My eyes opened slowly. Above me, I saw a meadow of beautiful pink and violet flowers. The scene was filled with a light that danced between the blossoms and washed across the field of soft, delicate opulence under the shade of the trees like the gentle rising of water on the underside of a dock in summertime. The magnificence filled my heart to overflowing and the sweetness spilled from my throat and eyes like an offering to myself reflected endlessly in mirror placed before mirror.
But the magnificence was not only in the image before me, nor just in the choice of subject to reproduce, but also in the way it was painted: the movements of the brush, the pleasure of the action that created it, and the state of flow of the painter himself.
“It’s so beautiful,” I said to my therapist, in awe of the Monet in my self and my self in Monet, in the sweetness of the pleasure of living, in each stroke of the brush, and in each click of the keys beneath my fingers. “Now I understand why people pay millions for them.”
“Yes, even people who don’t know what it’s called know it when they see it,” he said.
The word transcendence suggests separation or to go above or beyond. But the way to transcend is to go through: to fully commit to and experience the very thing we wish to transcend. A moment before experiencing Monet, I had been feeling the fear in my inner child, his fear of another person. I went into the feeling, into the child who can project itself into any experience, and onward into the experience of the person he feared. From that vantage point I could fully understand the other person. This freed my child from fear because I understood the feared person in context: not as some scary demon but as a small child in fear too. I then knew that I had another companion in my humanity.
A few days later I lay on the cushioned floor of my spiritual coach’s house as we discussed my belief that everything is perfect. I thought of a time of particular suffering in my life and asked, “How can that be perfect?”
My coach repeated the question, “How can that be perfect?”
From the experience in my therapist’s office, I spoke the answer, “The mind cannot understand it.” Then, like a dolphin pushing its nose into the steely depths, I plunged into the center of my self, to the pain that seemed to lurk there. From the center of the child, I projected my self into the other person’s experience.
I then realized out loud, “His suffering is my suffering,” and I belly-sobbed with face scrunched and back arching above the cushions.
My coach responded, “You don’t have to take on other people’s suffering.”
From within the sun-washed garden at this child-like center, I knew the answer again and said with conviction, “It’s too late, I already took it on, and I have already suffered. But now I see that he suffered in the same way that I have suffered.” For the first time in my life, and from then on, I could see him, with love, as a little boy. I had become the father.
Empathy plays an important role in my work with my own clients. I helped an adolescent client who argued with his father daily. I like to work with issues directly if possible. If I can’t have all the involved parties in my office then I do my best with what I have. So he and I spent our time together arguing.
First he played himself while I played his father. Then we switched and I played him while he played his father. After a while, we both got very good at playing both roles. Then I decided to change the rules. Playing his father, he said something to me that hurt me in my role as him. I paused, felt the pain inside my body, let tears run down my cheeks, and told him that he had hurt me. He was shocked and, in the role of his father, stopped arguing immediately. I had felt true empathy for him, and he had felt true empathy for his father. The argument ended as the truth of the love he and his father shared surfaced. And the arguments at home ended too.
Can you imagine if Buddhist monks performed pity meditation in which they thought of those in the world in trouble and sent pity to them? Dictionaries define pity to be synonymous with compassion, but in colloquial use pity means something substantially different from compassion: pity implies separation — an almost patronizing concern — whereas compassion implies a deeply empathic understanding. The Latin root of pity is pietas, which means to do your religious duty. The Latin root of compassion is compati, which means to suffer with, to do your spiritual duty. To be effective with other people, we need to not only suffer with them, but to live with them. This is called empathy.
Empathy is the secret of Aikido, the way of love: as the attacker approaches with the intent to harm, the target steps around next to the attacker and truly empathizes with the attack, joining the attacker, and thereby disappearing as a target. Now there is only an attacker and a potentially thwarted attack. At this point, the concept of winning no longer applies, since the attacker and the target are one. But the original intent of the attacker must find completion, so the attacker inevitably offers him or her self as the target, and the altercation is brought to a peaceful conclusion that is strangely satisfying to both parties.
I recently watched the film The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which tells the ironic story of John Lennon fighting a war, albeit physically non-violent, against Nixon. Lennon made an enemy of Nixon and possibly consequently lost his life. How different would things have been if Lennon had met Nixon where he was and created a grand vision of a presidential leader who could truly win a war by ending bloodshed? Was Lennon capable of creating a grander throne than military might for Nixon’s narcissism to sit upon? I believe so.
In a similar way, could we have understood Bush and created a role for him as a great leader rather than a bungling fool, albeit one we incongruently suspected of conspiring against us? Could we have rallied behind a Bush empowered by a people to leave a lasting legacy of goodness? There must have been a way. No one would go to the trouble of becoming president simply to embezzle money for his or her friends — lasting fame, and not just infamy, must have played a precious part.
Back in my therapist’s office, after a minute or so, I sat up, turned around, and looked at the Monet.
“It just looks like an ordinary picture again.” I said.
This article was originally published on my personal blog on June 9th, 2009.