On my son Narayan's sixth birthday I gave him an ant farm. He spent hours watching with fascination as the little creatures magically created their network of tunnels. He named several and followed their struggles and progress closely. After a few weeks he pointed out the ants' graveyard and watched with wonder as several of them dragged the bodies of their dead comrades and deposited them there. The following day when I picked Narayan up after school he was visibly distressed. He told me that on the playground the kids had made a game out of stepping on ants. He was horrified that they were hurting these friends he so admired.
I tried to comfort him by explaining that when we really spend time with any living beings -- as he had with the ants -- we find out that they are real. They are changing, animated, hungry, social. Like us, their life is fragile and they want to stay alive. His playmates hadn't had the chance to get to know ants in the way he did, I told him. If they had, they wouldn't want to injure them either.
Whenever we wholeheartedly attend to the person we're with, to the tree in our front yard or to a squirrel perched on a branch, this living energy becomes an intimate part of who we are. Krishnamurti wrote that "to pay attention means we care, which means we really love." Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.
The poet Longfellow writes, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
What if we paid deeper attention to those we consider "bad other." What if we paid deeper attention to those we live with? To the earth that is our home? To our own heart? Not only would we cease to cause harm, our attention would offer the medicine that could bring healing to our world.
Here is a podcast on cultivating compassion.
Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003).
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