autotelic, autistic, assonance-hole©.

Advice from the heart – be neutral and kind

Today’s advice from the heart:

Generate compassion for lowly beings, and especially avoid despising or humiliating them. Have no hatred for enemies, and no attachment for friends.

This piece of advice is difficult for me because I am anything but a neutral mentality. I have little difficulty being kind, but curbing my emotions is hard closing in on impossible. There is a reason for this, but I am uncertain it is something helpful to the point. I’ll share a small portion of it simply to provide context.

For the first years of my life, I was as open and impressionable as one would expect any child to be. Until age 3, my world and life was “normal” to the point of boredom. From age 3 on, however, things were… interesting… and from age 5 until roughly 23, I simply did not allow my emotions presence in my life. They were repressed, confined, sublimated, and choked into silence.

It took me from 23 to about 38 to really come to grips with the things I’ve experienced, and begin to let emotion have a voice and place, to feel as if it might be safe to feel. I suppose it’s still somewhat new, so I often tend to allow more than not for fear of falling into old ways and habits.

This said, my emotions only seem to trigger in response to very specific things. Otherwise, I am quite capable of being ridiculously neutral. Most people I work with would laugh at that statement, but that is only because I care about what I do and I care about the success of the people and company for whom I work. When my active care is engaged, it is impossible for me to remain neutral. I just haven’t learned how yet and I’m not going to make things harder for myself and others by trying to lie about it.

As for kindness, I do not feel as if I am a kind person, but everyone around me says I am. I don’t know if it’s possible to say one or the other ‘is true’. Both are, I suspect. And neither. It depends upon the perspective, doesn’t it? But I do try to be kind. It’s easier when the things rolling around inside my head cooperate and that’s more common than not these days, which is a positive change.

So what do I think about this piece of advice? Well, I think it’s a noble goal and one I’m not real good at just yet. I think active thought is required to manage it at all, and a balance between emotion and intellect is necessary as well.

I doubt my own ability to be the kind of ‘neutral’ I think this piece of advice speaks of, because so much of buddhist thought emphasizes that true neutrality, the ‘middle way’, the enlightened being, is someone who can actively allow the thought and urge and emotion of reaction to float by without being required to go with it. I do have those moments here and there, but they are definitely transient and more uncommon than not (for all I may manage the appearance).

Kindness is much easier for me, mostly because I identify so easily with others. Empathy runs strong and deep here, so much so that I curtail my social interactions because the casual cruelty that seems so common between people actually hurts me. I really don’t know how to describe this any other way.

I recall reading a study that was something of a hallmark on empathy. It dealt with a series of neurology and neuro-psychological studies on the east coast that suggested there are people whose physiology and chemistry reacts to and synchronizes with what it perceives of others. It asserted an impressive amount of support for the idea that there are people for whom seeing someone in pain is actually, physically painful. The same for the other emotions. I strongly identified with that piece and it was something of a lifeline to me at the time I encountered it because, until then, I really thought something must be deeply, seriously wrong with me that this would happen when I heard or witnessed someone crying, being ill (vomiting), being depressed, fearful, angry, happy, jubilant, whatever.

It is often embarrassing and I admit that much of my gruffness at work is to avoid having it humiliate and embarrass me in decidedly inconvenient ways or at inappropriate times.

Anyway… being kind is easy for me because I empathize deeply and therefore, it’s rather simple to know what to say or do to be kind to another. For me, the real trick is finding the way to be neutral long enough to be kind to someone. Particularly if I’ve allowed them to trigger a negative emotional response in me.

I do think learning how to be neutral more consistently is important, perhaps even imperative. How else can one hope to affect beneficial, positive change if one’s response and interaction are driven by one’s own attachments or aversions? This piece of advice, for me, is a reminder to be aware and keep my mind focused on the reality that striving for neutrality is an effective and helpful way to manage kindness more regularly as well.

I note that I glossed over the part that speaks about not despising or humiliating lowly beings. This is not something I engage in, as I was a very lowly thing myself for a very long time in this life. I remember the feeling of cringing under the weight of someone’s cruelty or feeling so completely impotent and incompetent because everyone says that managing to do X, Y, or Z is so simple and yet… there I was… unable to do so. Obviously it meant I was defective and unworthy of the same consideration that people who could and did manage it “deserved”.

