Monday, September 7, 2009

Hey, anyone need a kidney? I'm more compassionate than you are! Nyeh nyeh! Getting out of my head and inspired by "the Happiest Person in the World"

So there I was, not actually giving a crap about anyone else but myself.... worrying about how compassionate I was being instead of cultivating it and practicing it in real life.

Here's the thing: I'm reading Marc Ian Barasch's Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, and there's this whole section on people who give their spare kidneys to strangers. People like Harold Mintz, Joyce Roush and Steve Aman, and hundreds of others, who decide one day that they can save a life by giving away a kidney, and so they do.

I've given blood plenty of times––and it's needed, they tell me––but I have plenty of blood. And when I give away a pint, it replenishes within a short time.

But I can't imagine giving away my kidney. Even though, in fact, I have a spare.

I'm not going to get into a deep discussion here about whether or not I should give my kidney away, but I will discuss it further at some point; Barasch's conversations with the kidney donors are inspiring, to say the least.

Barasch also mentions researchers who study Holocaust rescuers, who hid Jews at great danger to themselves and their families, and Barasch draws the conclusion that Living Anonymous Donors have something in common with the rescuers:
"...I began to wonder if the LADs were not the same sort of people. LADs and rescuers alike claimed their performed their altruistic deeds almost choicelessly, because it seemed to them, beyond any risk-benefit calculus or even moral deliberation, the only thing they could do."
So of course, instead of looking at this as inspiring, I started looking at it as proof of my inadequacy. Why am I not one of those people? I don't know if I could give away my kidney! I don't know if I could protect Jews from the Nazis!

I kept reading the book and found myself getting more and more frustrated, until I happened upon a bit about Matthieu Ricard, which reminded me what compassion actually is and how it can be cultivated.

If you're not familiar with him, Ricard is sometimes called "The Happiest Man in the World." Though I've also heard Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche called the same thing. Maybe they should fight it out for the title. In a steel cage. Ricard is a former scientist turned Buddhist monk and author, and he's the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He's also an astounding photographer; you can read more about him on his website,

So Ricard gave this wonderful Ted talk in 2007 about happiness, and what it takes to be happy.

"Now, what then, will be happiness? And happiness, of course, is such a vague word, so let's say well-being. And so, I think the best definition, according to the Buddhist view, is that well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states and all the joys and sorrows that can come one's way. For you, that might be surprising. Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level.

Look at the waves coming here to shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave, you hit the bottom. You hit the solid rock. When you are surfing on the top, you are all elated. So you go from elation to depression, there's no depth. Now, if you look at the high sea, there might be beautiful, calm ocean like a mirror. There might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged. So now, how is that? It can only be a state of being, not just a fleeting emotion, sensation. Even joy, that can be the spring of happiness. But there's also wicked joy, you can rejoice in someone's suffering. "
Ricard goes on to discuss how we generally look for happiness in the external and how impossible that quest is, and where the real potential for happiness lies:
"So how do we proceed in our quest for happiness? Very often we look outside. We think that if we could gather this and that, all the conditions, something that we say, everything to be happy. To have everything, to be happy. That very sentence already reveals the doom of destruction of happiness. To have everything. If we miss something, it collapses. And also, when things go wrong we try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory. So now, look at inner conditions. Aren't they stronger? Isn't it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering? And isn't that stronger? We know, by experience, that we can be what we call in little paradise and yet, be completely unhappy within."

"So now, at the opposite, we know a lot of people who are in very difficult circumstances manage to keep serenity, inner strength, inner freedom, confidence. So now, if the inner conditions are stronger -- of course, the outer conditions do influence, and it's wonderful to live longer, healthier, to have access to information, education, to be able to travel, to have freedom, it's highly desirable. However, this is not enough; those are just auxiliary help, conditions. The experience that translates everything is within the mind. So then, when we ask oneself how to nurture the condition for happiness, the inner conditions, and which are those which will undermine happiness. So then, this needs to have some experience.

We have to know from ourself, there are certain states of mind that are conducive to this flourishing, to this well-being, what the Greeks called eudaimonia, flourishing. There are some which are adverse to this well-being. And so, if we look from our own experience -- anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, obsessive desire, strong grasping -- they don't leave us in such a good state after we have experienced it. And also, they are detrimental to others' happiness. So we may consider that the more those are invading our mind, and, like a chain reaction, the more we feel miserable, we feel tormented. At the opposite, everyone knows deep within that an act of selfless generosity, if from the distance, without anyone knowing anything about it, we could save a child's life, make someone happy. We don't need the recognition. We don't need any gratitude. Just the mere fact of doing that, fills such a sense of adequation with our deep nature. And we would like to be like that all the time."
As Ricard recently said on his blog:
"To imagine happiness as the achievement of all our desires and passions, is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with an utopia that inevitably leads to frustration.

Among all the clumsy, blind, and extreme ways we go about building happiness, the most sterile is selfishness.

