Charity and Stone

I come from a long line of Tennessee hillbillies …er…Appalachian Americans. My grandparents on my father’s side, Charity Grace Rupard and William “Stone” Rupard, were subsistence farmers who owned land in a holler (hollow) in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee.  Where’s that?  As my uncle Claude would say, “It’s right down the dirt road past the forge outside of town, which is a skip from the highway to Mountain City, oe’r the mountain from Johnson City, not far from Bristol.”  People generally started nodding recognition when he got to “Bristol” – but Claude talked like a country boy – so it took him nearly 5 minutes to get there.

Charity and Stone had eight children, of which my dad was the “last boy.” His little sister Carrie came three years after he did and stole “youngest” right out of his hands. Sandwiched between two girls - “Baby Carrie” (they called her that until she died in her 70’s) and Cettie, the oldest of the bunch, were 6 tall, blonde, strapping boys.  The small farm held plenty of work to keep those many hands busy and mouths fed.  They grew tobacco to generate income for the land taxes, and made just enough moonshine…er…home-crafted-corn-mash-drink…to make money for clothes and shoes (worn in winter only).  The rest of the farm, animals, and land existed just to feed them. My dad and two of his brothers left to fight in World War II. When the war ended the other two went back to the farm but my dad had begun a journey that would take him to another world – the “city life” (as they called it with no small amount of disgust…er…rightful concern).   

My experiences on the farm were summertime affairs where I’d be dropped off at Mamaw’s and my dad would go back to work and my mom would go visit “her people” (city folk!) for the summer months. Stone died the year before I was born, but Charity Grace ran her family, now grown and branched off into their own houses around the holler, with the memory of Stone’s iron will and her own brand of practical love.  Don’t think they were lazy summer days. They were filled with chores, and some chores, more chores, and just when I sat down at night and pulled out one of the books my mom packed for to read – guess what? Dishes needed done, laundry could use a “run through the ringer” (yes, she had one of those ringers with the crank that promised to flatten me like a flapjack if I wasn’t paying attention) and some chore called.  Only when my grandmother would tell me to “cut the light” (the word “light” had 3 syllables when she said it) would I get rest. I loved every minute there and I’d give almost anything I own to go back, if only for a sunny afternoon (with chores).

The Compassion Challenge

In Buddhism, we are taught a lot about compassion.  It is the heart of the Buddha; it is the passion of the practice.  It is our best selves, our real selves, and although time, tide, words, and wounds can make it hard to access, it is always there for us to reclaim.  But, what is it, really? Recently, someone challenged my ideas about compasion in a way that led me to do some meditative soul seeking.  I didn’t come up with many answers (cushion time is almost never about answers), but I realized everything I needed to understand about what compassion is (and what it is not) could be found in that little farmhouse built into the side of a mountain. 

Does compassion make sense?

Is it reasonable? Responsible?

Does compassion have boundaries?

Does compassion deny consequence, personal responsibility or natural law?

Is there only one “compassionate answer” to a situation?

Is compassion what you do or who you are?

 

The Middle Way to Compassion

Although I never met Stone, his legacy was branded into his children with surety and strength. He was, by all accounts, a good man, but a stern one. Rules were rules, and if you crossed them you paid the price.  If you broke it, you fixed it. If you couldn’t fix it, you figured out how to live without it.  No playing in the outhouse…er…external unisex potty facility, and no animals inside the house (that means you, barn cat!). I remember one time my Uncle Luther had a wounded bunny he was nursing back to health at his house down the way and he was whispering to me to come by so I could see it. My grandmother, whose supersonic hearing lasted well into her 90’s, entered the conversation with a bang.

“Lu, you know Stone didn’t cotton to animals in the house.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, and winked at me, pointing toward his home.

Later that night, I told my Uncle Claude about the bunny rescue.  Claude shook his head bit his lip like an errant school boy. “What’s Lu thinkin’? He knows Stone don’t allow no animals in the house.”

Now – these were two men, in their late 40’s with homes of their own, whose father had been dead for at least ten years, and they were still emotionally subject to his rules. However, when you think of what it must have taken to raise eight kids on a small farm with no government help, little social support, and lots of praying about the weather – his attitudes probably kept the family from starvation, ruin, or loss.

