Seattle - November 14, 2001

This gathering was held in Seattle, Washington, where Barbara had come to lead a vipassana retreat on the weekend. Skipping introductory comments.

Aaron: I am spirit. You are spirit. You presently are in a body. I am not in a body. Because I'm not in a body I have a different perspective. Also, because I have learned certain things along the way, you may find it valuable to hear them. But I'm not better than you, nor inherently wiser than you. I have simply opened to the wisdom that lies within all of you. And I have learned to open to the compassionate heart, to which all of you also have access.

Each of you has 4 bodies. This is not my scheme; it is a common spiritual teaching, that you have a physical body, an emotional body, mental body and a spirit body. I no longer have a physical or emotional body. I retain the use of the mental body in order to teach but I no longer identify myself by the mental body. I am spirit. You are spirit. I may speak to you as such but I'm also aware that you do dwell in these physical and emotional bodies and that there is an identity with them.

I assume that most of you, if not all of you, are here because whether consciously or unconsciously you are a spiritual seeker. By that I mean you are seeking to know your true self, the meaning of your life, while you are in this body. You seek to understand what this whole process of incarnation means.

The spiritual seeker is in the process of learning that he or she is not the body, not the emotions, not even the thoughts or stream of consciousness. Wisdom about what you are not develops faster than it develops about what you are. If you're not your thoughts, your body, your emotions, what are you? What is this thing we are calling spirit? What is the ground of being?

Part of your spiritual path then is wisdom, learning to understand what you are not and what you are. But an equally important part of the spiritual path is the development of compassion, compassion for the human who is caught up in an identity with the body and emotions. That identity has not yet been broken. When something creates anger in you, for example, you say, "I'm angry." There is still a sense of a self, somebody who is angry. The wisdom mind may understand certain conditions arose, served as ground for further conditions, and the result was the arising of this emotion we call anger. Very difficult emotion, unpleasant, but we don't say, "Conditions have arisen which result in anger in this mind and body," we say, "I'm angry."

Slowly you begin to understand there is no self that's angry, it's just the playing out of conditions. And yet you are still responsible for the anger, jealousy, pride, impatience or greed, still responsible to take care of this difficult emotion.

I don't know you but my conjecture is that for many of you, when a difficult emotion arises there may be self-judgment about it, suppression of it, even a feeling of shame that that emotion arose. People have different habitual patterns. Some people will deny the experience of the difficult emotion. Some people will become aggressive and act it out, defiant. But mostly as you advance on a spiritual path, feelings of shame and discomfort arise. "I shouldn't be angry. I shouldn't be greedy." But the fear, the greed, the anger, these are results, the results of conditions.

When such an emotion arises, the emotion is one object and the habitual relationship is a second object. In order to become clearer about your experience and more compassionate with yourself, you first need to see the sequence. It's not just with emotion; it may be with a physical sensation. You may have a headache or bellyache and say "No, I have work to do. It's not convenient to have a headache or a bellyache now. I won't be bothered by it." Well, to be bothered by it so that you run from it or hate it is one thing, but how can you begin to be compassionate to yourself before you acknowledge there is this discomfort? One must allow oneself to feel discomforted by it, whether it's the physical bellyache or the emotional anger or fear, to acknowledge, "Right now I am feeling this discomfort and it's okay to have discomfort. It's human".

So you learn that you are human. You open your heart to the human experience. Through your meditation practice and being mindful, present in your experience, you learn to note when there's a physical sensation, to note when there's tension that denotes stress or anger or fear, to note when there's sleepiness or restlessness, and then to note the stories that come up habitually about these, such as, "I shouldn't be human. I shouldn't have this experience." Or, "I'm bad to have this experience." Or, "I'm a victim. Poor me, I'm helpless with this experience." Or even "look how wonderful I am to have this experience!" Know the stories as stories. Don't believe them as truth!

