Food: We were advised not to drink water, or anything not from a bottle, not to eat raw vegetables,especially lettuce, not to eat fruit unless it has a peel you can throw away.
Sorojchi: altitude sickness. This is for real. Fatigue, shortness of breath, vivid dreams, trouble sleeping, nosebleeds, loss of appetite, headache, dizziness. I had each and every symptom.
Medicine: specifically what you take to ward off altitude sickness. Nauseated me. As did the typhoid oral vaccine. Worse than that is malarone, the malaria preventative. The symptoms are severe and include persistent vomiting. Malaria seems preferable.
Peru is not for the faint of heart.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, more than 2500 years ago, Hindus prayed that after death they would go to heaven to dwell eternally with Brahma, the universal god. Brahma was understood to be the source of love and in order to dwell with this god, Hindus had to practice the Brahma abodes, or the Four Immeasurable Minds: love, compassion, joy and equanimity. These are the abodes of true love and if one practiced them, it was believed that they would grow in the practitioner until they embraced the whole world. These Four Immeasurable Minds came into Buddhism as well, though not for the purpose of dwelling with god, but as the best way to realize the Buddha’s spirit. I’ve been thinking about each of these and I want to explore them with you because they have great relevance for our world today.
The second of the four immeasurable minds is compassion. It’s a word much in use but not so clearly defined. What do you think it means? Forgiveness? Understanding? Loving? Mercy? Pity? Kisa Gotami, a young woman, married a man who loved her very much. In time, she gave birth to a son. She and her husband were exquisitely joyful and lived together quite happily. Sadly, two years after their son was born, the child became quite ill and died very quickly. Kisa Gotami was devastated; her heart was broken. She was so stricken with grief that she refused to admit that her son had died. She carried his small corpse around, asking everyone she met for medicine to make her boy well again. Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him if he could please cure her son. The Buddha looked at Kisa Gotami with deep love. He said, ‘Yes, I will help you, but first I need a handful of mustard seed.’ When the mother in her joy promised to collect the seed immediately, the Buddha added, ‘But the mustard seed must be taken from a house in which no one has lost a child, husband, wife, parent or friend. Each seed must come from a house that has not known death.’
Kisa Gotami went from house to house asking for the mustard seed, and always the response was the same: ‘Yes, we will gladly give you some mustard seed. But alas, the living are few and the dead are many.’ Each had lost a father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter. She visited one home after another, and every home told the same story. By the time she got to the end of the village, her eyes were opened, and she saw the universality of sorrow, Everyone had experienced some great loss, each had felt tremendous grief. Kisa Gotami realized she was not alone in her suffering; her sorrow had given birth to a compassion for the larger human family. Thus, Kisa Gotami was finally able to grieve the death of her son and bury him, and she returned to the Buddha to thank him and receive his teachings.
Compassion isn’t sympathy and compassion isn’t empathy. Although all three words stem from the same Greek root, pathos, which means one’s experience, particularly what one has suffered, their different prefixes give them different meanings. Empathy has the prefix en, which means in, so combined with pathos empathy means to have an inner state of emotion, to suffer within. Empathy is knowing another’s suffering inside yourself, maybe because you’ve been there before. Empathy both validates and understands our suffering. This is one reason why specialized support groups are so effective. There’s often something healing in being with people who were, or are, in the same boat. A person who has mourned the loss of a love can usually understand our broken heart and offer empathy. A cancer survivor can offer empathetic courage to one newly diagnosed. Those who have shared painful circumstances know about these circumstances in a way that an “outsider” never can. That shared knowledge and feeling makes empathy possible. Its understanding of the pain is so powerful.
Sympathy is the prefix sun, which means along with, in company with. Symphony, for instance, is the coming together of sound. Sympathy is coming together, standing beside someone in their suffering. Not necessarily sharing it, but coming together because of it. We offer people our sympathy. It’s a way of saying I’m sorry you’re in pain. Let my caring about you comfort you. Sympathy is healing because when others reach out to us we don’t feel so alone in our sorrow. We may not always feel empathy because our life experiences differ. We may, though, extend our sympathy even if we haven’t a clue about what it feels like in another person’s shoes. Sympathy recognizes suffering with kindness. It recognizes it, acknowledges it, and offers goodwill. That is powerful.