On the other side was Charity.  She could be just as strict, but she’d smile at you as soon as chide you, and if something left you feeling on the outs – she’d mistakenly cut an extra-large piece of cornbread just for you. When the day was settled, she’d sit on the porch or in the front room, listening to the radio and sewing quilts from cloth remnants everyone in the valley brought her. She had a sewing machine for repairing work pants and flannel shirts – but the quilts were a labor of love, hand sewn. When she’d finish a few she’d ask Luther or his wife to take them to the county fire department, in case someone lost their home to fire or flood and needed a warm blanket. Not long after her 90th birthday (she died at 96) someone from the fire department showed up on the farm one day and asked to take her picture. Seems they’d been keeping count. The last quilt she gave them was number 250. 

Let that sink in. A woman who had probably never handled more than a hundred dollars “cash money” in her whole life, hand-made 250 quilts for people with far more than she ever would have - in case they ever found themselves having less.

Reflecting on this couple who shed the seeds to me, the blurry view of compassion I’d been lamenting became much clearer to view.

Compassion is not the Action.

Compassion is not an act. Compassion is a fuel. Compassion is being with someone, putting yourself, as much as you can, in the space they are in - simply so you can stand beside them, hurting as they hurt, healing while they heal. That presence can create an action – you see someone hungry and experiencing the hunger with them, you feed them. Compassion may lead you to lobby for the rights of an oppressed community (that’s activism or advocacy). Compassion may lead you to give someone some money, food, or the dignity of seeing them when no one else does (that’s intervention or interaction). (For a neat article on that, see my friend Janet’s thoughts here: Seeing and Hearing with the Heart   ). Compassion may lead you to cry with another, implore on behalf on another, go the extra mile, or speak truth to power. Compassion is the fuel, not the destination (although like a generator, compassion often creates more compassion). Charity would say “Compassion cares, Action sews. Warmth happens.”

Compassion is not Codependence.

We are, to the ability that we are able, responsible for our own feelings, our own path, and our own wounds. Even if someone cruelly gave us those wounds – as adults, we become responsible to seek help, alliance, and healing.  Compassion does not take away our personal responsibility. It empowers us to discover it, and strengthens us to do the work, to endure and to find the strength to let others hold us and help us while we do it.  Compassion is not a shield that keeps the world away or makes everyone play nice in someone’s sandbox.  Compassion may fuel education, activism, social justice, to decrease suffering. However, compassion doesn’t beat up your assailant. Compassion holds your hand while you stand your ground or find safe harbor.  When people start thinking another person, group or community needs them, the line between compassion and codependence is dangerously blurry.  As Janet showed in her article mentioned above, compassion is about seeing people, hearing people, empowering people to their own goodness and ability --- not "fixing people" or taking away their ability to sustain or speak for themselves because you’ve decided to do it for them. Be a voice WITH people, not FOR communities. Buddhism teaches us we are interconnected, but we are not enmeshed.  Interdependent, not captive. Stone would say, “If you break it, or someone else breaks it, you fix it or endure without it until we can get it fixed– but I’ll stand right here while you do it and show you how to use the tools for repair. If I have a tool you don’t, I’ll lend it to you until you can get one of your own. Let’s work together on this.”

Compassion is not Control

Compassion is a connection with your basic goodness each person must make for themselves. You can’t shame other people into compassion. You can’t give people a list of do’s and don’ts and call it compassion. You can’t create positive good simply by exhibiting negative reactions. You can act out of your compassion and spread that good energy from person to person (in writing, we call that “show don’t tell”). You can do your work for the justice, systemic change, or healing resources that provide care and self-empowerment. You can strengthen the interconnected circle by sharing your compassionate love, care, and work. Part of compassion is understanding everyone is in a different place in life and allowing each person to arrive where they need to be in their time. Charity said, (many times in my life) “The same rain that grows the corn, drowns the rat, honey. Rain don’t change so you'll have to.” To which Stone would probably say, “It’s up to the rat, but I’d find higher ground.”

Compassion is helping and helpful; connecting and collective. It’s the fuel that takes us to happiness, and allows others to find the path to their happiness too. Compassion is seeing. Compassion is opening. Compassion is allowing. For me, after all the thinking, reminiscing, and cushion clarity, I have found the middle way in my thinking on compassion – it is reasonable, and it is magical; it is strong enough to support and flexible enough to allow; it is somewhere between Charity and Stone.

----- The Bottom Line -----

  1. Compassion is part of all of us. It's our choice how to reach it and what to do with it.
  2. Compassion is a fuel that will take you anywhere worth visiting.
  3. Compassion and action are like peanut butter and chocolate - you can have each one separately, but they are better together.