Even if we display every outward sign of happiness, we can never be truly happy if we dissociate ourselves from the happiness of others."
He says, in a separate entry:

"Usually, we all experience thoughts of loving kindness, generosity, inner peace and freedom from conflicts. But these thoughts are fleeting and will soon be replaced by other thoughts, including afflictive ones such as anger and jealousy. To fully integrate altruism and compassion in our midstream, we need to do more than that. We need to cultivate them over longer periods of time. We need to bring them to our minds and then nurture them, repeat them, preserve them, enhance them, so that they gradually fill our mental landscape in a more durable way.

To arouse loving kindness, one might imagine, for instance, a young child, and feel nothing but benevolence toward that child. When that mental state has clearly arisen in one’s mind, one let it grow and sustain it until if fills one’s whole mental landscape. Then one will simply nurture this state, keeping it present, full and vast. If one does so regularly, the mind will become more easily and naturally filled with benevolence and loving kindness for all, and compassion for those who suffer."
So happiness comes from cultivating some states and not others. Loving kindness, generosity, compassion, inner peace. So what was I doing? Surely not that. I was focusing on comparing my compassion to others. Upset because mine isn't as "good" as someone else's! I think Chögyam Trungpa would have called this "spiritual materialism," which he describes in his amazing book... Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. From Wikipedia, describing this particular brand of spiritual materialism: "psychological materialism."
"Psychological materialism is the belief that a particular philosophy, belief system, or point of view will bring release from suffering. So seeking refuge by strongly identifying with a particular religion, philosophy, political party or viewpoint, for example, would be psychological materialism. From this the conventional usage of spiritual materialism arises, by identifying oneself as Buddhist or some other label, or by collecting initiations and spiritual accomplishments, one further constructs a solidified view of ego."
So instead of actually focusing on compassion and cultivating compassion, I was worried that my compassion wasn't good enough. I was worried about my status, my ranking on the compassion scoreboard, as surely as I would be concerned about my car being nicer than someone else's, or having a bigger TV, or a nicer house. And while I was doing that, nothing was getting done! No children were being fed, no peace was being made, no one was being healed, or educated, or cared for. Because I was busy worrying about my status. Maybe someday I'll get to be "The World's Most Compassionate Man."

Therein lies the challenge, for me at least, and I hope you take something from this too. This is not a race. We're not here to try and prove how compassionate we are. We don't get a badge or a medal or a trophy. Stop keeping score, and focus on cultivating compassion, through whatever means you choose. I meditate. I read. I try hard to wrap my head around the lives of others, and try to understand their unique suffering, which is as real to them as mine is to me.

And then, we do something about it. Meditating isn't enough. Scorekeeping isn't enough. Create something that makes a difference, for someone, somewhere.

At least that's what I'm working on. *


  1. Jon. You make the statement above... "I don't know if I could give away my kidney." We've never met, but allow me to ask a few questions of you. Is your mother still alive? I truly hope so. If she is, here's my first question. If she were ill and the only way to save her life was for you to give her one of your kidneys tomorrow morning, would you do it? I've asked that question of thousands of people. The overwhelming answer is almost always, "Yes. Of course." When I ask them why, 8 out of 10 give me the exact same answer... "Because she's my mom." Hmm. Ok. Well what about your brother or sister? "If they were really going to die without one of your kidneys... Would you give them one of yours?? Ok, almost done. Stick with me... What about your best friend from high school whom you haven't even spoken to in years. He's going to die tomorrow without your kidney. Dead. No more. What would you do?

    You say that you don't know if you'd be able to give away your kidney. Jon, I don't even know you and I'll bet I know how you answered the above questions. If you were called upon as the last hope of saving your mom, your brother or your best friend from high school - I'm betting you'd make the same decision I, and a growing number of other NORMAL people did...

    Organ donation, blood donation, giving a buck to the homeless guy on the corner... There are no big acts of compassion or small acts of compassion. It's simply compassion. And we all have it. Right?

    Harold Mintz
    One of Chapter 7's Kidney Donors in Field Notes...

  2. Harold, thanks so much for your comment - I totally agree with you, and I was totally inspired by your story in the book. When I read the book, I thought just that - if I were called upon to do it for a family member, I would in a second. The thing that I struggle with is giving a kidney to a total stranger, even though I know inherently that there's no real difference in the value of, say, my mom's life, and that of another. I hope I was clear above - I totally admire what you and others have done. The posting was more about how I felt inadequate about the fact that I was not willing to give as much as you were. It felt like I was keeping score, which I talk about as "spiritual materialism." Obviously that's ridiculous - and not being willing to give a kidney to a stranger is based my my own ignorance, really, that even though I know intellectually that there is no difference between my mom and a stranger, I find it hard to imagine doing what you did. While I know that with cultivation, I'll grow more compassionate, this posting was more about how I simply need to do what you said above, just be compassionate. Because while I'm fretting about it, I'm not making a difference for anyone. Again, thank you for your kind comments.