Spiritual practice is about getting in touch with the human experience. It's not about arriving at some altered space, although that may happen and it can be a very joyful experience. But most of you find it far easier to get out of your bodies than to be here in the physical, emotional and mental bodies. Spiritual practice invites you to be here, to be human, to develop wisdom about the whole flow of human experience, and to develop the compassion that has mercy for the human experiencing these difficult things.

There is a mixed group of you here tonight: people I've never met before and people who have heard me talk many times. There's a talk I frequently give to people who are new to my thoughts, I call it "Angels in Earthsuits". This human body and its emotions and thoughts, this is the earthsuit, and all of you, you are the angels dwelling in the earthsuits. Not only your spiritual practice but your whole life is about learning how to bring the two together, to deny neither the human experience nor the angel.

Tonight I'm going to digress from that traditional opening talk because there are some old friends here who have heard variations of that talk many times. I'll be glad to speak more during the question period about some of these basic questions. But tonight I want to talk to you about compassion. Since September 11 it seems that most of our discussions have been about compassion and especially the questions, "What does compassion mean?" And, "When I am filled with rage and fear, how do I allow the expression of compassion? What do I do with that rage and fear so that compassion may be found in it?"

This is not just about terrorism, this is about living your everyday lives with all the subtle abuses you may experience: a raging driver on the freeway; an angry boss or coworker; family members who are upset with you. What does compassion really mean? How do we bring it to every day living?

First, compassion is not weak. So many of you have the wrong idea and think to be compassionate means simply to let somebody run over you. Compassion is strong and able to say "no" when appropriate. Compassion deeply understands the other being's situation and you cannot do that until you understand your own situation. Compassion does not judge, doesn't divide the world into good and evil but deeply understands that certain emotions have arisen based on people's experiences, pain, fear and so forth. But above all, compassion knows how to say no when somebody is abusive and it doesn't matter whether we are saying no to terrorists on an international level or no to an abusive coworker. It's not kind to let somebody harm you. It's not kind to allow somebody to create harmful karma for them selves. Not kind to allow yourself to be hurt.

The difficulty for most of you is that you do not trust your own fears. When you feel attacked, anger arises in yourself; then you have the thought, "I shouldn't be angry." You bury your own anger and you can't respond skillfully to the other person's anger.

When another person is angry and does something unskillful as result of that anger, and it arouses anger in you, when you can note, "Anger has arisen here" and bring kindness to that anger, the very act of offering yourself kindness allows you to offer kindness to the other person. That kindness is in the form of not judging them. One sees this person has reacted in this way out of his or her own pain. Nevertheless, his or her reaction is harmful. One says "no!"

This is about learning kindness and I think for all of you who are human today it is the primary lesson, kindness to oneself; kindness to others. There's a lovely story told by a dharma teacher, Sharon Salzberg. She was in India attending an extended "lovingkindness" or "metta" retreat, working with the repetition of certain phrases of lovingkindness. She had to leave the retreat and go to the city to extend her visa. She was riding in a rickshaw when a big man jumped on the rickshaw and tried to drag her off. She thought, "He's going to rape me! He's going to kill me!" The rickshaw driver didn't do anything; he just kept peddling. Passersby didn't do anything. She didn't know what to do. He was quite a bit bigger than her. Finally a man did help push this would-be molester away. She got back to the retreat center. She told her teacher, "I didn't know what to do. I was so afraid and so angry, yet I tried to be compassionate." She tells that the teacher said to her, out of the goodness of your heart, the compassionate thing would have been to take your umbrella and hit him over the head with it until he let go of you.