For More Information

There are a number of sources wisdom on Compassion:

Fast Read:

Compassion Vs. Codependency

More Depth

PsychCentral 

By the Book

Cultivating Compassion

 ~

As for the country:

There is a city myth that country life was isolated and lonely; the truth is that farmers and their families then had a richer social life than they have now. They enjoyed a society organic, satisfying and whole, not mixed and thinned with the life of town, city and nation as it now is.

Rose Wilder Lane

 

Right Facebook

The prime directive of Buddhism is found in the Four Noble Truths – the beautifully bulleted, clear as a bell, seed of awakened wisdom that blossomed when Siddhārtha Gautama unfolded as The Buddha. Translated over time, language, media, and my simple minded approach to things -  it shakes out something like this:

  1. Every life has suffering.
  2. We suffer because we crave or cling to things that don’t last forever.
  3. There’s a way to stop suffering.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way.

And, of course, that list leads to…wait for it…another list! The Noble Eightfold Path reveals how we can put a block under the wheel of suffering and experience release from the constant cycle of rise and regret. The path is solid in structure and mammoth in depth of meaning, but here’s the short-attention-span version.

  1. Right View – Seeing the world the way it really is, not the way you want it to be.

  2. Right Intention – Understanding why you do what you do and making it a noble why.

  3. Right Action – Ensuring your actions don’t intentionally cause more suffering.

  4. Right Speech – Don’t deceive, confuse, accuse, or afflict with your communication.

  5. Right Livelihood – Making sure your lifework (career, stay-at-home parenting, volunteer occupation, garden growing – whatever) is honorable for your good and the good of others.

  6. Right Effort – Do things from the center of your practice – compassion. Even when it requires work or discipline, always compassion.

  7. Right Mindfulness – Be anchored is the immediacy of right now, not living in your head having imaginary conversations, making fantasy plans, or reviewing old slides.

  8. Right Concentration – Akin to meditation, it is focusing the mind on one thing. In meditation we often focus on the breath. In guided imagery we focus on one thought or affirmation. Training your mind to exclude the extraneous and stay on target will make you skillful and wise.

That sounds easy enough. With a little effort, and tossing my cell phone out the window, I should be completely free from suffering by dinner.  Well, until I flatter someone at work solely to get noticed, or spend my lunch fantasizing about how different my life would be if I had taken that one offer, or I snap at the clerk (who forgot to scan my member club card yet again) because I’m tense from too many projects at once. Wait…this is hard stuff. I’m gonna need a little more practice.

Okay, a lot of practice.

Alright…a lifetime of practice. 

If there’s any arena that would be a perfect place to roll out the Noble Eightfold Path and practice an end to needless suffering, it’s Facebook. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those “oh, I don’t do the Facebook” people. I love me some chaotic news feed articles and pictures of kittens taking over a big dog’s bed.  I enjoy casual chats about snowfall with my best friend from high school who now lives in Maine (she always wins). I like laughing at the cleverness of people with their silly comebacks and outrageous memes. I cry every time someone posts a video of a Nina Simone song (she will forever be my Priestess), and I cheer when I see a new car, a graduating senior, a baby’s first something, a vacation pic from a faraway place, or a check-in at the movie theater.

Floating in the fishbowl of posted delights, however, I have noticed someone needs to clean the tank. There’s so much algae forming on the walls. Vital political discussions have turned into angry name calling ideology wars. Religions clash and bully instead of listen and learn. Sincere cries for help are lost in an avalanche of bragging superiority and vengeful vague booking. Just when you think you’ve unfollowed the negative, up-thumbed the positive, and set the world to right, along comes a Gummy Drop game request, and you’re screaming for the death penalty. The recipes all have too much butter (yes, that IS possible!).

While we are meditating on our desire to cut the suffering and live in compassionate connection one another, what better place to take our practice than the linear, algorithmically fantastic blue and white world on our screens? It’s time for us to practice Right Facebook. How would we do that? The same way we do it in the big world – one bullet point at a time. There is a way to stop suffering on Facebook. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way.

  1. Right View – Know what you are seeing, not just what you’re looking at. Are the thirty political memes a minute just for fun, or are you being carpet bombed into a new way of thinking? Is the widow who keeps posting restaurant reviews interested in cuisine, or is she saying she’d like an offer to share a meal? Learn to see real from projection. Look with your mind and your heart.

  2. Right Intention – Questions to ask yourself (BEFORE the comment, post, or pic): Why am I doing this? Am I bragging or sharing? Am I discussing or dictating? Am I participating in culture or procuring more “likes” so I feel better about myself? Do I want to be on Facebook or do I need to be on Facebook?

