I was travelling to Urmston last Thursday evening for the “12 Steps to a Compassionate life Group”. It was not a pleasant journey. I didn’t make it so. Ok the traffic was appalling, which was exacerbated by a broken down truck. I was convinced that I was going to be late and found myself becoming increasingly frustrated at being held up. After all I was on my way to an important engagement, don’t you know. My thoughts, my internal dialogue, were appalling.
I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my thinking and behaviour since. It seems I’ve a lot to learn and a long way to go. I am not alone in this and it is one of the reasons that I am embarking on this journey with Karen’s work on Compassion. I need it; I think most of us do.
When I listen to myself sometime these days all I can do is laugh...and anyone who knows me will tell you it's usually a Muttley laugh.
I’ve been reflecting on this quite a bit since. Don’t get me wrong I have not been beating myself up, but it has made me take a good long look at myself. I need to be more mindful of my thoughts and feelings, both about myself and those I share life with. I remember some time ago Joyce (a member of the Urmston congregation) saying how she believes that cars feed into the more base aspects of our natures. They enhance our sense of separation and lead us to think more selfishly. Well if you’d witnessed me last Thursday evening, you would not have argued with her assessment.
Karen Armstrong, in “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life”, highlights that it is the four “F’s” that are the cause of so much of our pain. That these four basic drives, that are thread into our DNA, are part of our humanity and drive so much of what we feel, think and do. The four “F’s” are feeding, fighting, fleeing and...reproduction (for want of a better word). She describes them as the old brain, as they are part of our inheritance from the reptilians that climbed out of the primordial swamp that we evolved from all those millions of years ago. Of course this is not all that we are, these drives are only one aspect of our common humanity, we also have compassionate, loving aspects too. She describes this as the new brain, which developed much later. If we feed the four F's they come to dominance but if we feed our compassion that comes to the fore instead. This is why spiritual practise is a vital part of the development of our compassionate natures. If we do not feed the compassionate wolf that is within each of us the other wolf will win out. We human beings are capable of such destructive action, as our history has proved. It is so easy to be ruled by the four “F’s” of feeding, fighting, fleeing and...reproduction.
In the fifth suggestion of “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” Karen Armstrong advocates the practise of mindfulness. She says that: “With mindfulness, we use our new analytical brain to step back and become more aware of the instinctive, automatic mental processes of the old brain. The Tibetan word for meditate is gom, ‘familiarisation’, and mindfulness should give us greater familiarity with the four “F’s” that are the cause of so much pain.”
You see it is vital to become familiar with these aspects of ourselves and see how quickly they come to the fore when we feel that our security is under threat; how quickly they can make us become irrationally hostile, angry or greedy; to try and grab what we can, before somebody else does. We should not hate these parts of ourselves, they are there for a reason, we need these instincts, nor should we despise them when we witness them in others. Armstrong suggests that through spiritual practise we can learn to stop identifying with them and begin to develop the compassionate aspects of our natures.
By the way mindfulness is not some practise that is done on a mountain top away from the world or in isolation tucked away in near dark candle lit room. No it is practised in the muck of life in our everyday interactions with ordinary everyday people. It ought to be practised when stuck in those traffic jams of life or when chaos is descending or when we are just going about our ordinary every day business. Mindfulness is not about escaping reality, but about living within life itself. It is about paying attention to our thoughts and feelings as we meander through life. Through practise we can begin to become familiar with these drives and instincts that are within each and every one of us, we can begin to observe our anger and frustration and all our fear driven compulsions. At the same time if we continue to practise compassion for ourselves and others and carry on giving of ourselves to others those instincts that once ruled us and continue to rear up from nowhere will just simply begin to lose power. The selfish wolf will start to die off and the compassionate wolf will begin to take over. It is of course vital to realise that the selfish wolf never dies completely, that it can easily resurface again if we do not continue to practise mindfulness, loving kindness and of course self giving love.
Mindfulness ought never to be confused with self absorption; it is actually quite the opposite. It is not an end in itself. If spiritual practise is purely about us feeling good about ourselves then it has defeated its purpose and become narcissistic. Its real purpose is to help us live more compassionately with our fellows and to begin to build the commonwealth of love here on earth.
Embarking on new things is never easy, especially spiritual practices that do not immediately show results. In fact at first they may appear to be not only pointless but can actually bring more pain and difficulty to the surface. We can quickly become aware of the things about ourselves that we would perhaps rather not face.
A few years ago I was struggling to implement some spiritual disciplines that were to become an integral part of my life. The man who was offering direction at the time could see this and asked me if I had seen the film “The Karate Kid?” Of course like most men of my generation I had, it was one of my favourite films as a kid.
In the film a young lad named Daniel is beaten up by a gang of bullies. An old Chinese man named Mr Miyagi saves him from them and offers to help him to learn Karate, so he can defend himself. This he does and after many trials and tribulations Daniel not only learns Karate but becomes a champion.
The path to becoming a champion was by no means an easy one and Daniel, or Daniel-San nearly gives up many times, but he stuck with it. By the way my sisters fond nick name for me over the years has been “Daniel-San”...there are worse things to be called.
“The Karate Kid” is the classic hero’s tale; it is full of trials and tribulations. When Daniel first goes to Mr Miyagi he expects him to teach him how to fight immediately, but this does not happen. Instead he gets him to clean and wax his car, by practising specific motions “Wax on, wax off...wax on, wax off” He then gets him to paint a fence and polish a floor, all by hand, all applying simple hand motions. He also reminds him to breathe; he continues to remind him to breathe. After several days of this Daniel is worn out and decidedly unhappy. He thinks Mr Miyagi has taken him for a mug. After an argument he storms off, but Mr Miyagi calls him back and begins to perform some Karate moves which Daniel finds he can easily block.
Finally Daniel-San sees the purpose behind what he has been doing. He can see that all those seemingly meaningless hours polishing and painting etc have equipped him to block the punches and kicks when they come. He can see some tangible results for all his hard work. Daniel-San continues with his training and at the end of the film he becomes the hero as he beats the bullies in the competition and of course he also gets the girl.
Whenever I get stuck in myself and think I’m not doing so well in my attempts to live more compassionately I try to remember Daniel-San and those lessons I learnt many years ago. I remember to wax on, wax off and I also remember to breathe.
Like everyone I have my days when I get lost in my pain and worries and I don’t always feel love towards my fellows or myself. I can cut myself off in my metal box, but I can also begin painting the fence and or polishing the car. I know if I continue to practise compassion my life and the lives of those around me are bound to improve. I must also remember that I am not journeying alone. We all have friends and supporters to help us on our individual ways and we have that power that runs through all of life that can help and sustain us, when the going gets really tough.
Remember “Wax on, wax off...wax on, wax off and don’t forget to breathe”