Your Immense Heart – re-posted

This morning it seemed like a good idea to re-post this.

A jar floating in the river
Has river in it. The city lives in the room. Think of the world
as the jar and your immense
heart as the river.
Rumi – Coleman Bark’s translation in The Soul of Rumi p. 295

Apparently, Rumi is currently the best selling poet in America. He is the 13th century Sufi, born in Afghanistan, who fled Genghis Khan and went to live in Persia. Coleman Barks, his translator, has brought him to our attention. There are other translators certainly, but I am familiar with this one and came across the lines I have quoted high above the blue Pacific on my way to Maui. I kept running them through my mind so that, by the time, I saw the double rainbow over the ocean on the Hana road, I had committed them to memory. It seemed a wonderful thing that, instead of being carried along by the current of the world, my heart was the great river that bore the world along.

Well, easy enough to know the immensity of the heart when it is full of joy as it was then. Not so easy in times of fear and loathing. And disappointment and frustration, and loss and failure and recession and depression and so on until we end up with Grinch-sized hearts, hearts that need the jaws of life to pry them open. Little tiny hearts such as Connor  (“Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, posted May 30) must have had in the end.

Open-heartedness like a river accepts everything and sweeps it up in its embrace. It does not hold back to assess a situation, deciding perhaps that here, compassion is called for or there, that empathy is in order, that this is just and right and valuable whereas that is not. It doesn’t involve effort or reason. It isn’t deserved. It is more like grace.

Big-hearted people, the Falstaffs that we meet, give us a glimpse into open-heartedness although we may dismiss them as tiresome good-time fellows. But the open heart is not necessarily ‘Hail-fellow-well-met’.

The open heart sees things in a positive light. What seems negative is just misunderstood, for always life is carrying us on in the right direction, the direction our soul is seeking in spite of where we think we ought to be or go.

But how to come to such an inclusive, accepting, positive frame of mind can be a difficult question. We each have to find our own way. Someone might begin with gratitude. Someone might arrive by being in love. Some by family love. Some by love of a pet, some of nature. To be truly open-hearted will always mean expanding beyond those beginnings and, for example, including everyone in that beloved family, loving your mother-in-law as much as your cat, for example, your political opponent as much as your child.

It is not a way of being that comes naturally to us yet, but I believe that technology is coming to our assistance. The internet can serve as one immense heart as well as mind. We share our thoughts instantly and spontaneously now and we have the opportunity to be more empathetic.

In another poem, Rumi says we are cups floating in the ocean and we should strive to wet our lips.

Jack and Charlie: a study in compassion

Jack and Charlie lived at Wild Heart Ranch in Oklahoma in the care of Annette Tucker who has fostered 16,000 animals since she got her permit. Jack was a 16 year-old goat when the story began and Charlie, a horse blind in one eye.

I learned their story on an episode of the program Nature on PBS featuring unusual relationships between animals. I don’t usually watch Nature because, although I can watch any amount of mayhem involving people, I can’t stand watching animals suffer. But this one was full of good news. A retriever and a cheetah raced each other and had play fights, having been paired as puppy and cub, as did a lion and coyote. A gorilla hugged its dog friend. An owl and a pussycat played games. A female deer adopted a blind dog  and groomed his hair into spikes every morning. But it was Jack and Charlie that blew me away.

At first, Jack walked on the side of Charlie’s good eye when he guided him to a favourite patch of grass in the woods. Then when Charlie lost his sight in the remaining eye, Jack walked ahead of him and, according to Annette Tucker, Charlie followed the sound of Jack’s footsteps, which he could distinguish from other horses’ or people’s.

Once in tornado weather, Jack came running home screaming. As soon as he got a response, he set off running back into the woods where Annette found Charlie trapped in a circle of downed trees, a real Lassie moment -“Timmy’s in the well. Timmy’s in the well.”

To see Jack plodding along, as he did for 16 years, you cannot explain this dedication. Jack doesn’t seem to get any reward for his efforts nor does he seem especially happy to be doing it. He just goes on doing what needs to be done year after year. He never dawdles along the path, snacking now and again, as he did before Charlie went blind. He walks slowly and steadily about 10 or 15 feet ahead, waiting when Charlie gets confused.

When Charlie dies in his favourite pasture, Jack rests his head on the fallen horse briefly. Then he gets up, walks the path alone and lies down in his usual spot to sleep, apparently unmoved. Does he understand his friend is dead? Evidently, for from that point on, Jack declines. We see a much weaker animal making his way to the woods to graze. In the end, he is buried there beside his friend.

