The following lines really speak to me from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: “Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable. We end up looking into other people’s eyes, and see the desperation, or let them see ours. This connection slips past the armor like water past stones. Being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”
Spoiler alert: This slowing down, listening, and looking into each other’s eyes cannot happen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Sorry to have to remind you my friends, but the devices in our hands do not possess this power. Reading this blog won’t do it either. We have to be in direct contact with each other, actually be with each other, with open hearts and minds. That changes everything. That opens a crack in the door so that “sneaky grace” can slip in, between us and among us.
Last Monday I was flying from San Francisco back to New Orleans, after being with the beautiful global community pictured in this photo. We were completing the academic portion of our teacher training in Compassion Cultivation* through the Compassion Institute of Stanford University. Among us were friends from every continent as well as the faculty and staff of the Compassion Institute. Now I know each of them by name.
These faces represent my direct experience of the global community. I have heard that term as a concept. Now I have first-hand experience of the unique joy which rises from a deep place in the soul when making friends with people from South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, India, Africa, Denmark, France, the Czech Republic, Tibet, Australia, Belgium, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Canada, Brazil, and all over the U.S.
We became friends through sitting face to face, telling our stories, or at least the vulnerable and crazy parts we were ready to share, and listening to each other with full attention. That’s how I know what Anne Lamott is writing about. I am learning how “everything slows down when we listen,” and trying to let go of my terrible need to fix. I still mess that part up, that wanting-to-fix part, but at least it’s not every single time I am with someone.
In our compassion cultivation teacher training we delved into the challenging art of opening the heart wider even as we hold our personal boundaries, of finding our way through empathy distress into active compassion, of overcoming compassion fade and fatigue through self-compassion and sourcing in a Compassionate Image. And all of that begins with the willingness to see and hear the suffering in myself and others. Anne named that being willing to “see the desperation” in another’s eyes, “or let them see ours.”
I am learning that compassion includes embracing the smile on another’s face and knowing there might be some painful places hiding behind the smile. I was continually amazed through the teacher training as the new friends across the globe shared their stories. With the super-power of courageous vulnerability, many of us ventured into that place where we feel a bit naked and yet take the risk of saying the unsayable. We peeled back the armor enough to allow others to look on our beating heart, just like we sometimes do in the groups of our School for Contemplative Living. As Anne wrote, that act of “being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”
I guess the One who made us knew grace would have to be sneaky, since beneath the skin we are really pink flesh, blood, bone, and water, walking around as though we had on a suit of steel-plated armor. Actors are we, pretending we are “just fine,” even when we are quivering inside like Jello in a shaking bowl. When we are scared we try to look brave. When we are mad we try to look unaffected. When we are sad we try to look, “just fine.” No wonder grace has to sneak up on us when our guard is down. No wonder divine grace takes the opportunity to reach us when we are face to face and really listening to each other, letting the eyes be the window to the soul.
So I challenge you to gather your courage today, and practice some face-to-face time, in place of the Facebook kind, as I hope to do the same. You could start by stopping your reading of this blog. Words about sneaky grace have little power. Real face time, experiencing how “everything slows down when we listen,” now that’s where the power is, the power to let sneaky grace find us. Let’s begin now.
*For anyone in New Orleans this weekend, I will be offering an information session on the 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course this Sunday, May 20, 12:45-2:45 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. For details or to RSVP, email me at William.firstname.lastname@example.org.