On the “broad and generous spirit…”

In my last post, I ended with Darlene Cohen on the benefits of facing our pain, rather than distracting from it or trying to push it away:

…you begin to feel generous toward your own human tendency to be caught in the cycle of wanting what you can’t have and averting from what terrifies you: bitterness, despair. If you are able to extend your charity to aspects of yourself you know cause you pain, you are developing the broad and generous spirit of letting everything be what it is, including yourself.

This puts me in mind of the work of people in the helping professions. I always think of teachers, but it applies to nurses and doctors, social workers and chaplains, ministers and therapists — really anyone who helps.

It might seem odd, because a helper’s role is precisely to not let everything “be what it is”, but to effect meaningful change in the life of another — often someone in need of support, guidance, or even protection. Correcting errors, administering medication, performing surgery, intervening, cautioning — these are all proactive measures that helpers might take correct a deficiency, to take what is and make it better.

(This tempting misreading of Cohen’s line mirrors a common misconception of Buddhist resignation toward the world. Buddhism might not seem the right religion to support an energetic activism, given its emphasis on non-action as its central practice. Meditation can become navel-gazing; equanimity can becomes a hopeless surrender; the teachings on emptiness and no-self can become a dismissal of the lived experience of human persons; and the Dharma is considered as more philosophy than religion (The Buddha can become Schopenhauer, if we’re not careful!))

But this is not the import of “letting things be as they are,” for both helpers (and Buddhists).

Helping is easy to commit to. Who doesn’t want to help? Even if it’s not their job, most people will acknowledge the value of helping someone in need of help. And if it is your job, how perfectly aligned with the universe you can be! Let’s help, and get paid for it — what could go wrong with such a straightforward charge!

Harder is knowing how much help to offer.

A teacher wants her students to learn math, but its clear that her students need help in this — because math is hard, because some of their home lives are a mess, because young people have a hard time focusing and persevering, and so on. So a teacher will give herself over to helping using the tools of her trade — detailed and rich lesson plans, inspiring mathematical ideas, different ways of structuring the class, getting the kids to practice their skills, experimental pedagogy, going on field trips, singing and dancing, whatever it takes.

But is there a point when too much help is offered? When the help transforms into something entirely other — when it becomes fixing? When it starts to treat the students not as subjects in their own right, able to make choices and grow by their own energy, but as objects to be manipulated somehow?

I think most helpers have a preprogrammed danger of falling into fixing those we’re charged with helping. Its the shadow side of our propensity and capacity to help. We tie our ego strength to the improvement of others. And if we’re not in a good place, if no one seems to be improving, and our ego needs are not getting met — then our helping might become curiously urgent, maybe even compulsive, and it’s not clear if its to serve others or ourselves.

This is where letting things be as they are — bearing witness to what they are, letting go of our assumptions and ideas about them, watching them change with each moment — is precisely the correct lens to apply to the world, and to our work in helping. This is the extraordinary power of Cohen’s method — mindfulness, facing the pain, equanimity. If we are so anxious to brush away our own suffering, as we experience it in our own bodies, how could we possibly tolerate it in others? Especially if our stated purpose is to remediate that pain?

When we rush in to eliminate pain, or ignorance, or neurotic defenses, or self-hating theology, we rob those we wish to help of their ability to see themselves and know themselves. We rob them of the ability to recognize the changes in their own pain, and the freedom they have to improve their own lives.

Helping is closer to midwifery — a midwife is in no way controlling the process of birth, she facilitates it. Fixing is a mode borrowed from mechanical contexts, where human control over human creations is a given (though I’m sure any good electrician or plumber or watchmaker will began to get a sense that he or she is helping the mechanism do what it does of its own accord — mystical plumbing! what a thought).

Nurses and doctors and therapists will tell you that there is a certain subjective element in the process of healing. Medicine can do the trick, but the question of attitude cannot be ignored in how a person moves beyond illness. And speaking as a teacher, it’s clear to me that my students are capable of so much more than I regularly give them credit. They need structure and guidance, but by no means do I need to “put the knowledge into them.” Midwifery is an ample metaphor for teachers, and Socrates got it right a long, long time ago.

We learn so well on our own. That bus drives itself. How did we get the idea it doesn’t?

This is how attending to what we find before us becomes a profound practice of helping. And this is how attending to the world as it is can become a great compassionate action, a vow to save all beings, flowing from a “broad and generous spirit” that was cultivated with time and effort.

In this light, the boundaries between knowing and ignorance, healthy and sick, compulsive clinging and expansive freedom, neurotic defense and wholeness, all seem to get a little less linear, and a little more cyclical. Each is somehow contained in the other, and attending to the dance between them becomes the work of a lifetime, many lifetimes.

The Buddha turns the Dharma wheel! And Schopenhauer takes his dog for a walk.

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