That, dear reader, is among the most horrible and self-damaging feelings I know of in this life. It’s one thing to feel unable and frustrated or angry for it. That’s heavy like wearing cement boots. But it’s nothing compared to the feeling of everyone around you looking at you with disdain, anger, resentment, dislike, smugness, superiority, and/or disgust.

If you’ve never thought about it, perhaps you would take a moment or two to do so now… and I have a perfect example for you:

Imagine you are homeless. Jobless. Broke. Imagine that you sleep in a dugout behind the local high school, in their baseball field.

Now… imagine that you wake up every morning before the sun rises and you walk four miles to the local diner. It’s a fast walk, because you know if you don’t get there before the sun comes up, you’re not going to eat until almost midnight.

You know this is true because the waitresses change shifts every twelve hours and if you don’t get there before they do, you can’t barter cleaning the restrooms, floors, and parking lot for a free meal.

Thankfully, today, you made it in time. You walk in and the customers all look at you and wrinkle their nose.

Yes, you know you stink.

It’s been so long since you’ve had a bath or shower that you can’t even remember what warm bordering on hot water feels like. You try not to think about it. But you feel the weight of their looks and hear the silent hissing of all those wrinkled noses. You know through and through that you are being weighed and found quite decidedly lacking, but you tell yourself you really don’t care about that so much because you made it in time to eat.

The waitresses all know you and, depending on what kind of night they’ve had, they’re kind or cranky. You understand them, though. And they, they understand you. So it’s all nicely unspoken and the woman at the counter points you to the broom and mop with bucket and you get busy.

You finish the cleanup and now comes your favorite part, because you get to sit there just like everyone else… and you get to eat. That you stick out like a sore thumb doesn’t really occur to you. In your mind, you’re “normal” again; just like everyone else. You imagine that no one knows where you “live” or what your life is like.

You finish and the waitress clears the table. It’s time to go. You can’t hang out there every day, but when it’s really cold outside, they let you wash the dishes for them and you get to stay warm. Sometimes, you even get a second meal. But today’s late October and it’s only chilly and so you toddle on outside, still cold from the night, now sleepy for the wonder of a full stomach, and wondering if maybe you can hide behind the bushes and nap it off.

As you’re moving toward the back of the stripmall, you see a couple approaching who’ve noticed a squirrel industriously picking through the dumpster. The woman holds the man’s arm and is pointing at it and laughing. You feel good to see people laughing. You smile. She looks up from the squirrel and notices you, smiling at her. Instantly, her face changes and the look you’re used to seeing settles there… disgust, disdain, and that smugness that you know means there’s a litany of adjectives running through her mind… none of them kind.

You think for a moment about the fact that this person has more care and compassion for a squirrel than for you. And you realize that it’s perfectly fine and even funny to watch a squirrel dig through a dumpster… but you… you offend them. You know why and it’s not always something they see in themselves…. but you see it. You understand it.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

You turn and trudge into the overgrowth behind the stripmall and find the tiny clearing you’ve made over time. Lined with cardboard and tattered remnants you stole from the dumpster behind the fabric store, tied in knots to form a loose blanket. You settle in and pull the natty, multi-colored thing over yourself and for reasons you can’t understand, you think of Joseph’s multicolored robe and you drift off to sleep wondering if maybe the diner will give you a job if you can ever clean yourself up enough to ask for one.

As you may have guessed, that’s not some fictional story, not some made up example.

This piece of advise is many things to me, as I sit here and consider it…. it’s the reason I’m the one who stills digs up all the change I have or hands the panhandler you’re so sure is lazy or scamming a fiver…. it’s the reason that I smile and make eye contact with the scruffy, disheveled, and obviously homeless people…. it’s the reason I get downright pissed off and often intervene when I see people being cruel or disdainful to the handicapped or obviously impaired…. it’s the reason I still make a point of donating clothing and household items to the local charities and thrift stores.

And it’s one of many reasons why I keep a place like this, where I can talk about it all and set it out here in hopes that maybe it actually does anything more than take up server space.

It is important to strive to be neutral, yes, but it is so very much more important to remember and make a point of being kind.