  3. Right Action - Your feed reveals the world around you. Your posts reflect the world inside you. When you see a post you’re inclined to comment about, make sure you are adding to the common good, or at least addressing the obvious need for more cat pictures. I personally require three cat memes a day just to get out of bed.

  4. Right Speech – Is your comment rightful and true? Do you mean it? Do you mean to say it?

  5. Right Livelihood – If your job is not “professional Facebooker” (here’s a clue – it’s not) always be willing to do a check-up on your time and attention. How much is Facebook giving to your life and how much is it taking you away from the job/people who love you?

  6. Right Effort – Facebook can be such a powerful tool for compassionate interaction – from supporting worthy causes to providing a listening heart. Never forget, though, on Facebook you are not the consumer. You are the consumable. You’re the product being sold to advertisers. You can turn that to your advantage, but always ensure you are using the platform for good instead of the platform using you for something less than love.

  7. Right Mindfulness – Keep it now. Keep it real. I’ve heard many folks say Facebook friends are “imaginary” or “not really your friends” – but the truth is, behind every account is a person who wants to be safe, happy, healthy and at peace – just like you. Don’t forget that.

  8. Right Concentration – Focus. When you’re on Facebook be on Facebook, but when you are not, live your life as it unfolds. Don’t “set up” moments or do something simply so you can post it later. Don’t be so busy proving your life is amazing/important/thumbs-up-worthy that you stop living an authentic, amazing, important life.

Who knows, once you’re really good at this, maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to follow your footprints down that path to a life free from suffering. If not, well – you’ll always have at least three invitations waiting for you to play Gummy Drop.

-----  The Bottom Line -----

  1. No matter what someone’s Facebook feed shows you, every life has suffering. No one is better. No one is worse. We are in this together.

  2. Every person makes choices – in the digital world, and in the real one. Make mindful ones.

  3. Seriously, those recipes have too much damn butter.

For More Information

There are a number of sources wisdom on the Noble Eightfold Path:

Fast Read:

Wikipedia 

More Depth

Tricycle Magazine

By the Book

Amazon

 ~

As for butter:

 “If we give someone a piece of bread and butter, that's kindness, but if we put jelly or peanut butter on it, then it's Loving Kindness.”

   ~  Barbara Johnson

 

The Words of a Friend

Mindfulness is all about clarity – so let’s just be clear:

I’m not a monastic.
I’m not a dharma scholar.
I’m not a certified meditation teacher.
I’ve never been to Nepal (I had to Google a map just to see where that was).
If I do a retreat or class that takes longer than a few hours, I require snacks.
I can’t tell if a word is from Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, or a Japanese restaurant menu.

I’m the woman lurking in the back of the class who arrives breathlessly, sits awkwardly, readjusts my position every other minute, and bites my lower lip because everyone else looks so pure and serious and I’m pretending that blotch of salad dressing on my shirt is a decorative lotus. You know, the one who leaves as soon as the teacher exits the room before anyone can talk to me. I’m not the guru who gives you calm advice in perfect grammar with a sweet smile and half-closed eyes. I’m the friend you go to lunch with after a session and ask, “Did you understand that part about…” At the same lunch, I’m likely to confess I couldn’t afford one of those pretty bead malas made of pricey gemstones so I’ve been using a candy necklace and I’m almost out of cherry flavored repetitions.

I’m an everyday Buddhist practitioner who struggles with schedules, insecurities, bad posture, and the feeling that every meditator on earth is better at this awakening thing than I am. Yet, I’m one of the most grounded, happy people you will ever meet. I’m just me. What you’ll discover through the website is that I’m also a little bit of you, too. Sorry about that.

My meditation practice is, at best, a cautionary tale. Within the chaotic borders of what it’s like to be a Buddhist or pursue mindfulness in a messy, challenging, real life I’ve found some lessons that are good for all of us to remember from time to time. Meditation and writing both start the same way – BOC - butt on chair (or, butt on cushion). That’s what I’m doing here – laying out the buffet of my ridiculous cushion crashing experiences and sharing the “bottom line” wisdom I’ve discovered along the way. I’ve also created some spaces for others to share their journey wisdom as well. I’m grateful to have you with me for the ride. Everything is better when we do it together.

----- The Bottom Line -----

1. It’s really okay to laugh with your spirituality. In fact, it’s necessary.
2. Wisdom belongs to none of us, and all of us. Give it, get it, go for it – whenever you can.
3. Sometimes you don’t need another class, or book, or celebrated teacher who lives a life far removed from your own. Sometimes, you just need a friend.