A few years ago I was visiting with a friend who had just completed her training as an LPN. She had spent the day giving immunizations to little kids. Little kids who screamed and who confronted my friend with tears streaming down their round little cheeks. But despite the pain she was inflicting, she kept stabbing needles into youthful flesh. Not only needles, but needles that contained a strain of virus that would produce pain and swelling where it had pierced precious skin.
And standing next to each child was another adult. A mother, father, grandparent, guardian who would hold this little child as they screamed and wipe their tears and kiss the owie. Someone to offer comfort, warmth and reassurance in this world that can suddenly be so unkind.
Which of the adults in this situation was being compassionate?
As we continue our exploration of Compassionate Action, today I want to attempt to hold together love that knows pain is necessary and love that wishes it were not so. This is the yin and the yang, the feminine and masculine aspects of compassion.
According to Buddhist tradition, the savior-goddess Tara was born out of the tears of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the first Buddha and the one reincarnated as the Dalai Lama. It is said that he wept as he looked upon the world of suffering beings, and his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus opened, the goddess Tara was revealed. Tara is the goddess of universal compassion. Born of a tear, it is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother’s love for her children.
There are two major forms of Tara. One is the white Tara. This is the image that I brought back with me from Tibet. She has seven eyes because she sees all suffering and cries for help for all human beings. There is also a Green Tara. She is fiercer, more wrathful and always ready to spring to virtuous and enlightened action for the sake of compassion.
Together they are Tara and they symbolize the birth of compassion – a birth that takes place when the mind and the heart meet in wisdom.
The story of Tara reminds me of someone from the Christian tradition. His name was Jesus. A man in whom the heart and the mind met in wisdom – a man whose very life was the embodiment of compassion.
Jesus, as the legend of Tara before him, is a manifestation of divine compassion. And that compassion always holds two natures – feminine and masculine, yin and yang.
Yin compassion is probably the one you think of first – the one that feels warm and fuzzy. Feminine compassion feels the pain and seeks to nurture, hold, cradle and comfort.
Yang or Masculine compassion on the other hand, knows that pain and death are sometimes necessary – and it is willing to kick butt when it needs to.
In the Christian scripture there is a reading in Matthew 23 quoting Jesus. Yin compassion cries because the children of Jerusalem refuse to gather under the wings of a hen, a loving protective God who longs for their suffering to end and for their joy to be complete. Yang compassion cries out against the acts of vipers and hypocrites and dares to will their undoing.
Feminine and Masculine
Yin compassion is gentle, caring, soothing, and serene. It is compassion that flows and loves like a mother, holding the entire universe in its womb with uncritically embracing, unconditional love.
Yang compassion is action oriented. It is direct and aggressive. And in the face of ignorance, delusion and injustice, Yang compassion is capable of ruthlessness. It is tough love. The kind of compassion that knows boundaries are necessary for the self and for others. It is the compassion that seeks to wake us and shake us up when we are lazy and slothful, untrue to our calling and unfaithful to our spiritual path.
Masculine compassion requires the capacity for concern that I talked about in last week’s blog. It demands space inside of us to hold conflicting feelings of love and hate. The opposite of masculine compassion is not feminine compassion – it’s idiot compassion.
When we don’t allow people to experience their own life or the consequences of their actions because it causes us pain to see them suffer, then we are exercising idiot compassion. When we jump to rescue people by giving them what they want or what we think they need, we are exercising idiot compassion.
Allowing loved ones to experience their own pain and suffering is yang compassion. Being with them while they suffer is yin compassion.
Integrated Compassion, the kind of compassion we see in the myth of Tara and the life of Jesus offers tough love and kindheartedness at the same time.
Compassion at the Methadone Clinic
I came face to face with the balance of yin and yang compassion when I worked at a Methadone Clinic in Grand Rapids. Methadone is the treatment for heroine, opiate and opioid addiction and when you start Methadone you have to take your dose every day. You come into the clinic to get that dose. If you arrive after hours, you don’t get your dose for the day.
