Compassion and impermanence (Day 48)

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

100 Days of LovingkindnessI think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for your blog. I look forward to visiting each morning. I tried a brief meditation about a friend with the irritating habit of butting in when we’re engaged in group activities, seeking to direct the activity in the direction she believes it should go. I’ve always found that I’m able to let go of my irritation with her quickly, because I know that she genuinely loves these activities and believes that she’s acting in the best interest of all concerned. When I imagined her as an old person who’s had to give up the activities she loves most, I felt great sorrow and compassion for her, realizing that each time she sees others involved in these activities she will feel remorse that she is no longer able to be an active participant and knowing that I, too, will be in the same position in the future.

  • When I did this exercise I immediately felt compassion and a sense of connectedness. (My spell check tells me that’s not a valid word. I’m stubbornly going to use it anyway.) As I visualized my “trouble person” as an infant I recalled that I, too, was once an infant. As I visualized them as an elderly person I realized that, most likely, I will also be an elderly person some day. We’re not so very different, that person and myself.

  • Sadness

  • Interestingly enough, the irritation I had for this person was her continual self-focus (to the detriment of others at times). When I visualized her as an infant, I felt compassion for that baby who was of course very self-focused. I had an idea arise that probably her needs were not met at that time….so of course she might be suffering still. Visualizing her as a 90 y.o., I had a sense of sadness…the vulnerability I imagined she may have at that time. When I reminded myself that all 3 are the same woman. I could feel the love i have for this friend, underneath my irritation. I also felt an opening of my heart…and understand that my irritation and expectations of her are my issue. Not hers. Thank you Bodhipaksa!

  • […] Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change and Bodhipaksa’s Blog […]


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