Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Oh, compassion. I was ready for this talk. Recently I’ve been trying to stay busy do-gooding: I’d volunteered at the Ballard Food Bank and the Senior Center. I’d written a letter to a woman who’d moved out of my building thanking her for her thoughtful landscaping. I’ve tried (at least more than a few months ago) to be a good person. But my more natural tendency is being good at self-compassion, “running a wellness center in my apartment.” The outward compassion, well, I could use a few tips. The monk said compassion is a mind motivated by cherishing others that sincerely wishes to release them from their suffering. It is completely free from attachment and exclusively for the concern of others. But sometimes it’s a little mixed with our agenda, he said. During the talk I thought about how compassion might be more than just do-gooding, but a way of trying to erase suffering. And with my volunteering in the last couple weeks, while I thought I’d wanted to be compassionate, I may not have done a great job.
The second time at the food bank I helped in the no-cook line. At first this seemed like an easier job because I didn’t have to bag groceries. I just had to make sure people took their allotted amount or tell them if they didn’t know how many of each type of food they could take. But that’s where it got tricky—and where my so-called compassion got a little muddled.
One customer made me uneasy right away. He had an aggression about him. “How many of these?” he barked. He would ask how many items, and I would say “one.” This went on a few rounds as he got angrier. He’d say it was “just a bite” and accuse me of taking all the food and only giving him a little. Part of me wanted to yell back, “Take it! Take all the tuna. Take all the cans of beans. Of course you need it more than me.” When I offered him his choice of one frozen meat he yelled, “What am I going to do with that? Cook it in the woods?” “That’s a great question,” I thought. I had no idea why frozen meat was in the no-cook line. It didn’t make any sense to me either. One of the other customers noticed the man’s aggression, gently put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Are you ok, man?” The aggressive man answered that he’d just gotten beat up. Then I noticed that the white hoodie pulled over his head had dried blood stains on the inside. What could I do for him? Of course I wanted him to have the food he needed. But when he aggressively asked me how many of each item, my instinct was to answer firmly and clearly because I felt threatened. The whole exchange reminded me of teaching middle school and the necessity of standing your ground when disrespected. And like teaching middle school, it’s hard to be compassionate when you feel threatened.
That same day I went to Ballard Senior Center to meet with a woman about helping sort jewelry for their upcoming rummage sale. Definitely not as altruistic as helping at the food bank, but I’ve been looking for some void in the universe that could use my help. Some hole to fill with compassion. And if that void was sorting retro costume jewelry, who was I to say no?
When I entered the Senior Center the coordinator I’d come to meet reached out to introduce herself and shake my hand. “Off to a good start,” I thought. Seated next to her on the couch was another woman with her foot propped up on the seat of a walker. A dripping ice bag was precariously balancing on a swollen ankle. I sat down and took in the scene. The coordinator turned her attention to the woman with the swollen ankle, reassuring her that she would be alright. Then the coordinator got up to bring the woman dinner. It was just me and the swollen ankle woman. So while I’d planned to sort jewelry with the coordinator, it seemed I would be most valuable giving attention to the woman with the swollen ankle. She repositioned her leg and I put the bag of ice back on her ankle. She said she just wanted to stay calm and rest. So we talked about her work as a community college teacher. Should she teach her class tomorrow? “You can’t drive with a swollen ankle. Could the student presentations be recorded since you can’t go in?” She seemed appeased with this idea. A few minutes later when a car came to pick her up, she looked at me directly and said, “thank you.”
Somewhere in the midst of our conversation I realized I was actually helping someone. I wasn’t volunteering in the way I’d planned to sort the jewelry, but I was helping the woman with the swollen ankle stay calm and problem solve. And I did it intuitively, knowing that’s where my energy was needed. I was giving in a way I hadn’t expected—and I could tell she appreciated it. It was both a relief of suffering and a trade of kindness. It felt more like compassion.
A few days later I’d gone for a massage to treat a nagging pinched nerve. I was seeing a new massage therapist which is always a gamble. I told him about the pinched nerve and my tight runner’s legs, hoping he would bring relief to one or both. We started face up. From his first touch on my shoulders I had a powerful body and mind sensation. “This is compassion,” I thought. After my recent tries at volunteering I realized that compassion wasn’t just effort. It wasn’t just kindness tossed aimlessly into the universe. It was an intentional exchange. It was, just as the monk had said, releasing others from their suffering. It was both the giving and receiving. “If compassion falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I don’t know that it does. Someone has to be ready to receive it. I received the massage therapist’s compassion so fully that tears started to roll down my face. He relieved me from suffering.
By the time I’d turned on to my stomach my body had let go. I’d done—for me—so much “trying” the last few weeks. Not that the trying actually made me a better person, or a better Buddhist, but I’d tried to live a good day, understand love, and make smart choices. It felt good to have someone else try for 60 minutes. This time someone else was pouring their efforts and kindness into me. And all I had to do was pay a 30 dollar copay and take it.
Yes, I’ll go back to the Senior Center and look for the match of my giving and their needs. I may even go back to the food bank. I’ll definitely go back to that massage therapist who cared for me in a way I didn’t know I’d needed. At the end of the massage he placed his hand on my back, not once, but twice and said, “You’re all set for today.” Maybe I don’t have compassion all figured out. Or maybe I do, and I just haven’t found the right place to give it. But I’d found a way to receive it—and that might make me better equipped to give. I exhaled again. The massage therapist was right. For that day, I was all set.