The dogma of compassion

Not many would deny that compassion is a virtue. Some would even say it is the opposite of dogma. On a fundamental level, that is true. Yet it is possible for compassion to become dogmatic when it is defined too narrowly, and begins to take on a form of brutal piety.

I had this bizarre exchange with a friend recently. Here’s how it went. The details have been altered slightly but the form is essentially the same.

Friend: Hi, how’re you?

Me: Not too good. I’ve just had some bad news… [I was about to explain that someone I was close to had died, so I was feeling particularly fragile.]

Friend: Hey, you know, my bunions are giving me trouble again. I could barely do my shopping at the supermarket. I was hobbling as I pushed the cart. Even the old ladies were giving me funny looks. [The said bunions had been the topic of many a dreary conversation for several months.]

Me: I’m sorry, but I can’t really talk about your feet today.

Friend (defensive and irate): Don’t you care about my health!? Where’s your compassion?

Me: Urrr…?

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Do what you’re doing when you’re doing it

Large scale natural (and man-made) disasters, like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, often drive people to come up with ‘explanations’ for why these events happen. Like the response to the tsunami disaster that struck the countries in the Indian Ocean in 2004, I’ve come across a few claims that the ’cause’ of the suffering in Japan today is the ‘result’ of a collective national karma for its past. Depending on which you read, accounts range from their misdeeds during WWII, to their failure to take care of the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki! All of which I personally find pretty outrageous, and the reason why I’m not linking to them — in the age of the Internet, they’re easy enough to find if you’re inclined to look.

I don’t claim to know whether or not it is a collective karma at work. It may well be so, I can’t say. What I’m more intrigued by is the audacity of any one person to claim to know such a thing. I don’t feel particularly well versed in any of the theologies that support the concept of karma, but from my own fledgling and intermittent Buddhist studies, I’ve picked up a sense that the notion of karma, at least in the Buddhist tradition, is far more complex, layered and ineffable to be so crudely applied.

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Healing Pluto Problems

In honour of Pluto going direct on 11 September 2009, I thought I’d share some thoughts about Donna Cunningham‘s book, Healing Pluto Problems, whose title I’ve borrowed for the title of this post.

I picked up this book on Neith’s recommendation. It is not as heavy-going as Judy Hall’s Hades Moon, which I’ve written about here and also like for different reasons. Rather, Cunningham’s book contextualises Plutonian issues (deep transformation, sex, death, guilt, resentment and so on) in terms of the things one can do to mitigate their effects, whether one is the Plutonian or on the receiving end of one. And it could well be both — Plutonians tend to attract other Plutonians.

Being a Plutonian herself, Cunningham exhibits great empathy for the depth and intensity of Plutonian feelings. If there are ‘problems’ with being Plutonian, it is not the natures of Plutonians that are put on the line, only a lack of understanding (and resources) in wider society to address them. The book does not victimise Plutonian native either — each one is required to take responsibility for their own actions and feelings, and the author is quick to point out that the unevolved can quite easily turn their Plutonian power on others and themselves.

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Pluto in Capricorn: Managed to dodge the flying debris?

Or withstand it at least?

Pluto rumbles into 0° Capricorn (or 30° Sagittarius, depending on who you read) today, marking the end of a thirteen and a half year trawl through Sagittarius. A quick google search will throw up many astrological analyses of the period, the hidden (Pluto) excesses (Sagittarius) of which we are just seeing now. Pluto on the cusp of a new sign marks not just the transition into a new era, but also the overhauling of its entire architecture and decor:

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Bearing someone else’s karma

I read this excerpt from a selection of talks, called The Transformed Mind: Reflections on Truth, Love and Happiness, given by HH the 14th Dalai Lama.

Is it possible to bear somebody else’s karma for them?

Generally speaking, according to Buddhist teaching, you will not encounter the results of an action that you have not committed, and once you have committed the action, the result will never get lost, and you have to experience it. Here I think it’s quite important to make a distinction. When you suffer, you not only feel pain or discomfort at that moment, but also a kind of helplessness and discouragement. You are completely enshrouded in that suffering and there is a kind of darkness.

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Love and possession

As the Sun (self/ego) opposes Uranus (unpredictability, sudden change) today, bringing to light our need for, and often also our fear of, change, we are given a little taste of the greater struggle to come when Saturn (the planet of discipline, constriction, and conservatism) opposes Uranus on the 4th of November later this year. Yes, Election Day USA — it’ll be interesting to see who wins the tug of war, Saturn (establishment) or Uranus (change), and who/what gets split/torn in the tussle.

