NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Compassion” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Compassion: From both sides, now
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
During my first year of therapist training, for three consecutive days each week I commuted to Boston in heavy traffic, worked all day as an unpaid intern at Massachusetts College of Art, took a three-hour class each night, and drove home, arriving just in time to sleep for six hours and then do it again the next day. It was an exhausting process and at times I thought seriously about giving it all up.
One late-night trek home, however, I was pondering a comment from a fellow classmate. “This is spiritual work we’re doing, David,” he’d said. I recalled that day’s clients – earnest young art students who would, I thought, go on to do good things with their lives – and I was suddenly engulfed by a rush of great fondness. In that moment, hurtling through the dark, it occurred to me that I was preparing for a career where I would be paid for loving people.
A decade or so into the practice of psychotherapy, I’ve refined that thought. More specifically, I see that I am in a profession where I am privileged, every day, to feel and show compassion for the suffering of others and to do what I can to relieve it.
In the years immediately preceding my therapist training, I’d had a difficult lesson in compassion, perhaps the most trying I have experienced, yet also the one from which I’ve most grown.
After I found out that the attorneys who had represented me in my medical malpractice trial had stolen my award, I was consumed by hatred. I was working in Cambridge as a technical writer, a job I had expected to be liberated from after the jury decided in my favor. For much of the train ride between Gloucester and Boston, and the walk between the commuter rail station and my cubicle at Lotus Development Corporation, my body was rigid with a boiling anger I had never experienced before: the anger of betrayal.
During the year between my turning my attorneys in and their sentencing and imprisonment, I devoted many hours each week to conducting my own investigations of their crimes, communicating what I found to the D.A. assigned to their case, and trying to anticipate their next move. I staked out the house of one of the attorneys and attempted to get the police to seize his collection of cars and motorcycles. I visited Manhattan and Westchester County court houses and found evidence of longstanding evasion of property taxes, as well as other suits against them by vendors, landlords, and ex-wives. I got a lien on one of their houses. I found out about their tax evasion investigation and put the D.A. in touch with the IRS. I figured out how their ten-year run of stealing from clients had its origins in investments they had made in a fake oil and gas exploration scheme in the 80s. And I met several of the other victims and compared notes.
My actions, though often effective, were fueled almost entirely by a desire for vengeance. I wanted them caught and I wanted them punished for what they’d done to me. Concern for the other victims, and even for getting my money back, was secondary.
Simultaneous with these efforts, I learned the practice of metta.
Metta is intended to cultivate loving kindness through expressing it regularly. It is a meditation practice. I was taught by a Buddhist therapist to wish either for loving kindness or for something specific and positive for: 1) myself, 2) someone I loved, 3) someone I knew casually, 4) someone with whom I was having difficulty, and 5) all sentient beings. Wishing positive things for myself, my loved ones, people I knew only casually, and all sentient beings came to me easily, and doing so brought me a feeling of peace and well-being. The sticking point was wishing anything positive at all toward my former attorneys, the people with whom I was having the greatest difficulty. At one point I had briefly considered hiring a leg breaker to coerce them into paying me back. To go from that place to loving kindness was a stretch, but after persistent encouragement from the therapist, I was able to realize that at least I did not wish them an agonizing, premature death. Not much, but a small step toward the end of hatred.
Over time, as I repeated this practice, I was more easily able to feel sympathy for them as broken and incomplete men. By the time I read a statement at their sentencing, I was no longer consumed with hatred. Instead, I was interested only in seeing justice done. When I visited my trial attorney’s partner in prison some years later, I felt sorry for him. Once proud and on top of the world, he was now a broken man, reduced to repairing machinery to give himself a trade when he got out of prison. Two years later, when I visited my trial attorney, I was finally able to feel compassion for him, too. I felt it not because I believed his prison experience had made him any less dangerous or arrogant – despite an almost monk-like appearance, he seemed unchanged – but because I understood that he was an incomplete person, lacking empathy, insight, remorse, or conscience. Sitting across from him in the visitor’s area, I felt a pang of sadness that he was still a danger to others, could not see this in himself, and that this prison was the best place for him to be.
Compassion can be a source of great strength. As a therapist, it allows me, every day, to take on the problems, concerns, and difficult emotions of my clients, even when I myself am experiencing great pain, and help to heal their suffering. And, in trying circumstances, it allows me to take on my own problems, concerns, and difficult emotions with loving kindness toward myself, and heal my own suffering as well.
Compassion can be an antidote to hatred. It is not naive or weak. In the case of my attorneys, compassion for them caused no significant change in my actions. I still read at their sentencing, and I still recommended to their parole boards that they not be given early release from prison. From them, I learned that compassion toward dangerous people does not incline you toward a lesser punishment or less secure protection, but it does change the internal sense of injury. I let betrayal and hatred go. Compassion healed me from these wounds.