Kindness

Jan 3rd, 2019

Image copyright: Daria Nepriakhina

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.  
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, 
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend

Naomi Shihab Nye from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
When I first heard this poem, I was stunned into silence. I heard it as the story of my life and practice. I felt seen, vulnerable, exposed in the very best of ways. I have had the honor of hearing it read by Naomi, and also to meet and tell her how important this was to my practice, healing and life.

I came to practice because I was overwhelmed with grief. 1995 was the year I stopped being able to work, my partner died, and the release of the cocktail meant folks were starting to survive AIDS. I had buried thousands of friends, comrades and lovers. It all happened so fast there was no time to process it. Suddenly it all seemed to hit at once. I was able to not drink, but my acting out was evident to everyone around me. I had done so many self-help groups, peer led grief and bereavement groups and therapy of all sorts. Nothing seemed to help “get over it”.

A friend and I were discussing this over coffee one day, and decided that much like the twelve step programs we were a part of, the solution was spiritual in nature. We decided that since we lived in San Francisco, and it was home to so much spiritual traditions, we could explore a ton of them. So that’s what we began to do.

One of the places we went was a small sitting group led by Howie Cohen in the basement of his apartment. During the first sitting Howie gave a short dharma talk, and although I don’t recall all of what he said, I remember him saying, “Nothing is Broken”. This idea set off in my mind a rebellion of emotion. I was going to come back, gather information and show him how wrong he was about nothing being broken. In my mind, everything was broken.

This was how my Buddhist practice started. I have since learned some of what I think Howie was trying to say that evening. My experience is one of given all the causes and conditions that bring me to this moment, how could my heart/mind be anything but what it is. Of course I was grieving. My life contains what some would consider a huge amount of loss. Grief is the natural response to loss.

I have also learned that there is no “getting over”. There is only being in it or better, with it. The loss of someone by death or some other reason is never really gotten over. It is a marker of the spot we have to create a new normal. Whatever was before becomes what is now. Grief is the large marker of this experience, but truthfully it’s the nature of how life is. Each moment is a moment of the new normal. Sometimes it is a large sign that stops us in our tracks, and other times we may not even notice.

The last thing I think I learned is why this poem moves me so. I learned how to make my grief useful. Instead of running from it and thinking it needed to transform into something else, I learned to sink into it. This surrendering to the experience allowed compassion and kindness to arise. When I stopped fighting myself, my life, I learned how to let the feeling of a broken heart, the pain of the loss to fertilize the seeds of compassion and love that we all have.

This isn’t about wallowing in it, and we have to be mindful of how attractive this surrendering to, or sinking into can be. We must build up the muscles to hold without attaching, to fully experience without wallowing. Without this gentle attention, we might end up in a depression rather than in a moment of kindness. Our surrender to the experience can become liberatory, or it can lead us into the quicksand. How do we know the difference? I count on my friends to help me, and this is what the practice of seated meditation really comes in handy. By settling and quieting the mind, that happens in seated meditation, we begin to hear the quiet voices of kindness and compassion, and see the way forward without falling into the traps. Also with a quiet upright mind, we find our way through the traps, and snares that knock us off our seat.

Before you know kindness, before you know compassion, before you know liberation, you must know loss, you must grieve, you must know the mud of our humanity. We must make friends with it and allow it to teach us. This is my experience in 25 + years of practice. It is said that Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, said something like, “Our practice is to meet things as it is, and help it to be its best”. This is how we get to “Nothing is Broken”.

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