I worked every other Saturday as the only office staff together with one nurse. The very first Saturday I worked a young man we’ll call Tony arrived 3 minutes too late to get his dose. The nurse was adamant that she would not give him his medicine. I was dumbfounded. He was only 3 minutes late! And Tony didn’t take it well. This 25-year-old man was reduced to tears and then the nurse came out of her enclosure and walked him out.
It took a while but I finally “got” it. Most of the people at the Methadone clinic are at a place in their lives where they need black and white realities and rigid structure. They need this the same way our kids need us to set boundaries for them, knowing they will push against them and that WE will be the correcting force that will be sure they stay safe and protected. By the way, this is why traditional churches are still necessary in our society. There are some people who need that structure, who need to be able to sort out their own lives in terms of good and bad, and who need to believe they are standing on solid ground.
Nobody dies from missing a Methadone dose. It is awful. Withdrawal always is. As Laura walked Tony out of the building she was explaining that he should take Tylenol for the headache he would get and Imodium for the diarrhea and if he really needed to, if things got bad enough, he should go to the ER.
Methadone is a controversial treatment because many people will never be able to wean off of it. In that sense, it is substitute drug for their addiction. It is a harm reduction effort because it keeps people from dying and from getting diseases from dirty needles. At it’s best, it is a bridge to healing and to a life free of substances. Few people accomplish this. During the two years I was at the Methadone clinic I only saw it happen a handful of times. Tony was one of those times.
Laura embodied yang compassion when she wouldn’t break the rules and dose someone who showed up after hours. She embodied yin compassion when she shared in their misery and invited them to call the after hours number if they needed to talk to her.
Masculine compassion doesn’t accept excuses or half-hearted attempts. It’s the kind of compassion you get when a teacher scolds you, a police officer arrests you, or a friend reprimands you because they know you are capable of more. It is the compassion you give when you allow your child to grow up and experience the consequences of not so wise choices. It is the side of love that won’t tolerate destructive behavior in our own lives or in the life of our community.
Feminine compassion is the side of love that seeks to protect and to nurture. It’s the immediate impulse to run to a fallen child to see if they are hurt, it is the fervent prayer we raise when we hear of a person in need, it is the hope we send to the universe for healing and restoration and peace. It is the compassion that accepts and encourages and welcomes indiscriminately. And it very often cries.
As we cry. Our ego will not have the satisfaction of “fixing” the injustices we see or the problems we try to solve. So we cry. We lament. And when our lament is followed by action, we have embraced mystical resistance. Mystical resistance declares that no political, economic or cultural trend that contradicts God’s saving purpose is inevitable even it if seems to be so. The center of this approach to spirituality is not the guilty feelings that afflict sensitive people in a rich, industrial society. Instead, it is the mysticism of becoming empty of ego, possession and violence in order to serve.
We will glimpse the heart of the universe only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be present in profound solidarity and compassion where people and creation suffer the most. Such love is manifest when we seek to accompany and comfort those who suffer. And when we recognize social systems of injustice, such love is manifest when we refuse to be silent about it, refrain from participating in it, and seek more just and compassionate alternatives.
Every day Beverly would walk to work. She lived in downtown Seattle and her walk would bring her through some of the most despairing sites of the city. Every single day she would walk by faces, hungry faces with searching eyes and fading hopefulness. It was overwhelming. One person could do nothing, except perhaps avert their eyes. Then one day it occurred to Beverly that there was something she could do. She could share her lunch. And so she stopped and gave half of her lunch to one of those starving faces. The next day she left her house with two lunches so that she had one to give away. After a while she left her house with a couple of lunches, eventually she brought 30 lunches with her on the way to work. Today Beverly is the Founder of Operation Lunch Sack, which over the past 16 years has provided 1.3 million meals to the homeless living in Seattle.
When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, we no longer have the option of doing nothing. We can’t ignore, excuse or belittle the reality of the suffering before us and around the world. When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom we no longer have the option of responding with idiot compassion. We can no longer make ourselves the focus so that we act out of our own inability to be with other people’s pain.
When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, we find ourselves holding a tissue in one hand and a sword in the other so that we might respond with whatever tool is called for in the situation at hand. When our heart and our mind meet in wisdom, compassion is born – and we give vaccines even though we know they make little kids cry.