But I’m not talking about that today. As the Mercury-Venus-Mars stellium in Libra (relationships, balance) trines Chiron (healing with awareness) and the North Node (collective future) in Aquarius (humanitarianism, individuality), I am prompted to consider the easy substitution, or confusion (Neptune’s there too), of love with possession. Aquarius is, significantly, ruled by Uranus and Saturn, so the Aquarian paradox (of individuality and collectiveness, innovation and fixity) is going to make the Libra work to find a balance. Not easy, but worth trying.

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Recycling toxicity

I wondered a little while ago about getting upset with people who choose to live emotional toxic waste dumps. Last night, my unconscious must’ve been trying to tell me something because the word ‘tonglen‘ popped up in my dream. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism but I do know a little bit about tonglen, having once made the acquaintance of a woman who was trying to put it in practice.

The core of tonglen practice, as described here, is by ‘breathing in other’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness’, literally using your lungs and heart and body in compassion to purify the negative energy and convert it to joy and happiness.

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Parts and pieces

I rather enjoyed doing the little mini-review the last time, that I thought I’d do another, and later on, one on occasion. Even the simple act of summarising and describing the content in the book helps me to internalise some of its ideas and integrate them a bit better in my mind. So here’s a write up on a book I first read a long time ago, and several times after that, and one which I credit for setting me off on this path with greater certitude.

Mark Epstein’s Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart sort of fell into my lap and pulled me out of some fairly dark times about eight years ago, and recently, I had the chance to pass it on to someone else after reading it for the third or fourth time.

It is a book pondering the limits of modern psychotherapy rather than about Buddhism but I like Epstein’s interweaving of Buddhist perspectives with modern psychotherapeutic practices in an attempt to show how psychotherapy might be more effective if the ego-self were actually allowed to go to pieces, instead of being continually shored up by self-affirmative thoughts, actions or attitudes.

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Sex and Zen III: 8th house astrology

Parts I, and II.

Death of the Phoenix Trawling through my archives, I came across this article by Eric Francis on eighth house astrology, bringing together ideas of orgasm, death, and self-renewal, I’d been musing about earlier. ‘Typically,’ he writes, ‘the 8th becomes a dance of death: ego death; flirtation with orgasm and desire (often secret desire)’.

In the previous post, I made the connection between the Zen notion of dying in each moment, and the notion of death associated with orgasm. Interestingly, astrology seems to correlate these notions within the domain of the eighth house, and I quote Francis here again:

Part of the 8th is the struggle to be free of the struggles of money/death/sex struggles of the 8th and embrace self-acceptance in the face of others. Part of self-acceptance is being aware that all living things die; we die; and relationships, as part of the changing world, will invariably change.

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The algebra of apology, or thoughts on the Libra Full Moon

Afterimage I meant to blog the second part of ‘Sex and Zen‘, but it will have to wait. Something more immediate has come up in the shadow of the full moon in Libra tomorrow (on the 20th or 21st of March, depending on which part of the world you live in).

Full moons bring issues to fruition, completion, or peaks. In the sign of Libra, the balance scales, the adjudicator and the peacemaker, this full moon is set to highlight issues of fairness, justice, and relations with other people. In the words of Lisa Dale Miller:

A Full Moon in Libra asks each of us to practice one particular relational skill: listening attentively with an open heart, an open mind, and without interruption or feedback. What exactly will we be listening for? Hopefully we can each attend to the voices of All Our Relations. This includes every living thing, on all planes of existence, on this planet, in our solar system, in our galaxy, and all throughout the multiplicitous universe. Think of this day as an invitation to enter into a sacred circle with every one and every thing you encounter. Interrupt less, listen more, and learn from every word, every movement, each intimation, and every action. With the light of the Full Moon making all things knowable, it is our job to open ourselves wide and take in all of life: the joy, the pain, the suffering, the ecstasy, the extraordinary, the ordinary, the pure, the defiled, the ignorance and intelligence.

A recent, and recurrent, encounter (unsurprisingly dating back to when the Moon entered Libra in early November 2007), is forcing me to face up to issues of limits, boundaries, and fair representation of self as it relates to others. Can we accept how others see us, even if that representation seems false? If truth lies in competing perspectives, can we assert one truth of ourselves against the perceived falsehood of another? Where do we draw the line at what is an acceptable truth, and what is not? Where is the line between abuse and a silent plea for help? Between the abuser and the abused? Which is which? What is the ideal balance between tolerance and self-preservation, compassion and withdrawal from cruelty?

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8 for ’08

I’m excerpting Judith Gayle’s ‘Big 8′ for 2008 here. Couldn’t have hoped to say it better myself.

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Letting life happen

I was listening to a talk by Paul Haller recently, called ‘Just Sitting Being Alive’, which he delivered in Belfast sometime last year (it can be found on the Black Mountain website).

One thing he said about Zen practice that struck me; that stillness is ‘when we can just let life happen around us’ (or something to that effect). (It is interesting that the same point – being in the moment – can be made over and over, and yet have something new to learn from each time).

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