Reflections on the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Part Two of Step Four, by Sara Neall
As Sister Henrita and I continue our study of the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, we arrive at the fourth step, empathy. Armstrong opens this chapter by telling about the Buddha’s early life. The story goes, his father, disappointed when told that his son, after seeing great suffering was destined to be a monk, posted guards around the palace to keep all distress at bay. Of course this was impossible and at the age of 29, after being shocked by the reality of sickness,aging and death, the Buddha left the comfort of his home in order to understand how to bear the sorrows of the world.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, to do this we must turn towards suffering.
Below is a picture of my friend, Thomas Windsor and his father Jesse participating in the honor flight.
Jesse Louis Windsor grew up in Slocomb, Alabama. He went into the United States Army at the young age 16 1/2, with his mother’s reluctant blessing, to escape the hardships of the South. He is a dedicated family man, a hard worker, church deacon and was successful with minimal formal education.
On Monday, April 6, he tested positive for COVID19 while in a rehabilitation center for back surgery. Jesse is 96 years old.
His son Thomas writes,
We loved, and continue to love this facility [the care home where Jesse Windsor currently lives]- they take good care of him, and he knows the staff. But it was inevitable that the virus would find its way there. The staff, hardworking as they are, must go home every evening, and return each day, typically by public transportation. The doctor(s) service multiple facilities. How could it not enter the premises? We were able to face time a couple times last week- he is out of breath and a bit confused. I try to tell him daily that me and my sister did our best, that cruel timing got the best of the situation, and that we are here for him, and for each other. I could never imagine him going through this without my guidance or presence, yet he is. I try not to dwell on the loneliness and uncertainty he and the others must be encountering. But then I watch my thoughts . . .
In the Buddhist tradition our existence bears three marks; suffering, impermanence and non-self. I understand this to mean, that illness/aging/death is embedded into life, that everything is changing, and that I am not at the center nor am I alone. These three marks hold the truth and in order to be fully awake and alive we need to see them and be in relationship with them. We can only do this by looking directly and seeing clearly. This takes courage.
As a tool for understanding empathy, Sister Henrita wrote about the art of mandala. Her beautiful mandalas represent our relationships to each other and the world around us. Through the art of creation, or the act of observation mandalas remind us of our connections and our relationships.
Thomas is a dear friend yet I have never had the honor of meeting his father. However, when I look directly and deeply, I know Thomas’ love for his father in the way I know my own love for my father. I know Thomas’ fear in the way I know my own fear.
Suffering is a law of life. It takes courage to look at it directly. However, when we see it in relationship to its changing nature and its universality it becomes a path of wisdom and compassion.