Monday, June 13, 2011

What is compassion in action?

This article was written in April, 2008.  It was never published.  I found it today as I was cleaning a hard drive that holds backups.   

  "One morning Joshu was walking in front of the Zen Hall, treading on the deep-drifted snow.  He accidentally lost his footing and fell in the snow.  He cried out loudly, 'Help me out!  Help me out!'  A monk heard him crying, came running, raising clouds, and instead of helping the Master out of the snow, 'threw himself in the snow too.'  That is, the monk laid himself down in the snow like the Master.  Joshu, who could very well have given the monk a blow of his stick, quite calmly returned to his room.”

     "Now, did this monk help the old teacher out or not?"  (Shibayama, 1970, p. 226)

What is compassion in action?  How can I help? asks the title of a 1985 Ram Das book.  This koan is a clever reminder that help comes in many forms.   The answer to Shibayama’s question is both yes and no.  No, he did not help: Master Joshu had to get up out of the snow by his own efforts.  We are essentially alone in this life, and it is by our personal efforts that we live, move and advance.  No one can live your life for you, no one can do your work, take on your burden, and settle your debts.  And, while it is natural to cry out for someone to lift us out of our problem, it does not work that way. 

However, it is arguable that the monk did help in joining his teacher in the snow.  Sometimes there is no fix, no cure, no balm that can change the reality facing a person.  Although we might wish with all our hearts that we could “help” at a fundamental level there is suffering that must be borne alone.  But this is not to say that a compassionate heart may leave the scene.  Simply staying in the room, listening, abiding silently can offer some relief.  We are not alone.  And, yet we are.  We will each face our own deaths very much alone.  And, yet there is a kind of solace in having a warm presence near at hand.  When someone is in trouble or pain my strongest reaction is to call for help . . . run somewhere to get an expert.  It is uncomfortable to stay next to the person suffering.  And, yet, staying is often exactly what is needed.  It is often all you can do.

Just weeks ago I learned that my best friend who lives half a continent away in Canada was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer.  One day she was fine, healthy, active, a locomotive of grace and action . . . doing what needed doing—running a household and breaking in a new job (in what was to become a terrible irony) as a cancer counselor for the highly respected Wellspring  of Canada, and on the next day she was scheduled for a radical mastectomy.  Mounting discoveries pointed to a type of cancer with a high incidence of recurrence.  Her team of oncology specialists set forth a yearlong course of aggressive treatment, including six rotations of chemotherapy. While there is every reason to expect a good outcome, there is much that remains unknown and unknowable. 

And so I take a nosedive and join her in the snow, in the cold.  How am I doing this?  I have decided to do all I can not to turn away from her suffering.  I want to stay focused and listen intently when she tells me about her treatment and her fears and feelings.  I want to hang in there with her when the going get tough and to celebrate when there are moments of triumph or special happiness.  We are instituting a weekly telephone “date” on Monday mornings.  At 8:00 am California time and 9:00am her time we will ring each other and have a gossip fest.  I am sending her a hand made card each week, and small gifts as they appear.  Also, I’ll be reading for her, looking for quotes that might appeal or inspire or simply divert.  I’ll send or recommend books and music and internet sites. 

In yet another irony Trudy recently made her swansong as Associate Editor of Thirty Thousand Days, a quarterly journal published by the ToDo Institute in Vermont. In the final spring issue she published a brief article on being an “all weather friend” and on the importance of choosing to be the kind of friend who is reliable and creative.  Now, I aspire to take her advice and to be an “all weather friend” to her during this crisis . . . and beyond. 

In the “monk in the snow” koan the young monk chooses to be IN the snow with his teacher.  This is clearly different from standing nearby, warm and secure, possibly saying encouraging words.  By jumping into the snow the monk selects to suffer with his friend—to feel the chill and experience the panic of the situation.  Sometimes what we can do is to suffer with someone."
Patricia Ryan Madson  April 28, 2008

Note on June 13, 2011.  .  .  I am happy to report that Trudy, the friend mentioned here, has had a wonderful recovery from her ordeal with breast cancer.  Her life now is flowering in wonderful ways. During her year of treatment she kept a daily blog that has been a balm to many.     

1 comment:

  1. This made me weep for your kindness and friendship throughout the years Patirica.

    With gratitude and appreciation,