In the last Spiritual Sushi post, about the nature of suffering (http://spiritualsushi.com/making-sense-of-suffering-part-1/), the focus was on how do we shift from suffering to acceptance and compassion. Here I offer the most helpful guidance I have found.
As humans, we are wired to react to threats with a fight or flight response. We respond by fleeing the source of the pain or turning around to attack it. Our brains are wired for this. The amygdala at the root of the brain stem is quick to respond automatically — almost unconsciously — to save us from threats. To turn this around, we need to engage consciously instead.
The teacher Tara Brach offers a way to do this with the path of “attend and befriend” in place of fight or flight. The “attend” stance is to turn to see the other — the source of the threat or attack — with conscious awareness. The “befriend” response is to engage them with compassion.
The following story from Terry Dobson when he was studying in Japan illustrates this well.
An American aikido student in Tokyo was headed home one afternoon on the train when at a stop, a big, drunk man stormed into the cabin roughly shoving a slow-moving woman with a baby ahead of him. He glared around the cabin looking to see who might challenge him. The aikido student thought if there was ever a reason to apply his practice it was now.
So, he locked eyes with the man, who snarled and stepped towards him. As the student braced for the physical engagement, a voice from the other side of the cabin called out– hey! The two men wheeled around in the direction of the voice. It was an elderly man with kindly eyes. Have you been drinking sake, he asked the drunk, beaming? What’s it to you? said the drunk, now stepping toward him. Well, I love sake too, said the older man. Every night, I sit with my wife in my garden with my wife and we enjoy some warm sake. Do you also sit with your wife in the evenings? he asked the drunk, who was taken off guard. The man blinked and stuttered, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have a job, I have nothing. Then, tears burst down his cheeks. Here, here, said the older gentleman, patting the seat beside him. The drunk tumbled forward, slumping into the arms of the older man. The student watching it all unfold in amazement observed: Today, I learned what true aikido is.
This story illustrates the power of compassion. It may seem idealistic but, as we’ll explore in the next post, is exactly how great social change leaders have created great change.
This practice of attend and befriend can also be applied to ourselves. When we are upset with ourselves or our circumstance, we also tend to resort to the fight or flight response — to blame ourselves or others, or try to avoid and bury the anger. The attend and befriend response is to tune in and acknowledge our feelings with compassion. What I have found is that many things, when acknowledged, are released.
My daughter, when she was a toddler, liked to run. Unsteady on her feet, she’d often fall, sometimes on the sidewalk. I found that I could tell her to be careful but this would cause her to wail more loudly; if I gave her a comforting hug instead and asked if she was okay, she’d quickly smile, nod, and so be back to her cheerful self.
Kindness offered is not quickly forgotten and paid forward.
You may recall the classic Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion. Androcles, a runaway slave who had taken refuge in a cave, found himself face to face with a fierce lion who was sheltered there. The lion roared and Androcles was terrified. But the lion then raised a paw. There was a giant thorn there. Slowly Androcles summoned his courage and approached the lion and gently removed the thorn. The lion licked Androcles in gratitude. When they parted ways, Androcles and the lion were both captured. Androcles was put into an arena to be fed to the lions. As he was pushed into the ring, a lion was let loose from the opposite side. The lion charged at him but then recognizing Androcoles turned into the likes of a puppy, embracing and licking Androcles. The stunned emperor who was watching the spectacle summoned Androcoles. On hearing the story, both Androcles and the lion were released.
Attend and befriend doesn’t avoid or seek to avenge harm but heal the cycles of abuse and hurt that ripple through the world. The truth is we all have plenty of thorns stuck in us that cause us pain and anger. These may be hard to see and frightening to engage. Yet, like the lion, we want someone to attend to our pain and offer us kindness. We too can offer compassion to others for the hurt that they may be carrying.
In a future post, I’ll write about how we can build our inner capacity for compassion. For now, what has been your experience in how to respond to harm with compassion?
Why Fore-giveness is better than Forgiveness
Anger! (and Conscious Choice)
Compassion is Contagious, too