He said he had just had a “weird, crazy” vision. But it wasn’t weird or crazy. He had just sniffed enlightenment. And even though the class was ending, he really needed to share his vision. It was like the reality and power of his discovery would disappear if he didn’t tell it right then.
We spent the evening covering the theme of our shared common humanity during week five of the Compassion Cultivation Training program, (originally created by Dr. Thupten Jinpa in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University). Our class was delving into a subterranean adventure, looking for the inner layer of our existence where we are interconnected with all humans, speaking out the many ways others are “just like me,” and sharing examples of how our lives depend completely on millions of others.
The class members had taken turns sharing deeply and playfully that evening in a kind of fill-in-the-blank game of how “Just like me, other people are…addicted to negative news on their cell phones, yet wanting to be free of suffering…meditating for inner peace, and yet resisting taking the time to meditate…playing guitar and other instruments to experience beauty…making art…seeking purpose in life…wanting to be happy.” Once we had begun to share, the examples of ways we are just like each other flowed freely.
Then we practiced connecting with each other in pairs through an exercise of bringing deep presence to hearing each other’s stories. We all closed our eyes, practiced breathing to center ourselves in the moment, opened our eyes to really take in our partner, and then one person shared a time of difficulty or suffering while the other listened intently without speaking. After a time of speaking/listening, we paused, closed our eyes, centered ourselves again, felt what we had just experienced, and switched so the other partner could share/listen. They could substitute sharing a response to the question, “How is your heart today?” They could also fill in the blank to the questions of, “Who was I? Who am I? Who am I becoming?”*
Class members described their experiences as “touching, beautiful, difficult to listen without speaking, connecting, creating a sense of immediate friendship,” and more.
Then we spoke our examples of ways our lives completely depend on others, like: “I depend on the garbage men who take away all the trash that would make my whole house and life a mess without them, so sometimes I run out to them with a bottle of water to say, ‘thank you;’ I was with a family member for dinner who prayed for the farmer who grew our vegetables, the truckers who drove the food to the store, the stockers who put it on the shelves, the cashiers who checked me out, the people who created the gas for my car to drive the vegetables home, the people who assembled the car itself, the people who made the pots I cooked in, and the family gathered to enjoy the meal; I went to meet the local woman farmer who grew the vegetables I cook in my restaurant; I depend on others to drive me in the city because the crazy drivers scare me too much; I depend on my husband to love me no matter what; I depend on our weekly guided meditations to help me cultivate compassion.”
Their examples were highly personal, detailed according to their own circumstances, and yet they spoke things which we could all relate to. It was obvious we could have gone on all night and barely scratched the surface of the ways our lives completely depend on others.
We moved into a guided meditation to cultivate the embracing of our common humanity. It included cultivating a Compassionate Image which could help us broaden our compassion, sending compassion to a loved one, opening our hearts to ourselves from a time we had suffered, and then moving to the challenge for the night. Participants were invited to remember a stranger they had encountered, to see their face, to wonder what their life was like, to picture them being loved, to imagine their difficulties, and to send them a blessing.
Then they were challenged to picture a difficult person, without getting lost in the story of what made them difficult, and to wonder about the life behind that face. They were asked to picture them as a child, someone who had been loved by others, and someone who had suffered. They were asked to see them “with the eyes of the heart,” to wish them well and to say, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”
Finally, they were asked to see all three people in front of them: loved one, stranger, and difficult person. They were asked to use their eye of the heart to see them and wish them freedom from suffering. They were reminded that “Just like me,” they all want happiness and freedom from suffering, even if they all seek those things in very different ways. And they were invited to let themselves abide in the awareness of how interconnected we are with all beings everywhere.
The evening was drawing to a close as I reviewed suggestions for homework during the week to come. Our time was up. But that’s when the lawyer spoke up. He asked if he could please keep us a minute longer so he could share his “weird, crazy” vision. We said, “Sure.”
His vision was not weird or crazy. His vision was a sniff of enlightenment.
He said during the guided meditation he imagined the car he had driven in to our class. He saw how the tires were made by someone, the car parts assembled by others, the car trucked to the dealer by someone else, the car sold by someone, and then he saw the people who worked on street repair. Then he imagined those who built the sidewalk up to the house where we were meeting, and the housebuilders a hundred years ago, and the painters, and the furniture makers for the chairs we were sitting in.
He said, “It’s like I am seeing every single detail of this life as interconnected, interwoven, and all the people everywhere as part of the whole thing. It’s mind-blowing to see layers upon layers of people over time, for thousands of years now, all being part of each other.” Then he paused, “Weird huh?”
I responded, “I challenge you to drop the negative judgments of your vision like calling that ‘weird’ or ‘crazy.’ I think you just started seeing the real layer of life, beneath the surface. You know the Dalai Lama was once asked if he had experienced enlightenment. He immediately protested, ‘Oh no. But I think I sniffed it once,’ then His Holiness laughed his deep belly laugh. __________, I think you just sniffed enlightenment. May we all be so blessed.”
*Those alternative questions were created by Lara Naughton, creator of the Compassion Program at Angola Prison, a certified CCT teacher, an author, and a writing instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.