Not Your Grandmother’s Sweetness: Active Compassion and Writers


When I traveled to South India several years ago to study with my teacher, I didn’t intend to bring my father. But sure enough almost every morning, among the smell of chai and dust, he’d show up, in my head. There I was, on the globe’s other exotic side, in the cradle of Yoga and Buddhism, and my mind would focus not on bliss or peace but on judging my father’s history of hard drinking, carousing, and laissez-faire parenting. I went to my teacher. My teacher, Sri TKV Desikachar, comes from a “pedigree” Yoga lineage, but he’s a humble, affable man. He wears plain button-down shirts and big glasses, and lives with a smirk. I asked him what to do about my father. Without a pause, he asked, “What is your compassion practice?” “My what?” I said. “Get your father out of your head and onto the mat,” he said and smiled as if I should know exactly what he’s talking about. “Each morning, you practice with him. See what happens. Have a good day.” It turns out that not only can you practice compassion, but most of us must. Especially if we want to write well.

Most of us writers are inevitably challenged with getting out of our neurotic spinning wheels. Read a memoir by a writer without compassion, and you’ll likely read a book that lacks engaging story. The “narrator” might focus only on the author-character’s internal machinations, struggles, possible heroic victories. But there will be no other fully realized “characters” for us to imagine. With no emotional imagination engaged, we won’t receive one of reading’s greatest joys and gifts: to expand our own world.

Some writers are goddesses and gods. Maybe I’m overstating the point. Granted, no photo of Balzac or Faulkner sits on my altar. It’s not their aura or their magnum opus that inspires my awe. It’s their capacity to characterize that makes them divine. Their ability to form authentic characters whose hearts and minds and bodies I otherwise would never inhabit puts them in the company of the androgynous figure Avalokiteshvara, which translates to “He (or She) Who Hears the Outcries (Sounds) of the World.” So struck and moved by hearing and seeing humanity’s cacophony of suffering, this essential Buddhist figure sprouted a thousand arms and hands – with an eye in each palm – to help not only hurting humans caught in their own hells, but suffering animals as well.

Faulkner mentions it in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Morrison deems it essential, and Maxine Hong Kingston says it’s the single most important trait for a writer to possess. Compassion. They’re asking us to enter the scabbed skin, the deranged consciousness, the broken voice of “despicable” characters, of derelicts and drunks, and – like poets such as Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, and Ted Hughes – of crows and stones and socks and trowels. We must get out of our own head stuff. Few poems that last are excuses for self-analysis. More, they’re emblems of self-expansion.

I thought I knew compassion. Thought I had it. I felt sorry for other people. “Felt their pain” like the sax-blowing Prez. Turns out, compassion to me was largely a concept, an emotion I tried to wear. Active compassion goes more deeply.

Active compassion, I realize now, does not swirl in the ether as a concept. I’ve learned that it dwells in the sinews and cells, percolates in our blood and up to our skin. Compassion is palpably feeling in our own skin, in our own body, the suffering of another sentient being as if that suffering were our own and then responding accordingly. The word’s root – passion, from pathos, from pati, to suffer. Com-pati. To suffer with. Or, I would amend, to suffer as.

This compassion is not your grandmother’s sweetness, full of warm laps and doting smiles. Sometimes, it’s fierce like a goddess’s sword that swipes through delusion, obfuscation, and neurosis. And any writer whose work will survive solipsistic navel-gazing must try to wield such a sword.

But can compassion be practiced?

(This post is one of a few I’ll post about compassion and writing. Please join the dialogue.)

C E N T E R T O P A G E . C O M

Writer’s Retreat: Active Compassion, Writing, & Yoga at Kripalu Center, May 9-14, Only $300 tuition

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