Friday, October 12, 2007

The Compassionate Life

I was on vacation from the middle of August until the middle of September - ahhhh, vacation. The space and time to think again. To actually read a book and to breathe deep, deep breaths, those breaths which actually fill the bottoms of my lungs. The time to taste the subtle richness of a coffee, the smoothness of melt-in-your-mouth ice cream, laughter with family and friends, the scent of new landscapes, the sounds and sensations of different locations. Since we always take our vacation in big chunks of time (this was a "short" three-week vacation) we have the luxury of slowly getting used to this state of mind over the course of weeks.

It is almost always on vacation that I feel myself transforming back into what I like to call "myself." It is a slowing down, an embracing of the realities of where I happen to be standing at that moment and the ability to listen and understand it.

While on vacation I had decided to read two books which I had purchased in Seattle: "The Well-Adjusted Child-The Social Benefits of Homeschooling" by Rachel Gathercole and "Real Food-What to Eat and Why" by Nina Planck. I was NOT disappointed as I slowly made my way through each book. Both point toward something I had been longing for but was unable to grasp: getting back to basics. One book reminded me of the value of family and the bonds that form there each and every moment we are together. The other reminded me of the importance of food and the need to get back to the basic elements of it which means getting as far away from processed foods as possible. In my hectic life, I often forget the importance of home-cooked foods (be it cookies or dinner or a snack of carrots and hummus). I don't agree with everything that Nina writes in her book (I prefer to avoid meat more often than not) but all in all it was a good reminder to get back to foods that are real (we have even started purchasing raw milk from a local farmer and are drinking it as-is (no heating it first) and making some fabulous yogurt and kefir. I look forward to making some cheese!).

Then, a week into our vacation, while browsing through Bookshop Santa Cruz (yes, you guessed it, this book store is located in the heart of fabulous Santa Cruz, California - our vacation was visiting my family members who are spread out between northern and southern California) I spotted a book that Alice had reviewed for Multilingual Living Magazine titled, "Eat, Pray, Love-One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia" by Elizabeth Gilbert. On a whim I purchased it. In fact, my husband purchased it for me.

Husband: "You want to get that book?"
Me: "Well, I donno. Alice said it was good and here it is as a favorite pick by one of the book store's employees. It must be a good book."
Husband: "I think you should get it."
Me: "Yea, well, it is pretty expensive. I can just borrow it from the library when we get back."
Husband: "We're getting it for you." He takes it off the shelf and as he turned to go to the cash register, I beamed with an excited smile.

That night I started reading "Eat, Pray, Love" and my life started changing.

There is a part in the book where she spends time at an ashram in India. By the time I finished that part of the book, I was trembling. It is hard to explain why it impacted me as it did. Perhaps it was because by the time I got to that part of the book we were visiting my mother and brother in my childhood home (one which is filled with ambivalent memories thanks to the endless arguments of my parents as I was growing up) which always leaves me feeling a little exposed and raw.

Or perhaps because it resonated with the years I spent practicing Zen Buddhism, which included visits to Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen Centers. For anyone who has spent time at these two zen centers, they are the real deal: up before sunrise to meditate for hours, silent meals, working in the garden for much of the day, crashing onto your floor mat at the end of the day from sheer exhaustion. There ain't no way you can escape yourself at these places no matter how hard you try. I was 17 and 18 years old at the time and a wore a scarf on my head for over a year as a kind of "leave me the hell alone because I am trying to figure out who I am" gesture.

For whatever reason, there was a moment while reading the book that I suddenly experienced an overwhelming rush of compassion; compassion for myself, my family, for humanity as a whole - a level of compassion which I don't think I have experienced before. It was a total, complete and in some ways spiritual wash which came over me at that moment and I couldn't remember what it was like to NOT be completely compassionate in all ways, shapes and forms. It was a kind of embracing of the world and a love for everyone in it.

At that moment I felt it just taking over my every cell without any urging on my part. It reminded me of zen koans (which I read incessantly during my zen Buddhism phase of life): that kind of sudden realization which takes place in a different part of of our being than our mind - a whole body experience, if you will. Like the pure satisfaction we experience when musical notes resonate in perfect harmony. We know what we would like to hear (or what we don't like to hear) but it isn't until those notes resonate perfectly that we experience an absolute whole-body-and-mind fullness from the wash of the music.

I still have no idea what caused the perfect blend of words, thoughts, experiences, mistakes, hopes, dreams, tragedies in my life to cause this moment to happen but whatever it was, I was left feeling like I was viewing everything in life from a completely different vantage point than before. My struggles for different things and desires in life just melted away and I was left with a combination of humility, understanding, calmness, love, joy and gratitude.

I'm not sure how long this state of being will last. A few aggressive Seattle drivers, a nasty coworker, the hectic schedule of life could very easily knock me off my balance. But for now I am so honored to have this opportunity to experience this way of experiencing the world.

Let's put it this way: the other day when someone raced in front of me and cut me off in a big gas-guzzling SUV and then proceeded to flip me off (yes, even Seattle has those people), I found myself looking at that outstretched middle finger and feeling nothing but deep compassion for that person; compassion for what must be going on inside that person which would urge him to act that way. I actually understood exactly how caught up he must have been in his own world, where doing such things was his only way of making himself feel whole. Is that not something to feel compassionate about!?

There have been times recently when my husband expected me to react a certain way to something he or someone else said (based on how I usually react) and instead, when I didn't react the expected, pre-compassionate-me way, he gave me a big smile. Smiling back in return I said, "Remember, I told you! I have changed!"

Oh - and some fabulous music!

My favorite right now is Joe Purdy: www.joepurdy.com. You can listen to his songs on his website. My favorite albums of his are "Only 4 Seasons" (I love the song "Why You") and the other album "You Can Tell Georgia" (the song "Can't Get it Right Today" is great).

And another great band is Nickel Creek! My mother and brother introduced us to their music while we were visiting.

3 comments:

Beloved said...

What a treat to check in and see your post for today! I have been wanting to read the book you mentioned, but I have it on a wait list on my book trading website. I don't know if you saw Oprah last week when the author was on. It was very interesting.

Hope you can hold onto your post-vacation glow. :)

The Hen said...

Corey, what a great welcome back. Love that you got in touch with some good stuff...May it last you long.

christina said...

This is such an inspiring post, Corey! You sound so calm and centered. Thanks for sharing your amazing vacation with us.

I've been hearing so much about that book that I ordered it yesterday and will sit by the mailbox tomorrow waiting for it to arrive.