"Kindness and Compassion"
-in my meditation garden-
If I go to the supermarket on either Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, I am assured that I will be greeted at the entrance by a man sitting behind a little table soliciting donations for a local homeless shelter. According to the store manager, he's not actually supposed to be there- solicitations are not allowed on the premises. But nonetheless, there he is on those days - a standard fixture at the store entrance, and for some reason, I have always been drawn to that man soliciting donations.
He sits at a little table positioned on a sidewalk, no shade - he wears a wide-brimmed hat to protect him from the baking desert sun with afternoon temperatures these days getting into the triple digits. He is probably quite young but it's hard to tell because the lines on his face tell of an obviously hard-lived past.
Many people pass him by, some are annoyed at his unwelcome intrusion into their lives. He isn't pushy though. His shelter is one of those Christian-based missions, but he never tries to convert or propagandize. He greets people as they pass with a kind word. He expresses genuine gratitude to anyone who might stop and place a dollar or two in his collection box.
Yesterday, as I saw this familiar sight of that man sitting there at the store entrance in the hot afternoon sun, I stopped and chatted with him. I asked about the mission of his shelter and inquired about his faithful presence outside that store. His simple answer almost brought me to tears: "I was on the streets for years, homeless, hungry and addicted." He said. "They took me in and cared for me. Now, it's my turn to do do my part for others out there."
I suddenly realized why I was always kind of drawn to that kind man in the desert sun with the big brimmed hat - Every time I see him, I am taught an important lesson about the spiritual journey. Any genuine spiritual path must always overflow into compassionate living.
The word "spirituality" is indeed quite popular these days. There are hundreds of places in the social media where people talk about "meditation," and "mindfulness" and "awareness" ( I'm one of the people who talk about these things in my daily blog posts). But if spiritual practices stop at "awareness," they haven't gone far enough and may even be more harmful than helpful on the pathway to deeper peace.
If "I" meditate or practice mindfulness so that "I" can feel deep peace or greater serenity, so that "I" can reduce stressful living, then it's really all about "me." Instead of drawing one out of a self-important ego, it is also possible for spiritual practices to feed the ego.
Jesus taught his disciples that, if they were to be his followers and walk in his "way," they must extend their lives in service to others. Jesus' teaching placed a special emphasis on embracing those who are on the margins of life: "Whatever you do to the least among you, that you do unto me." If you shelter a homeless person, or feed a hungry person, you are sheltering and feeding the Christ.
The Buddha taught almost exactly the same thing to his disciples: "Whoever would tend me, he should tend those in need."
Disciples who walk the eight-fold path of the Buddha are directed to live a life of "right acton," taking care to remember that the life path of enlightened awareness must always overflow into compassionate action and living a life of kindness.
A picture of Saint Francis of Assisi adorns the wall of my meditation garden. Many people put Saint Francis in their gardens because of his reputed love for animals and nature. I put him there for a different reason. Francis of Assisi didn't spend a lot of time inside church. Most of the time he was out on the streets, literally laying down his life for the welfare of others - caring for the stranger, welcoming the homeless, feeding the hungry, tending the sick and needy. He is an icon of compassionate living.
Every morning I sit in my garden for a time of meditation and mindfulness. It is always a time of deep peace for me - a time when I feel an intimate sense of oneness and Presence. But I keep the image of Saint Francis before me to remind me that my spiritual journey can't stay in the garden. My journey leads me to "right action."
Like that man with the hat who faithfully sits in front of a supermarket in the hot desert sun, my life must also flow out from the garden into compassionate living - acts of kindness on the streets of everyday life.