On a recent muggy summer evening in Boston, I was in a car on my way back from dinner with friends. As we rolled into a tollbooth, the driver carefully assembled some coins and handed them over to the toll collector.
One might think that this was a typical highway scene.
Suddenly, however, the toll collector grew irate, shouting at the driver for handing him “sticky pennies” and throwing them on the ground. As we drove away, a number of agitated thoughts rolled through my mind, some of them not suitable for reproduction here: “What on Earth? What’s this guy’s problem? Was he trying to ruin our night? He ought to be fired!” Caught in these reductionist views of a man I had only encountered for a few seconds, I found myself becoming discouraged quickly.
I, along with many others, try to be a practitioner of compassion, and our practice can help us to uncover our innate capabilities to access and communicate with the deeper humanity of our fellow beings. Frequently, though, we seem to fall back into patterns of relying on simplistic labels based on encounters with people in the grip of strong emotions. What can practitioners do to address these obstacles when they arise?
When I was an undergraduate at Boston College, I was taught an exercise that is designed to aid reflection after moments like the jarring highway imbroglio described earlier. After a particularly taxing week working to implement a new program through the Office of Residential Life, our graduate supervisors told us to sit quietly for a few minutes and reflect on a couple of moments from the past week that stood out as points of goodness, moments that felt life-giving for us. We were then to think of one or two moments that could have been better, points from the past week that formed some of its most difficult aspects. After pausing in this manner for a while and sharing with the group, I felt revitalized; I realized that these difficult moments could be taken into the practice as tools for growth, not just as times on which to dwell and cringe as I tried to fall asleep.
Borrowed from portions of the Jesuit spiritual exercises, exercises like this one can be a powerful aid for practitioners of compassion of all faiths and persuasions. My teacher, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, always says that practice should make one “more kind, more clear.” The power of compassion to impact the mind is evident in every moment that we are in touch with it, and for me, when I fall away from it, its power can be seen in the tumult that emerges in its absence. I have found that the reflection exercise I learned at Boston College is easily adaptable for use every day, and even from moment to moment. I pause and ask myself, “In that moment, was I living and interacting with others in a space of sustained compassion? Was I kind? Was I clear?” For me, the answer is sometimes a ready yes, sometimes a chagrined no, and sometimes a grey area between these two poles. I have noticed over time, however, that the more I do this reflection, the more life-giving moments I notice and the more difficult moments I am able to address as they arise. We all need tools in our toolbox to make sure that our compassion training is having an effect, that we aren’t just feeding our ego by letting our mental blocks go unchecked and ignoring subtle, life-giving moments of compassion.
I try constantly to bring this reflection into my life throughout each day, and I invite you to join me if you feel it may be useful for you. Without becoming overly self-righteous or self-critical, this honest assessment can become fuel for our practice as we become compassionately mindful of these patterns as they arise. We can bring these small realizations into our meditation space, not just on the cushion, but also on the bus, on our lunch break, and in conversations with others.
As you might imagine, I had plenty of fodder for reflection on difficult moments on the night of our encounter with the toll collector. Having engaged with them through the lens of compassion, if I run into him again, I will greet him with a smile and will be sure to have smooth coins ready for payment.