Does that surprise you? It's not kind to let somebody rape or murder you. It is easy to become lost in a false sentimentality that denies experience and is a foe to true lovingkindness. Such emotion is based on old bias that says "I should" and "I shouldn't" without seeing the situation clearly. . The question is not so much how you act but what motivates the action. If she had hit him over the head with hatred, that would be returning harm to harm. If she had let him kill her, but with outrage and fear, that would also be a doing of harm, in not taking care of herself., not stating her own truth. If she was able to literally hit him with her own umbrella, while literally wishing him well, noting, "This man was raised in such a way, has had such experiences in his life that have led him to think that he can rape or kill a woman. He has had a very difficult life; he must be suffering immensely. If I were raised in that situation, a man in his shoes, I might be just like him. I can't hate myself. I can't hate him. But as much as he is suffering now, he is going to suffer more if he kills me. It is not kind to either of us to allow that action. I'll hit him over the head with my umbrella and tell him, 'Let me go!'"

Of course, there may come a place where the other does not let you go. A place where somebody in your life is so terribly abusive and nothing that you say or do can stop him/her. You may then have to separate yourself from them. For some it may mean leaving a job or a marriage. It's very difficult. Can it be done with love? You really have a choice: fear and the enactment of that fear as hatred, anger and greed, or love. That's all it comes to in the end, fear and the enactment of fear, or fear that arises and a loving response to fear.

When I say there's a choice between fear and love, I am not saying you can stop fear from arising but you can change how you relate to fear. When fear arises and a strong ego comes in and says, "Uh-oh, fear! Control it, get rid of it," you separate from yourself, from your own dear heart. When fear arises and you say, "Ah, certain conditions have arisen and brought up fear. Fear is present," if you don't separate from yourself but acknowledge your fear with kindness, since you don't hate your fear you don't have to hate that which inspires the fear. Then there's much more space, more possibility. That which makes you afraid may be a terrorist group that blows up buildings. It may be an acquaintance or family member. It may be an illness in your body. How can you relate with a more open and loving heart?

These terrorist attacks and the loss of life, this is very tragic. It's very difficult that people cannot go about their daily life with peace and in safety. And yet, like anything difficult you experience, it's also a teacher. If you will allow it, this whole experience can become an enormous healing force in the world.

It's the same question, separating from your self, separating from others, one points a finger of blame. I am certainly in no way condoning beings who would steal an airplane and crash it into a building, killing so many beings. And yet, where do you point this finger?

Let's look at a very simple example. Suppose you were walking down the street in a very poor city. There was a fruit stand. You saw a very emaciated-looking little boy come out and grab a piece of fruit. He stole it from the stand, ran off, and you were able to follow him. You saw him get a safe distance away, cut that fruit in half, give half to his equally hungry baby brother. He is a thief; he has taken what did not belong to him; that is our first assessment. And what has been taken from him, what human dignity, what right to live his life with at least enough to eat each day, with love? Not luxuries, just basic human needs. Who has taken that from him? Yes, he has done wrong; he is a thief and for that he is karmically responsible. But others have also done wrong. We are not talking about responsibility but blame. How can you blame this one and not that one? It's not so easy to find anyone to blame.

Some of you are thinking, "I would blame myself. We in our society take far more than our share." Yes, you do. And yet, you also have earned that, have worked hard to make the conditions where there is not starvation, where there is more equality.

It's not so easy, is it? Should you go home and take half the food out of your kitchen and ship it off to Afghanistan? I think the question is not who is to blame so much as can we let the whole thought of blame, and right and wrong, go and come back to the basic questions of human suffering? Blaming is a convenient way of avoiding painful feelings. Beyond blame is fear, lack of control. And then we shift into an us/ them scenario.

The whole creation of an us/them, good/bad, right/wrong duality is your habitual way of avoidance. Can you begin to see that this situation involves a world-wide karma? It is the outgrowth of human confusion, fear and greed. While small actions certainly will not immediately change the international situation, they are all most humans have the ability to do. To offer yourself and those in your life more kindness, to watch the arising of judgment and self-judgment, and not get so deeply caught in the stories of these. By that I mean, if judgment arises, simply know it as judgment. Don't believe everything you think. If judgment arises, it's simply more judgment to say, "Here I go again, I shouldn't be judging. I'm bad," just another judgment. Old habit. Instead, can one note, "Judgment, here is judgment. Ah, fear must be present in me. Fear is one of the grounds for judgment. What happens if I bring kindness in?" And then you find the ability not to believe this judging thought, it's just a judging thought. Let it be. It will pass.

