Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

November 23, 2011

November 23, 2011
A visit from our desert neighbors, Natalie and Billy, yesterday was an opening experience from the universe for both Bettina and myself. Billy had come to consult with us about fixing our nemesis, the bathroom shower stall that is moldering and has caused Bettina much concern and in earlier days much urgency. After they left, she told me that she realized that, without effort, she had been able to see Billy and relate to him, not as the possible solution to a worrisome problem, and instead as a human being—that she was more interested in Billy as a person than as a helpful instrument. Bettina is not someone who normally reacts to people instrumentally, but the symbolic threat to her of a house in disrepair has in the past won over her natural compassion. In Buber’s language, even under these circumstances—fraught from the past—she was able to relate to Billy in an I-Thou mode rather than an I-It.

As for me, after they left I kept puzzling in the back of my mind without finding the words for it, where the border lay between discernment and compassion. I could feel a slight mistrust that rose in myself during their visit towards Natalie—a slight veil of self-protection. Both of them were what Judith Orloff calls “gushers”—people who relieve their anxiety or pain by pouring out their thoughts and feelings. With Billy that meant laying out all of his vulnerabilities—his PTSD, his former alcoholism—and also somehow conveying a warm heart for others. Natalie’s gushing felt to me more a determination to close out others—narcissism floated to mind, and I was especially struck by how, on the occasions when I made a statement—about desert animals I’d seen or what I knew about the Mullins (who built this house) she instantly trumped it—she’d seen more, she knew more. While it was happening I was observing, and though not with revulsion or harsh judgment, still with a cool analytic distancing: so she’s like that.

Over the next twenty four hours I returned from time to time wondering how my observation, my “discernment” about her way of being in the world could coexist with an open heart. It felt important to resolve, and it felt a psychological balancing act that was beyond me. This morning I found my answer, for this time at least. After breakfast I had been able to discharge pain and anger that I’d felt I had to contain for several months about what I perceived as Bettina needing what was not in my power to give because it was primal, the child’s need. Today in my distress, Bettina was fully there, entirely present and egoless in her encouragement to express what I’d been holding back.

Maybe because of that consolation, her own egoless compassion, I was able a few hours later to see my answer. I could actually feel how to be with the Natalies of the world.

I felt my way to a space in which I will be noting a behavior—not denying or avoiding its implications for the possibility of friendship or for trustworthiness—and yet as soon as it is noted, I will let my focus move to appreciate the suffering that underlies that behavior. I will, that is, put my emphasis on the huge pain that the behavior represents rather than the consequences for myself. I can observe without then protecting. My interest can shift from the inappropriateness of the behavior to what the behavior conceals—what does it feel like to need such an outpouring of talk, to be unable to tolerate a moment of imagined inferiority?

I already perform this act in the hospital. There I can appreciate whatever ability I possess to accompany others in their suffering. Out in the world I encounter a contrary reflex, an old habit of valuing myself for an ability to spot people’s weaknesses so that I can armor myself against them. I mistook this shallow clever understanding for the real thing.

This afternoon I found this fortune on my Yogi tea bag: True understanding is found through compassion.