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I’m a fixer. I’ve always been good at fixing things. I love the challenge of it and the satisfaction of something broken working again. I’m quite practical and my Dad is a plumber, so when I was young I used to watch him using tools and learn that I didn’t need to be afraid of trying many different ways to repair something. I remember when I was around 9 years old, my Dad’s internal cassette holder in his car had broken and it had been bothering me… So one weekend day, I sat in the car, on a very hot, sunny day for around two hours and had that wonderful sense of mastery and satisfaction when I managed to mend it. I remember getting out of the car, sweaty and thirsty, but extremely satisfied.
I also love problem solving - one of my friends once described me as dogged - he explained that he meant it as a compliment, but that I had a level of patience, perseverance, persistence, determination, which leads to me staying with something and seeing it through.
As with any qualities, the ones I have described have their helpful and less helpful sides… Sometimes I get so absorbed in, for example, deep cleaning my kitchen that I am not mindful enough to notice when that has tipped from something useful, necessary, pleasurable into something unhelpful, tiring and an avoidance of my own experience, for the sake of completion!
These same qualities can also move over into my relationships with people. When a friend is suffering or telling me of something difficult, my mind can quite naturally and immediately want to find the answer, to fix things. Of course, this is rarely helpful. As Ratnavandana beautifully outlines in today’s reflection on compassion (Karuna) on the home retreat, when someone is suffering, what they really need is someone to be alongside them, not to try and take the pain away.
When I first learnt about the Brahma Viharas and compassion in this form - that Metta meeting suffering would naturally give rise to compassion - I found it very beautiful, but knew this would be a practice for me. I have noticed again and again that when my friends are suffering, if there is any hint of me trying to fix things for them in my response (which, inevitably, there sometimes is - I’ve a way to go) they are likely to feel unseen and unheard - they don’t want answers, they want love and empathy. This has been a strong and at times, painful learning for me.
I am so grateful for this teaching around Karuna as a Brahma Vihara. That simple act of holding someone’s experience with kindness. When I have been able to do this, it is a very beautiful thing. It is vast and expansive. It’s like being a big container, where the pain and the love can just sit, alongside each other. That’s when that flavour of compassion can appear - the shadow and soberness that Ratnavandana describes.
I’ve become more curious about the times when I seem unable to do this. It’s been useful noticing this in the last few weeks, when a number of my friends have been struggling in various ways, from different aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Firstly, there is my own discomfort with suffering, finding it difficult to just be with it, without trying to change it in any way. Of course, this means that I also find it difficult to be with my own suffering. As I’ve learned to be with and turn toward my own suffering without trying to change it, I can also relax and be with others - to breathe into the discomfort in my belly and the energy to fix… to let go and soften and open. Reminding myself that this is enough.
The other obstacle seems to be a lack of mindfulness - when I’m busy or if I’m suffering myself and somehow overidentified with that inner struggle - in these times, there is a lack of spaciousness and perspective in myself and the easier response can seem to be just to fix. Just quickly, get it over with.
I have been really re-inspired by Ratnavandana’s approach and presentation of the Brahma Viharas and can feel that my intention to simply meet suffering with kindness and love is strengthened. The image I have when I manage to do this is that I am a big, wide, open container - my breath helps me open the space for anything to be held there. My own and others’ suffering. Anything can be there, within this spacious expanse.