Compassion is the Latin prefix cum plus pathos. Cum also means, like sun, in company with, but contains a shade of difference. A companion, is one who shares bread with you, cum plus panos, bread. Compassion is to share suffering. What would it mean to share suffering? Think of yourself carrying a heavy load. You arms ache, your legs ache, you think you cannot go another step. The person feeling sympathy will feel sorry that you are struggling so. The one who feels empathy will know what it feels like to struggle. The person who feels compassion will step forward and shoulder a part of the burden. In bearing some weight, they make it easier for you, even though you still carry the larger part. Compassion, the second of the four immeasurable minds, is the intention and the capacity to relieve and transform suffering. Compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering, and in the relieving, transform it. It does this by sharing suffering. Sharing suffering means to lighten its load. When we care about one another’s suffering and take steps to lessen it, we are doing the work of peace and justice. Compassion is far more than simply feeling good. When we help to carry one another’s burdens, we get to understand them and our view widens. Such understanding, coupled with caring and generosity of spirit, motivates us to an ethic of justice.
Many of us have known suffering. We’ve had hard lives or we have experienced tragedy, loss, betrayal, violence. Perhaps we’ve participated in these also. The tragedies of our lives help to define us, both who we are now and who we were then. Even tragedy that affects whole groups serves to define those groups. Most of us can remember where we were on September 11, 2001. We know the effect of that tragedy on our self-identity as a people and our subsequent behavior in the world. Personal tragedy marks our lives the way a bookmark holds the page of a book. When I was five years old my mother contracted tuberculosis and went away to live in a sanitarium for eighteen months or more. I was five and I didn’t understand where she was going, or why. Or if she’d ever come back. I was in kindergarten when my mother left and finishing second grade when she returned. A defining time of suffering in my life? Absolutely. In a painful way tragedies touch our deepest parts and we are forever changed.
So when we talk about compassion as an intention and a capacity to relieve and transform suffering we have to recognize that it can be very hard to want to let go of our suffering because on an important level, our suffering is our individuality, or so we think. It’s ours. Who would we be without it? What would it mean for me to want to let go of that childhood tragedy of losing a mother for almost two years? Who would I be without it? Letting go of that suffering does not mean I forget it. It does not mean I pretend it didn’t affect me. An intention to relieve and transform my own suffering means, for me, that I don’t want to live in the grip of it. I don’t want to remain caught up in those painful feelings. Maybe most important, I don’t want to think of myself as a victim of my mother’s tuberculosis. I don’t want to present myself to others as a victim, but rather as a strong and resilient person who came through a difficult time. It will always be a part of my history but I want to know, and to show, the fear, sorrow and helplessness of that little five year old has transformed into courage and competence. The intention to relieve suffering means we have to intend to let go of it and view our own stories through a different lens.
Compassion, though, is not only the intention but also the capacity to relieve suffering. We may very well think it good to lessen the amount of suffering in the world, but can we do it? What would it take? How do we relieve another’s troubles? How do we relieve our own? In three main ways. The three building blocks of compassion: acceptance, empathy, understanding.
We relieve suffering by accepting one another exactly where we are. Your friend, your spouse, your child, your parent comes to you afraid, worried, angry, down. You let them know that you accept them where they are. You say something like, “I see that you’re feeling really bad right now.” No saying, “What are you so upset about that for?” No saying, “What! You should be over this by now.” No pretending it isn’t there. No saying, “It’s your own fault.” Just acceptance and recognition, without judgment. And for those of us who, out of the goodness of our hearts, want to fix the problem, give advice, make the person feel better, simply accepting him/her is very very hard to do. But we also know that we don’t hear advice we’re not ready to take and we can’t feel better on cue because someone else tells us to and we are not broken and so need no fixing. Once my wallet was stolen out of my backpack. That was upsetting and I felt a little violated. I went home and told someone in my family about it and she said, “Well, why do you go around with your wallet in a backpack? You should put it in your pocket instead.” Great advice, but I wasn’t ready to hear it and it did not relieve my suffering. Actually, it added to it because now I also felt like an idiot. I needed to get past my initial feelings of upset before I could recognize the sensibility of moving my wallet out of the backpack. Maybe if she had said, “yeah, that is upsetting” it would have helped me. Just experiencing someone accepting us wherever we are in the moment can be the impetus for finding our own ways out.
