September 30, 2013

A Compassionate Heart

I remember a conversation with my high-school volleyball coach. She advised me, as setter, to be a sponge: soak up team emotions, but remain even-keeled; be a positive leader. I absorbed negativity, upset, and frustration. I took responsibility for everything and beamed enthusiasm. This was natural for me. From an early age, I sensed the emotions of others.

Eventually, though, the emotional-sponge model didn't work for me. I took on the difficulties of others as if they were my own. I thought I could save people. I thought I was responsible for the world. My heart was overwhelmed. 

I needed to look inside myself; to understand my own emotions. With enough self-awareness, I began to discern my feelings from those of others. I could see my response to the pain of friends. Then I tried to work skillfully with the situation--applying loving-kindness to both myself and others. It took practice to develop compassion--to open my heart completely and yet not be overwhelmed. Sharon Salzberg writes in Loving-Kindness: "It is a state of peace to be able to accept things as they are. This is to be at home in our own lives. We see that this universe is much too big to hold on to, but it is the perfect size for letting go. Our hearts and minds can become that big, and we can actually let go. This is the gift of equanimity."

The last two weeks brought sad news from different arenas. Distressing things happening to people I love. Some days I'm overwhelmed by sadness--so many people suffering. I try to remember Sharon's words: the universe is much too big to hold onto. I can't possibly save the world or take away the pain of loved ones. And if I dwell in an overwhelmed state, I only create more suffering--my friends suffer and I suffer. A different strategy is to open my heart; to not resist the pain and sadness. Then do what I can to help. And when I can't help, I let go. (The universe is the perfect size for letting go.) Sometimes I forget, but then I remember: I only need trust in my compassionate heart.

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