide me to a new adventure.
I have been blessed by being able to learn many things in my life and had two meaningful careers and many exciting jobs, but what comes next. I am honestly unsure, my body is slowly failing, my memory is not what it used to be, but my spirit is still as vibrant as ever.
Thus, my big retirement question is – what is next? Can I find one more adventure? I am less interested in having a long life and more interested in having as much joy in life’s last years as I can manage. So, what’s next?
Are you in search of the truth or are you looking for validation for what you already believe? I believe attempting to find truth is a very noble pursuit. The internet, the information superhighway, does not necessarily disseminate truth. Researches have found that salacious lies travel faster on social media than do facts. So, how do you tell something is true? The great philosophers have grappled with what makes something truth since the dawn of thought.
Science has tried for centuries to explain the physical world to the dismay of those who want their beliefs unexplored. Some of the people, often those in political or religious power, have always been enamored by ideas that protect their views and their ability to hold power over others. Thus, when looking at explanations of the truth, I am always scrutinizing the motivation of those exclaiming. If their sense of reality is overtly biased towards their power and control, then I find it suspect.
Another measure of truth is a bit obvious. If a person bases their idea on a gross generality, it is generally not correct, for humanity is far too varied for a single statement to encompass broad groups of people correctly. Thus if a person says all or every person, place or thing, their statement is most likely a stereotype rather than a truism. When we stand on a stereotypical idea as truth, we immediately disenfranchise those for whom the statement is false. Thus, the report may have some truth, but in fact, it is not the truth for many and believing the idea as truth for all can lead to discrimination.
So, finding truth comes from embracing the difference within each person. Sharing ideas, but not holding your thoughts out as absolutes, listening to others with the goal of understanding their view of reality rather than imposing reality on them. This concept is frightening if one believes they already know what is right, but a closed mind is the home of the greatest deception.
I once was asked when I discovered I was a nudist. I pondered and responded, hmm, I think I was born naked. Nudity is our natural state of being. Wearing clothing is a human device. So, why are many freaked out about their own and other people’s bodies especially in the natural state of nudity? The Bible hints Adam and Eve began naked and after disobeying God lost their innocence. Is this original sin, this age-old loss of innocence the beginning of body shame. Can one mistake have led to eons of confusion and embarrassment about human nudity? If so, why isn’t this loss of innocence felt universally?
Young children must be taught to be embarrassed by their nudity and that of others, it is clear that such feelings are not inherently part of us. When my beautiful son was a small boy about four-years-old, he amazed me. It was a hot summer day in Bakersfield after moving there from my teaching gig in Oregon. Both my son and daughter were running about the apartment naked in pure delight. My wife’s mother was there, and she was particularly uncomfortable with my son’s nudity. At one point she stopped him and said, “If you don’t put some pants on, I am going to cut that thing off.” My son stopped, and retorted, “Then I will cut off your vagina.” I was so pleased that he owned his body, in all its nakedness. His penis was his and he was willing to protect it. He was innocent and had no shame.
What does it mean to you to be naked? For some, nudity is firmly connected to sexuality, privacy, and shame. I read a comment from a former student that said that nudists are usually people you would never want to see naked, which eludes to the idea that other people’s bodies exist for our visual entertainment. What makes a naked body in any shape, size or age less or more acceptable than the same body covered? Remember we are all naked under that thin layer of fabric. I am not immune to the entrancing allure of a young, fit body whether clothed or naked. But even though I see beauty, what makes all other sizes and shapes of naked bodies repugnant? Be careful for few of us are perfect in every way and acceptance of difference is power.
Why be nude when there are clothes for every occasion? Some activities like sleeping, swimming, and bathing seem silly in clothing. I am sorry I laugh to myself when I think of donning special clothing to get wet, swimming suits just don’t make much sense. It is good for your body to be freed from restriction and allowed occasionally to breathe. Seeing yourself naked is your first introduction to your own personal external reality. Your naked body is uniquely yours. My naked body carries the scars of my history on this earth. I am under no illusion that my body is beautiful naked or clothed but it is the container in which I reside. I believe I should know it, respect it, and allow it freedom when I can.
We are drawn together by our commonalities but learn from our differences. It is far too easy to think others experience life the same way we do or to see their differences as wrong or threatening, for difference often engenders suspicion and fear. If we look within we are all as different as we are alike. From fashion to the creation of laws we create a sense of expected norms, often where they are not needed. What might happen if we accepted our differences? What makes it so vital for us to be the same when sameness is an illusion?
In reality, all aspects of ourselves lie on a continuum. The variance of some differences is readily apparent, as the difference in height. While, other variations are harder to see, like personality or culture. The problem comes not from lack of sameness but in our attaching false values to differences. I happen to have dyslexia, which makes reading and writing to be a challenge for me, however adapting and working around this attribute has strengthened me. While teaching at a University, I heard professors correlate poor spelling to a lack of intelligence, rather than seeing it merely as a difference.
We do not need to throw away of judgment about all differences? No, that would be an impossible task. However, the first step might be to increase our awareness of judging others for things that do not affect us. Ask yourself, how does the way another person appearance affect me? Can you look beyond skin color and clothing to see the person? Or how does it injure me if others have different tastes in food, music, or expression? Accepting these external difference may open your mind to see people as they are rather than as you wish they were.
Once we open our minds to differences, we may see personal variations that are more profound than surface differences. Can we accept that others may have differences in who they love and how they express love? Some people clammer to be social after a long day at work, while others have an equal drive for solitude. When we begin to look more deeply, we must be aware of our desire to rank attributes making some desirable and others problematic.
So what are we to do? We can get to know people and allow them to teach us about themselves, which requires asking more and assuming less about others. To make it safe enough to know someone we must present as little judgment as we can while being aware our prejudices will rear their ugly heads. We must understand not only how people present themselves but also what people believe, and perhaps the reasoning behind their beliefs. We need to see the fear within ourselves and others that drive stereotypes and erroneous judgments. Maybe when we can accept others, we can also be allowed to be ourselves.