Secondly, we relieve suffering with empathy. In other words we try to gauge what it feels like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Maybe we don’t know what it’s like to have a wallet stolen, but we might know the feelings involved with losing something valuable. Empathy begins with careful listening, taking note of what is said and focusing upon the other person. No outdoing one another in troubles. “You think you had a heart attack? I had a heart attack and required bypass surgery. Want to see my scar?” “Your dog died? Well, my dog got this rare disease and . . . ” You know how someone ostensibly wants to comfort you and ends up dominating the conversation with his/her own troubles? Can you think of a time when you sensed that another person really understood what you were going through? When I have experienced that kind of empathy I have felt my own load lightened, my burden eased.
Finally, we relieve suffering with understanding. We don’t have to agree in order to understand. We don’t have to approve. But if we can see where the other person might be coming from and offer them some indication that we “get” them, it makes a difference. The night before I got married my mother and I had a huge fight. It seemed as if she was criticizing every choice I had made. Right in front of the whole family. Very unusual for us. We were just going around and around and then suddenly I thought I understood what was really going on. I’m an only child and I thought my mother was afraid she was losing me. So I said to her, or yelled really, “I’m not abandoning you. I’ll always be your daughter.” And that was the end of the fight. I had understood and she had no more need to criticize me.
Why does compassion relieve suffering? Because, as you probably know yourself, when we give each other the gift of acceptance, we start to feel better. Things don’t seem quite so out of control. When we give each other the gift of empathy, we feel that we have been truly heard and seen. We can release feelings and thoughts and it is okay. When we give each other the gift of understanding, we don’t feel quite so alone. We start to calm down. Compassion breaks our isolation, soothes our pain, provides support, and in doing all of that it gives help. Acceptance, empathy and understanding, offered by another to us helps us to to better accept ourselves with empathy and to better understand ourselves. It’s the beginning and it opens up something in us, enabling us to figure out the next steps, to unstick ourselves. How amazing the world is when people want to relieve one another’s suffering and have the skills and the capacity to do so.
Remember though, compassion is the intention and the capacity to relieve suffering. Not to end suffering, but to lessen it. We can accept, we can listen with empathy, we can understand; our very presence in that way is healing. But we can’t take it away. We learn not to expect that we will make suffering go away. Not the suffering of anyone else, not our own. We learn not to expect that we will fix it once and for all, or make it better. If we think we can eliminate our own suffering forever, we’re only fooling ourselves. Life contains suffering. I don’t know why it is so, but it is. If we think that our role is to take responsibility for everyone else’s suffering, we will undermine our compassion and find failure and frustration over and over again because we cannot fix one another’s pain. We can help to make it less but we cannot take it away. Relieving suffering means helping to carry the load, not shouldering the whole thing ourselves. This is a hard lesson – to care without being tied to a good outcome. Compassion means to be with suffering, not to expect that we can make it disappear. Can we do that?
Willingness to let go of our suffering. Acceptance, empathy, understanding — the building blocks of compassion. They are powerful. Their presence moves us to do what we need to do. It frees us to make choices. Compassion is a practice that flows back and forth, within the self and beyond the self. Understanding, empathy, acceptance are what we can give to ourselves and to others, and they are enough. Compassion is a way of being not easily achieved, but worth the attempts we make at it. Like Kisa Gotami, when bad things happen we do not want to experience them. But when we come to learn that others also feel grief, or anger, or sadness the way we do; when we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our suffering; when we can begin to gain some kind of insight into ourselves and our experiences, then compassion grows inside and compassion grows outside. May compassion fill our lives. May it be so.
Vendors and markets are everywhere. Markets for tourists and full of colorful delectables. Markets for locals are full of food and goods. The vendors are quite persistent and followed us around. Unemployment is 39% here, which may be part of the reason. In Cuzco the vendors took names like Kevin Costner and Rudolph Valentino so we would remember them. Other people took pictures of us at the airport in Lima and showed up everywhere we went trying to sell them to us. How did they know where we would be?