That letting-be in it self is an enormous act of kindness, not to become caught in the story of your judgment. Then you can begin to see those in the world who would trespass against you, not judge them, not hate them. Out of that spaciousness free of judgment and hatred, the heart open with compassion, and new and creative ways of dealing with the horrors in the world will appear. I don't have answers for you. I can't say, "Go and do this, or that." Only, as you heal yourselves and allow yourselves back into your hearts, you will allow your near and far neighbors back into your heart and the path will become clear.

We pause for a moment. This little friend needs to settle. (Eddie, the cat, has come to sit on Barbara's lap)

Letting yourself back into your heart, you begin to see things more clearly and then you know what to do. This is why I call you angels, because within this crystal clarity of the heart is your innate perfection. You need to trust this inherent wisdom and kindness, to trust your own innate goodness that does know what to do. This is where you make the choice, love or fear. If you go with fear and the stories of fear, the judgments, the biases, then there's no room for compassion. Then there's no room for hearing another because there's so much separation and self-protection. But when you open your heart with kindness, there's the possibility for the healing of the whole world. And this, my friends, is what you came for.

I began my talk raising the question, "Why are you here? What is the incarnation about?" You are here to learn love, to bring light where there is darkness, kindness where there has been fear and hatred. I don't think I have to answer another why - why should we bring love where there has been hatred? Simply put, would you rather live in a loving or a hate-filled world?

Tragic though it is that so many lives have been lost, instead of being afraid of the current world situation, can you open your hearts even to this as a teacher? Whatever your personal situation is, your own physical illness, sadness, confusion, can you open your heart to that also as a teacher? May I remind you, you are not incarnate to be comfortable. Comfort is fine. I have nothing against it. I wish it to each of you. But if your primary interest were to stay comfortable, you would not have moved into this body. By its very nature the human experience is challenging, and often very uncomfortable. Instead of struggling to be comfortable, can you stop and say, "What is the lesson here? In what way is my heart closed? How can I offer more love, more trust, in this situation?"

Comfortable. Recently a friend's father was dying. The friend came to us and said, "I don't know what to do. He's so uncomfortable. He keeps telling me, "This is terrible, this dying process. It's so uncomfortable. My body is so uncomfortable." She said, "He believes in heaven. I keep telling him, "But you'll be going to heaven." And he'll say, "I don't care. Right now I'm uncomfortable!" So she set out on a mission to make him comfortable. And then she came to me with the concern, "No matter what I do I can't make him comfortable." And almost as she said it, she laughed. We laughed together, Of course not. He's dying. You can fluff his pillow. You can give him sips of water. Can you be honest with him and say, "Yes, dying is hard, very uncomfortable. I can't begin to understand what you're going through, but I love you." I told her, he doesn't need to be made comfortable, he needs to be heard. He needs to know it's okay to be uncomfortable. You all need to know that. Don't be so afraid of your discomfort. It's a teacher. I am not suggesting that where you could alleviate discomfort, you shouldn't do so. Of course the pillow needs to be fluffed, the water needs to be offered, and a cool hand to wipe a sweating brow. Whatever kindness can be given must be given, but not to fix anything; there's nothing broken. You are human. You're going to defecate and sweat, vomit, bleed. It's not very comfortable.

Relax, enjoy the beauty of this human experience, for indeed it is also beautiful but you cannot see the beauty when you are at war with the difficult side of it. Relax and let your loving hearts come forth. Then the answers to your human dilemmas will appear because this loving heart does know how to speak with compassion.

I know that there are questions and I'll be very happy to answer them. Let us pause here and give you a time to stretch. When we come back there will be time to talk further. Thank you. That is all.

(Q&A omitted)

Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Brodsky