Last updated on 28th November 2010
It's "the morning after", back home, reflecting on the group that finished yesterday at lunchtime. "Peer groups: Ravenstor autumn group 4 - nature, father-son, flow & celebration" took us up to the beginning of the group's final half day together. This last morning was pretty compressed. We'd agreed to meet in the full group of 34 for a final session from 11.00am to 12.30pm, with the medium-sized groups of 11 or 12 meeting from 9.30 to 11.00, and the small support groups of 3 or 4 starting when they chose to! Beforehand we had had to strip our beds, pack and clear our rooms.
It was a magically beautiful morning with low November sun streaming in through the windows. Our small group of 4 "bagged" a room on the sunny side of the house. Some other small groups chose to meet outside. This can produce a trade off ... the good things of meeting in a natural environment against the tendency for attention to wander more when one isn't "contained" in a room.
Throughout these groups ... throughout my day-to-day life ... I frequently dip in & out of goodwill meditation practices. This morning was no exception. This, the sunlight, the knowledge that it was the last time the small group would sit down together, all contributed to a deepening. We each took a few minutes to talk. I spoke to each of the others in turn. With one younger "newcomer" I apologized for tending sometimes to treat him as a "case" ... I had seen the cobweb of life experiences he'd described and begun to put it together as a tentative problem-solving map (as I nearly always do with patients who I see). And there's potential value in this, and potential cost. Jack Kornfield, in his beautiful book "A path with heart", writes about the "near enemies" ... "states" that Buddhist tradition suggests mimic awareness & open-heartedness but may actually arise out of separation, fear and defensiveness. So in this model, pity is the "near enemy" of compassion. Pity feels sorry "for that poor person over there", whereas true compassion (the tradition suggests) is the resonance of our heart with the suffering of another - "Yes, I, too, together with you, share in the sorrows of life." And I do feel there's value in this way of seeing pity/compassion, and I know that I can too often slip into "arm's length" pity rather than "shared humanity" compassion ... both here with this newcomer in my small group, and also too often in my work as a doctor & psychotherapist. The "problem-solving map" approach is OK (in fact often good) but maybe I need to be more cautious & aware when I use it, or when I move into doctor/psychotherapist mode more generally, of the danger of distancing myself from the other person. Caring skilfully is good, and knowing our shared humanity is very good too.
This "self-separation" reminds me of the lovely Einstein quote: "A human being is a part of a whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
And with a second person in the group I talked about our tentative, growing friendship. And with a third, I revisited some of this "separation" territory. I don't feel so close to him as I do to some others in the group. And I feel my personal challenge here can be seen as another example of the "can I drive down a middle path and not into either ditch?" metaphor. So a ditch on one side of the road is for me to judge those who aren't my closer friends as somehow lesser human beings. And this is patently untrue. Untrue because we humans are so diverse, like so many different kinds of animal or tree. And we don't say that an oak tree is better than a beech, or a rowan better than a plane tree ... unless maybe we're comparing them for particular uses. So an oak tree might be better than many other trees if one is looking for wood to make a ship's mast from, and yew trees may make particularly good longbows. I don't believe this somehow makes oaks or yews intrinsically superior as trees. Similarly if one of the musicians in the group was looking for somebody to play music with, they would be foolish to choose me (as I'm not particularly musical). I don't think this means I'm inferior as a human being ... as a musician, yes ... as a human being, no.
And I guess where this leads me, is that there are certain qualities that I particularly look for in friends, and that I particularly respect in other human beings. And what are they and how do I honour my choices here without others feeling "judged and dismissed"?
More on this in tomorrow's post ...