I am not a theologian, philosopher or psychologist. I don't profess to understand much of what has transpired in my life over the past few years.
I thought I was fundamentally changed by being in Bruce Kramer's sphere, with Death sitting close by. That is true, but even the best students can forget important lessons.
That is why I obviously needed to hear those lessons again but this time, taught by the Dalai Lama.
In a wide ranging conversation in Rochester, Minnesota in early March of 2016, he talked about the corrosive effects of holding in destructive emotions like anger and how we can train our minds to be happy. He talked about compassion, the emotional response to suffering, with an authentic desire to help alleviate that suffering in others. Compassion, he said, gives us a sense of connection to all living things.
Connecting the Dots
Connection. The dictionary definition is a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else. Of course, there is also physical connection--touch--and it was interesting to see that, when His Holiness wanted to emphasize a point, he grabbed my hand and held it sometimes motioning with our entwined hands. I was frozen at first. Shocked that he would make such a gesture. I didn't know what to think. He did it again and again and would turn and look at me, as if to say "Do you understand?"
Then, it hit me.
What is compassion without connection? Each clasp of the hand was as if to say "Are you listening? This is important!" Bruce Kramer preached the Gospel of Connection including the importance of touch. It is a basic human need. We crave the connection. Bruce used to say that touch was one way I could connect with my Dad, despite his memory loss, because loving touch is still felt by the heart even when words and memories are no longer available.
Touch was important to Bruce too. Family, friends and caregivers would smooth his fingers, which would painfully contract into claws, or massage his swollen feet or simply hold his hand. He took great comfort in that touch. Out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation, he'd ask to have his hand held. It was a pure connection, a physical connection obviously but one of the heart too.
But I seemed to have forgotten that lesson.
Lessons to learn
In the two years since my Dad and now Bruce have died, one after the other, I've wanted to withdraw from, not connect with others, despite great kindness and compassion shown by friends and complete strangers.
It is so very easy to withdraw or run away or get busy, REALLY busy, so has to not have to feel pain, grief or fear.
So, what is the lesson?
There are several. I think the task is not only learning how push past the fear in opening your heart to others but opening to and acknowledging your own tender heart. We don't often think to feel compassion for ourselves but we should. We are much too hard on ourselves and that flinty internal bedrock of disapproval can build and wall us off from others.
At the end of the Rochester event, much like my beloved friend Bruce Kramer in March of 2014, (see this blog entry) I was blessed by the Dalai Lama. He gifted me with an impossibly long, white silk scarf which is stunning in its elegant simplicity. To say I was shocked is an understatement.
After our event, I followed him from the chapel's altar at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester and I knew I had to tell His Holiness about the mysterious synchronicity that brought us together again, about that March day two years ago, and how my friend Bruce lived with purpose and renewed vitality after receiving a similar blessing. So there I stood in a cold, drafty church doorway, surrounded by staff for the Dalai Lama and Mayo Clinic, trying to slowly, clearly and concisely tell him all of this and to thank him for the everlasting gifts of two years ago.
Instead, he took my hands and with tears in his eyes, thanked ME. Talk about connection.
In Buddhism, "samaya" means not holding back, not preparing our escape route, not thinking there is still time, ample time, to do things later. Samaya asks us to be "all in" and that is exactly what Bruce Kramer asked me those four years ago. "Are you all in? " and I decided that yes, that is what I needed to do.
Samaya asks us to hang in, no matter what, and throw open our hearts to what is.
As the Tibetan leader slowly walked into the blustery March afternoon, I remembered the message Bruce took away from his chance meeting with the holy man. Bruce realized he had work to do, important work, before his death.
It turned out Bruce was right. He lived his life in and with samaya.
I've taken the concept of samaya to heart as I move ahead in my life. It's hard to articulate at this point, but I'll trust in Bruce's final piece of advice to me. As he was dying he told me "Let the work carry you..." and indeed this work will carry me. It is now and the ultimate goal is that it carry others too.
Until next time friends!
This is an excellent article about compassion and the value of cultivating compassion in our lives.http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/may-june-13/the-compassionate-mind.html
The Blog Authors
Bruce started writing about living with ALS shortly after being diagnosed in 2010. The blog is called the "Dis Ease Diary."
Cathy is a journalist so she's used to writing. Blogging is different because it feels so personal and that can be scary. Bear with her. She'll figure it out!
You may hear from Ev from time to time. Ev is Bruce's beloved wife. She's a music teacher at a French immersion school.