Remarkably, two members of my family, who never watch Nature either, saw the same episode and so I had a little discussion forum. One of them hypothesized that these were highly evolved souls. The other said it was just a case of companionship and that was Jack’s reward.

Scientific studies have found that people who help others are healthier and live longer. It  kept Jack going for a great number of goat-years. Giving others what they need can be a satisfying experience. We feel connected when we do and this  good feeling translates into well-being.

Jack gave me insight into the nature of compassion. It isn’t a sentiment or even an emotion; it is an action. Jack registered a need and responded to it. He provided a model for me.

Motherhood: savage longing

Robert Thurman, renowned Buddhist and scholar, and famous Uma’s father, writes in The Jewel Tree of Tibet about an unusual way to learn compassion. While you are sitting in a subway car or bus, look around and realize that everyone you see has, in the course of repeated lifetimes and in some form or other, been your mother.

But will we ever forgive each other?

Earlier this year, I bought Colm Toiben’s new book called New Ways to KIll Your Mother, a title that dismayed at least one mother I know.

Toiben is an Irish novelist and critic, who has written here a series of book reviews or essays in which he explores how we treat parents, particularly mothers, in our novels. He notes that 18th century novels rarely feature mothers. It is true that 10% of women died in childbirth then, but still, it seems unusual especially since motherhood was then beginning to be idealized. Yet “the novel is a form ripe for orphans”. He quotes Ruth Perry, a critic, who says that this “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.”

(That darned individualism, so marked in 2 year-olds, and 14 year-olds, and … oh, never mind.)

Jane Austen’s last three novels have no mothers. Her great success Pride and Prejudice has Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth’s social climbing, hysterical, embarrassing mother, whose husband escapes into his study. (Wait, doesn’t that sound like someone I know?) Aunts were permitted in many motherless stories, including those of  Henry James. They might be kindly as Elizabeth’s or autocratic as Darcy’s, or manipulative, but they were surrogates, not the real mother McCoy.

The middle section of Toiben’s book concerns Irish writers, including the poet W.B. Yeats, whose essay is subtitled, “New Ways to KIll Your Father”. Yeat’s father, an successful artist sounds almost as annoying as Mrs Bennet. He confidently wrote from New York to explain a brilliant book he expected to write and publish to great acclaim. Yeats, who had put in a long and painful writing apprenticeship, refrained from dashing his father’s hopes -and thereby presumably killing him. Instead he waited a long while, during which time no such book materialized and then responded in a restrained manner.

J.M. Synge, Irish playwright (The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea) and co-founder of Irish theatre, had a formidable mother who preached damnation at all three daily meals and organized his short life when he wasn’t escaped to Paris. Much as he disdained her ‘rule’, he followed her every summer to the family’s summer place. And much as she, an Irish protestant, abhorred his atheism, she continued to give him house-room. Despite disdain, he kept on coming back.

“Samuel Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” tells us of the author of Waiting for Godot and his mother. Apparently, she tended to be depressed. (Imagine that -the Becketts were depressed!) Beckett eventually also fled to Paris and insisted on remaining during the Nazi occupation. He wrote the following in 1937 while his mother was away traveling: (She had of course left her cook in place and Samuel continued to enjoy life good food.) “I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill. I am what her savage longing has made me….. I simply don’t want to see her or write to her or hear from her…”

“Savage longing” indeed. Sound like a mother you know?

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit that I am a mother. But, of course, you knew that.

A few weeks after I became one, I sneaked off to the doctor, leaving my newborn in the care of her father. There I sat and wept that she hated me already. Stupid man, he just laughed and assured me that soon we would be deeply attached. We were and we are – from time to time. Did I say that out loud? At present, we have entered a Pax Romana or a  long Victorian empire of peace. I have finally matured.

Her brother, on the other hand, is in a Beckett phase, although he is cordial enough at weddings and funerals. Funny how infrequent they are.

It is quite breathtaking when our beloved off-spring begin as they say to “individuate”. Humbling of course. After the momentary slights and cuts of childish insults, we endure a decade where we are ill-informed if not actually stupid, uncool, unfashionable and just generally out of date. We may or may not suddenly improve when the child is 21.

Apologies to Robert Thurman, but no wonder we have such a problem with each other! If we have all been each other’s mothers, we’ve got history.

On her death bed, my own mother had what looked like a large ruby on her upper lip. She was about to slip into a coma. She looked at me and moved her dry mouth silently. I wiped it with a wet cloth. Than she found her voice. “I need a present,” she said.

And my heart filled with compassion.