Last summer while at my second Vipassana course, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. I was shown what compassion means. To be honest, I didn’t realize at the time how important of a lesson it would be or even adequately understood the concept, but since it is a rare day where the lesson doesn’t apply in my life. I now see compassion as central to bridging the divide that has occurred between countries, political parties, and down to our own families and friends. But before I get into that, let me explain what happened during my Vipassana course.
Last July in the middle of the Indian summer I went to do a Vipassana course. If you’re not familiar with what a Vipassana course is, check out this link, but the super quick explanation is that it’s a ten-day, intense silent meditation course for learning this particular style of meditation. During the third or fourth day of my course, as I was trying to focus all my mental attention on the practice, a man in front of me who was no more than a foot away began to burp. This was no normal burp. This was a really loud, repeating burp. In addition, there was a chorus of other meditators around making various noises. All of this combined with the blistering Indian heat in the room made it extremely hard to practice. I didn’t feel like I was as focused as my first course and I was getting discouraged. I didn’t want to leave my ten days without making “real progress” with my mental strength. I tried to bear with it but finally decided to speak to the teacher and see if I could move to the back of the room. It wasn’t quite as full at the back and definitely quieter.
So during the normal lunch break, I went to see the teacher and explained my situation (speaking to ask questions to the teacher are permitted). I told him how I wasn’t able to focus because of the noise around me and was hoping to sit in the back. To my surprise, the teacher said no. I thought I presented a reasonable argument and didn’t think my moving to the back would disturb anyone. When I asked him, he said something like, “I don’t want you to move. You’re an old student (meaning I had taken a previous course) so it is good that you sit around other old students to be surrounded by their energy”. This is the moment I’d learn one of the most important lessons of my life. “Plus”, he said, “use this situation to learn compassion for the students around you and their lack of awareness”. I was confused and disappointed. Why is compassion important when meditating? And how was I going to be able to deeply meditate?
“…being right will never lead to a happy ending. It will always lead one person feeling like he or she isn’t good enough in some way.”
While I was discouraged, I decided to trust that my teacher knew best and I didn’t argue with him. In addition, he was kind enough to agree to let me go to the back of the room whenever I wanted to take breaks, but he encouraged me to sit in my spot most of the time. While it was certainly challenging, in the end I completed the course and I had a great experience.
Often when you leave a Vipassana course you feel on top of the world. You have learned this magical skill of mind control — of your own mind! But within a few days or weeks, the feeling of invincibility can disappear when faced with the real challenges of your life. It’s always the people and things that are most important to me that impact my mental state. So for me, more often than not, that would be my partner, Urszula. While there is no one who can make me smile and laugh more, she is also the person who is able to get under my skin the most. I’m guessing this no shocker to most of you — it’s common our significant others can be the source of much our joy and pain. But as a dedicated Vipassana student now, this situation troubled me. How can I be a real student of Vipassana and still not have peace with Ula, I wondered? It just didn’t seem right.
“We’re all seeking peace and happiness at the end of the day, but there is no chance of finding it without having compassion for the world around us.”
I started thinking about our arguments more deeply. As I did, my teacher’s voice came to me. Be compassionate about others’ lack of awareness. Whether I am right or not, I could see in the heat of the moment none of us appreciate to hear how we’re wrong or should change. Especially when the other person has plenty of room for improvement. More importantly, when we would later discuss our fight and I’d ask her why she said what disturbed me, I would realize she had a pretty rational reason considering her background. Different from the reason I created in my head. It may not always be correct, but it is fair considering where she is coming from. Meaning a perspective instilled into her by life situations or stuff she learned from someone else. While frustrating, it is hard to blame her for how she handled the situation. The same is true when it came to me. When we’d calmly talk later, it would be much easier to see how perhaps we could both have handled the situation differently. How we should have been more compassionate to one another.
This is when my teacher’s lesson truly came to life for me. I realize, even if I am right when arguing with Ula or anyone else, being right will never lead to a happy ending. It will always lead one person feeling like he or she isn’t good enough in some way. Instead, it is important to understand where the other person is coming from. Understand why the other person is making the decision they are making and when the time is right, have a calm discussion on how either person could have handled the situation differently and why. While this may seem complicated and hard, any other approach for heated argument is doomed to fail. No amount of facts or figures will convince someone they are wrong. There is plenty of evidence demonstrating this. Instead, if we take the approach of being on the same side and come from a place of compassion, it is possible to find a place where both people can agree.
Humans, like our most recent mammal ancestors, are designed to be social, communal creatures. Unfortunately, current social structures, primarily capitalism, combined with a lack of proper teaching on the concept of ego has caused us to become extremely individualistic. In the process, this effort to become “king of the jungle” has created a situation where we are fighting to be the smartest person in the room instead of the most compassionate. Instead of trying to gently and kindly help each other understand things, we simply want to yell or avoid properly dealing with the underlying problems in front of us. That’s what my teacher wanted me to understand that day. He wanted me to see that this goal I was trying to get to was not more urgent or important than mentally supporting my fellow students and learning the lesson of compassion. I believe that is the truth for all of us. We’re all seeking peace and happiness at the end of the day, but there is no chance of finding it without having compassion for the world around us. No amount of money, job titles, material objects or anything else will bring us real peace without compassion.
Earlier in the week, the Dalai Lama coincidently tweeted about compassion, summing up my point in a little over 140 characters. Let’s be people of compassion!