Thursday, January 15, 2015

That Which Changes Us - Dharma Art

Pencil crayon & ink on bristol board
Original and prints available through

"The bodhisattva practices in the middle of the fire."
-Pema Chodron

In Tibetan Buddhism the dragon represents clear seeing, wisdom and compassion. It strips away our delusions and shows us how to have an open heart to everything life offers. 

For a very long time I felt like I could be a stable, functioning human being if only things could level out for a bit. If I had the 'right' job or the 'right' home or the 'right' relationship then maybe I'd find equilibrium and a sense of ease in the world. 

This line of thinking increased my anxiety exponentially and ultimately led me to have a full mental breakdown. Because the world doesn't work that way. Life isn't fair. But life isn't unfair either. It gives us exactly what we need and I've come to learn the most from the difficult situations in my life. 

When I was twenty-three my relationship ended. I was told I was no longer loved and left just six weeks before what was meant to be the wedding of my dreams. 

The experience was incredibly painful and I was offered many platitudes. Most commonly I was told: "Better before than after!" 

Well, several years later I was married and very committed to what that meant for me. Marriage is a curious institution and not one I entered lightly. I set the aspiration to love unconditionally, to do whatever work was required of me for the relationship and to accept the other person as they were. 

But it takes two and after a while I felt the pain of heartbreak as I was once again left by someone who no longer felt the same way. 

I can tell you from experience, totally honestly, that it was no less painful to be left before a marriage than after a marriage. Both experiences involved a lot of heartache and the need to grieve. 

But I don't ever wish either had never happened because I learned so many valuable things from both.

I learned what it means to forgive, truly. I learned that forgiveness is something that can, and indeed must, be offered without having received an apology. It is not condoning the actions of another - someone may have committed murder and forgiveness is not saying that murder is acceptable. Forgiveness is seeing the complexity of another human being and accepting that they didn't know any better. 

And forgiveness is something we do for ourselves as much as we do it for the other. Because forgiveness allows us to heal and it is much better to forgive than to hold onto resentment, anger or righteous indignation, which simply cripple us emotionally and create a sense of 'us and them', which has never served anyone. 

The other valuable thing I learned was what compassion truly means. Genuine compassion, not idiot compassion born of feeling sorry for another or being overwhelmed with the dark and sad things we see in the world. Compassion as a way of seeing our own humanity and that of another and seeing that being kind is the greatest thing we can do to benefit the planet. This does not mean putting ourselves in the path of harm or letting ourselves remain in abusive or mentally distressing situations. 

Without compassion we cannot have forgiveness because it's compassion that allows us to see our shared human experience. It's compassion that lets us see all of ourselves, our own confusion, arrogance, spitefulness and cruelty and recognise that none of us are any better or worse than anyone else. We're all complicated creatures with our own stories. 

I have the greatest compassion for those who lash out at the world around them because I can see so clearly how they make their own lives that much more difficult. These are not people who need more anger directed towards them - they generate enough of that themselves. It's a heartbreaking experience, when we can feel this genuine sense of love for even the most anonymous stranger. 

I was once fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask Pema Chodron a question and my question was about compassion. Her answer to me was that compassion is good for the heart. Ultimately, regardless of the situation, if we work on our own mind and heart with a genuine aspiration to cultivate compassion it will do us far more good than holding onto spite, anger or jealousy. 

At the time I was struggling to let these things go and I wasn't about to take her word for it. I spent the last year since asking that question experimenting. When I open my heart to others, when I am kind and don't expect people to be any different than they are, what is the result? 

I can honestly say from experience that it is far better to have compassion than not and that the more I practice in this way the more it becomes my default setting. The world is a much friendlier place when we don't look at other as enemies but rather as comrades in the same challenging, ever changing situation as our own. 

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