The other day over lunch, Sussex acquaintance of mine – a “shooting, hunting’n’riding” type. Was pointing out to me how his hippy and Reiki master vegetarian brother wouldn’t do anything to help him if he were in trouble. Whereas the cantankerous, old farmer he hunted with would go out of his way to help when help was needed.
This set me to thinking about the nature of compassion and particularly how being ‘spiritual’ and ‘in touch with energies’ often – conveniently – leads to people being completely self-absorbed and selfish. This thought curdled uncomfortably in my mind since I’m currently studying the Mahayana with Reggie. The Mahayana are the practices of the “Second Turning” of Buddhism which is about the open heart and compassionate existence in this shared-world we dwell in.
Do I put other people first?
The thoughts came tumbling in: “Really and truly, how compassionate am I – a so-called spiritual practitioner of some 16 years standing? Have my decades of meditation retreats, daily sits, Ayahuasca retreats and psychotherapy left me more or less selfish? Do I put other people first?”
I do work as a therapist and I know that my teaching work has helped people. But on a day-to-day basis, most of my actions are inextricably woven into the project of making my life comfortable, making other people do what I want and exploiting my surroundings in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Shit. Am I one of those “light and love hippies” who is actually a selfish bastard?
I remember hearing a podcast on This American Life during the last presidential election in 2008. The well-heeled, intellectual Manhattanite went back to visit his Ohio roots. He crashed head-first into the realisation that despite his antipathy towards Republican-voting Christians, the sense of community and mutual support increased viscerally the further away from the metropolitan city he travelled.
Its about not distorting other people with your crappy projections
Living in the Countryside for the last few years, I realise that if I ignore all the people I “think” I don’t like then I will end up not talking to anyone at all. Joining the Gay Chorus puts me in joyful weekly contact with loads of gay guys who I would never normally hang out with or even acknowledge. Living in a town full of UKIP voters puts me in daily, interesting contact with people who from London I might have considered 10-headed Nazis.
And this is part and parcel of the practice of the 2nd Turning. It’s not really about “being nice” but rather about not distorting other people with your crappy projections.
The difference between this and really helping someone was brought home to me brilliantly on a recent trip up to London.
Sitting on the pavement on Piccadilly in the beautiful Autumn sunshine I was halfway through my Itsu brown rice and vegetable hotbox when a homeless guy came by. Having been practising my heart-opening skills I stopped him and asked if he was hungry. “Would you like the rest of my lunch?”
I hadn’t even done him the justice of acknowledging him
“No, I’d rather have the change. I don’t eat that vegetarian shit”, he said bluntly.
Despite my initially prissy shiver of outrage, this was just the salutary slap-in-the-face my well-meaning but patronising gesture deserved. I hadn’t asked what he needed, I hadn’t even really done him the justice of acknowledging him beyond dragging him into my gesture of self-aggrandising charity. And he’d cut through it with grace: I don’t want your leftovers.
The Tibetan Buddhists talk about two kinds of ‘emptiness’ – the emptiness of self and the emptiness of others. One level of practice is to realise that our ideas about our ‘self’ are just that: ideas. The gorgeous and sometimes bloody reality of existence bears no relationship to them. A second turning of this practice is to realise that the same truth pertains to everyone and everything else in the world. Our fixed and self-protecting ‘ideas’ about the world are ‘empty’ of reality. They’re just words.
The true compassion is to strip away all those concepts of “I am this” and “I am that”. And then swiftly follow that manoeuvre with the stripping away of all those concepts of ‘you are this” or “this is that”. This leaves a wide-open space where something fresh can happen.
When we empty the world of labels we are not getting rid of anything worthwhile
In a way, the ubiquitous phrase of “Emptiness” which translates the term “shunyata” is better translated as “liberation”. When we empty the world (inner and outer) of labels we are not getting rid of anything worthwhile. But rather liberating the splendid reality from cluttering concepts.
The question does remain: am I actually doing anything to help? But I am starting to realise that unless we do that fundamental clearing out. All our actions will be coerced into service of our “idea of self”. “I help the homeless three times a week (doesn’t that make me a good person?”) or “I am selfless in looking after my family/loved-ones/ family/ neighbours (and that will stop me being punished or rejected).”
From a Buddhist point of view, we have to empty out all those under-the-radar motivations. If we are to help people. (instead of force-feeding them our leftovers). We clear out the crap and then we act. It’s only from that position of two-fold liberation (free of ideas of self and free from ideas of what other people are) that we can really help people.
The difference between the curmudgeonly farmer who helps and the light-and-love Buddhist who doesn’t is perhaps the fact that despite his views the farmer puts them aside and acts. While the “Buddhist’ sits cold and blind in a cloud of incense and does not.
I’d love to know your thoughts about emptiness and labels. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you! To read more Mindsprings blogs, click here. Click here to sign up for Alistair’s newsletter. Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.