The Gift of Giving

John Tarrant


Once a student came to me who was a master of loving kindness meditation. She would meditate for several days at a time and then people would start to follow her around in the street. They wanted to touch her, to be near some mystery that they sensed she held, to be blessed by the unconditional delight she was experiencing. In this story compassion is an art or a work, and there are practices that support it.

But compassion is also something given, a mystery, a strange event. It appears even when it is not looked for and it can be absent when we need it most. It seems that compassion increases when it is happening already, so that if we do some small, kind thing, others near us will also be kind. The energy of that impulse will gather and the village around us will grow happier for a certain period of time. It will be more tolerant of its outcasts and its artists. We can also see that the absence of compassion gathers energy so that some situations spiral downward until to be human is to be mere, animated, disregarded matter.

We all want more compassion. We never seem to have enough of it for ourselves, for each other, and for the creatures we share life with. So, if compassion is a mystery, how does it come about, what practices bring it into being? Can practices bring it into being?

The story that follows is a start. A physician was working at a low-fee clinic when a large man, a Harley man, a muscle-builder from Southern California, became a patient. He had AIDS and one of the opportunistic infections afflicting him was dermatitis. He was big and frightening to begin with, and now his skin was falling off in such a disfiguring fashion that people hurried out of his way in the street. The physician treated him and, without thinking much about it, used to pick up bags of oranges for him when she shopped for her family. She knew he wouldn't or couldn't go into a market and that he didn't get much fresh food. She was a resident at the time, and one day her attending physician saw her give the man the oranges. He called her in for a lecture on boundaries. The attending physician was so concerned about her behavior that he made a note in her personnel file. Before this moment there had never been any reason to think that she was not an excellent doctor. She was a safe doctor and an effective one, a star in her class, but the attending physician had decided that this particular action of bringing oranges to the patient was dangerous. She didn't believe that the attending was right, but wasn't really sure either. The point seemed moot because she was about to leave for a rotation elsewhere and it was expected that the patient would die while she was away.

The day she returned she got a phone call asking her to visit the patient. The man was expected to die that day. When she arrived, he said, "I have been waiting for you to return so that I could thank you for the oranges. You did something for me that no one has ever done before." Those oranges meant much more than fresh food, they were globes of light; they meant love and respect and fellow feeling, they meant compassion. She knew then, she said, that she had been right to shop for the oranges. Having thanked her, which was his compassion and his obligation, he died peacefully that day.

One of the things about compassion is that it needs to persist and to be done for its own sake, for the sake of our souls. We will not be rewarded for it in the obvious easy ways we can be rewarded for making a good investment. But we will be rewarded in other ways, because if we have compassion and act upon it, life will have a taste and the colors will be bright and we will know we are loved and have a place on earth.

Compassion is something that needs to be encouraged, like an endangered species, perhaps something we need more of. We can always use more compassion, but as I sink deeper into my questions about kindness, it seems that compassion appears naturally without our striving for it. It appears when we are genuine, when we are, as the old Chinese would say, in harmony with the Tao.

Compassion can be an activity half in dream, natural, like a tired resident buying oranges at midnight in Safeway.

Compassion seems to begin with the earth who sends up food, animals and ourselves, receives our pains, desires, and secret, whispered hopes, and who holds us through all the span of our lives and takes us back when it is time. This is the empty land out of which we all appear and which, improbably, sustains us. So when we speak of compassion, it does not begin with a small personal effort, though it may end that way. It begins with a contact with the mystery, a surrender to the mystery that we are all linked and do not understand why. Then we discover that when we search for knowledge we stumble against love, we find unexpected companions, we find ourselves holding each others' hands.

The old T'ai Chi teachers used to watch the movements of the cranes and the snakes to work out how to move in natural harmony, and perhaps we can start our exploration of compassion by watching the earth itself. The earth gives and receives and it witnesses. There are ancient purification ceremonies in which we speak our sorrows and crimes into a hole in the ground to release them.

The meditation method of witness is called mindfulness. In mindfulness, we accompany our own pains and thoughts and hopes whatever arises in the mind and heart and notice kindly, as if what arises were a child, a lover, our oldest friend. This act of witness is pure. It does not strive to be kind, it is just a good companion. And out of this companionship compassion arises the fellow feeling that men have in the mines, and at war, that women have in childbirth, but that is not commonly found in corporations. This fellow feeling is raw and exacting, it doesn't come from our will but reveals itself to our noticing, it appears in the most painful circumstances so we can trust it. Compassion is the link we have with each other. It leads to small and unpredictable acts of kindness. To ignore it is to head into hell. To observe it and rest in it is to be fully human and that is enough for one life. That is something real.

John Tarrant is one of the new generation of Zen masters trained in both Eastern and Western traditions, and the author of "The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul and the Spiritual Life." He is a contributor to the poetry anthologies "Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhist Poets in America" and "What Book."

John has practiced meditation in the major Buddhist traditions, is a Zen Roshi, and teaches meditation and trains meditation teachers in the United States and Australia. He also has a Ph.D. in psychology and practices Jungian psychotherapy with a special interest in healing and the imagination. He founded and directs the California Diamond Sangha.