We tend to see ourselves as fixed, static, small, but deep down we know that we are not at all fixed but made of energy that is in movement, tethered to a greater truth, a much greater whole, drawing it down to us. We realize this in love and in loss—the invisible presence of a loved one painfully apparent in absence. We marvel at the size and quality of this energy field (it’s hard to know what to call it). An enormous hole looms open in the atmosphere, much larger and more indescribable than the physical person we knew. I have sensed this since last Thursday, when my 93-year-old father, Paul Cochran, died peacefully. And Friday, when in a nearby town so many small and innocent children died violently, along with the brave educators who died trying to save them.
On Sunday, my local mediation group sat in a circle and shared stories of loss and grief and the compassion that followed (or didn’t follow). We all had wisdom to share. A friend remembered being asked if her old mother’s death was sudden. “Yes, it was: one moment she was alive and the next she was dead.” One minute she was in the seemingly manageable world of the known, the next moment she slipped into the unknown. One moment life seems manageable, even routine. The next moment we are surrounded by mystery.
And sometimes what we must confront is incomprehensible. Another friend in our circle told us he worked with several parents who had children in that school in Newtown. Breaking down in sobs, he told us he knew a mother who lost a little boy. “It seems so senseless, “he said. “What do you say? The best I could think of is that millions of people are reaching out to you with compassion now.”
Compassion can flower from grief. Sometimes this happens instantly and spontaneously—the Buddha described it as the quivering of the heart in response to suffering. Suffering loss, we know how it feels to suffer loss. Sometimes it takes a long time for the bitterness of loss to flower into compassion (“It takes as long as it takes, my old father used to say.”)
As we meditated in a circle around a little altar with candles and pictures and the names of those who died, we practiced silently offering the ancient phrases of the” karuna” or compassion practice to our neighbors in Newtown: “I see you suffering, I share your suffering, May suffering cease.” Gradually we opened the circle of our compassion, to all mothers everywhere who have lost children to violence, to all who have lost loved ones. Sitting on yoga in stillness in a circle in candlelight, we remembered what really matters.
“People should not worry as much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good, then their deeds are radiant. If you are righteous, then what you do will also be righteous. We should not think that holiness is based on what we do but rather on what we are, for it is not our works which sanctify us but we who sanctify our works.”
The truth cannot be thought—it must be lived. The truth of what we are slips through the net of our conceptions. On Sunday in Newtown, President Obama quoted Scripture, seeking to turn a stunned nation towards the unseen. In Buddhism also, there are hints that the truth is in movement. The seven factors of awakening are a causal progression—the state of mindfulness leads to investigation, which leads to a burst of energy, which leads to joy. Joy leads to tranquility, and that calm leads to concentration. Finally comes equanimity, upekkha, an ability to be in the midst of life no matter what is happening, the inspired, dynamic state of equipoise that leads on to awakening. It is the ability to be with life no matter what is happening. In a sense it is an act of faith, an act of opening to what is seen and unseen. It is a way of living that is constantly responsive, always in movement, ever renewing. I read a quote I loved on the internet this morning: “True compassion is always in state of readiness.”
May are hearts be in a constant state of readiness. May our hearts be first responders. May all who suffer find peace.