a reflecting pond in a desert canyon
Yesterday I was listening to one of my favorite radio broadcasts on NPR- The Moth Radio Hour. It's a program of storytelling. Ordinary people tell stories about their everyday lives, but the stories told are anything but ordinary. The stories are always so full of passion - joy, tears, pain, sorrow, sickness, health, life and death. They are always such glorious stories about our broken and beautiful human condition. Yesterday I was particularly struck by one such story, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
A relatively young man told the tragic tale of the great misfortune he had experienced. His beloved young wife had just died and he was heartbroken. Then days after, he lost his father who was his mentor and his friend. This young man was in unbearable pain and he decided that he would be unable to continue on with his own life - vowing to kill himself with a drug overdose.
The day before this man was about to commit suicide, he had a chance meeting with a Tibetan Lama while flying on a plane to New York. The Lama was a wise old monk, a refugee from Tibet who had moved to the United States some 30 years ago.
As he told his story, the man explained that he could barely sit in his seat on the plane - he was so filled with misery. So, he got up and walked toward the lavatory. As he did so, he passed by an old monk - a Tibetan Lama, sitting in an aisle seat at the rear of the plane. They locked eyes and the gentle monk reached out his hands to that poor man so obviously racked with pain. The man stopped and allowed his hands to be held. Then the monk touched his forehand to the man's forehead and whispered:
I give you all my joy. I take on all your pain
It was a life saving, life changing, redemptive moment - a moment of amazing grace. In that instance of perfect compassion, that man found a peace that passes all understanding.
I was so taken by that story that I heard yesterday that all I can do is think about it. I was so deeply moved not only because the story was so beautifully poignant and incredibly tender, but also because it was such a powerful icon and astounding example of what it means to "practice compassion."
I use the word "compassion" often. After all, the exercise of compassion is at the core of all the great major world religions. But I think that often the real meaning of what it means to practice "compassion" is sort of lost in translation, and the word becomes somewhat limp and lifeless. We think that we are compassionate when we are nice, or pleasant, or when we engage in some act of kindness toward a fellow human being.
But, in light of yesterday's story, the more I reflect on the word "compassion," I am struck by the fact that the core of the word "compassion" is "passion." When we are passionate, we are on fire. "Passion" is wild, unbounded, uncontrolled, untamed energy. When we are compassionate, we share our passion with one another.
That's why, in yesterday's story, I was so struck by that one simple little phrase uttered by the Lama on that plane. All his life the Lama had been praying and meditating. Deep in his spirit he had truly come to the understanding that we "are" one another. There are no strangers, no different others - all of us interconnected. We all share a common joy and we all suffer in common.
And so this monk could stop a stranger in pain passing by on an airplane and wildly, passionately, unreservedly dive into the waters of their shared humanity, and practice "compassion:"
I give you all my joy. I take on all your pain.
Every human being is called to practice "compassion." It leads to perfect peace.
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