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Compassion: even unto the watering can

I once read in a book about Zen that after you do the gardening, you should clean your tools with great gentleness and care. It's a nice idea - caring even for inanimate objects - but it's not done for sentimental reasons, and still less because the gardening tools care whether you care for them or not. Rather, it's functional. Because caring for everything, right down to your gardening equipment, can transform your experience of the world.

To understand this, we need to think about the different ways we can relate to things. We can want things (like food, money, or status), we can not want things (like loss, pain, or humiliation), and we can also care for things (like our friends, family, and pets).

Much of our trouble comes from spending too much time wanting and not wanting. This is made extremely explicit in Buddhism, and it's equally explicit in some psychotherapeutic approaches that draw on Buddhism (most notably Compassion-Focussed Therapy). But it's also at the core of the oldest, most venerable psychotherapies, which have provided the foundation for most of the others.

Freud believed that our trouble was due to repression - by which he meant not wanting certain feelings, and so pushing them out of conscious awareness. This leads to all kinds of trouble, as we bend ourselves out of shape trying to avoid feelings that we cannot bear to know about. So the compulsive self-sacrificer drives themselves to exhaustion, rather than acknowledge their secret rage. And the narcissist strains mightily to deny their secret shame.

Similarly, Freud's successors and rivals, the behaviourists, trace many of our difficulties to avoidance of unpleasant stimuli. The agoraphobe has to stay home, in order to avoid panic attacks, and the depressive stays in bed, in order to avoid the effort, the fear, and the shame of going out and facing the world.

And while psychotherapies haven't concerned themselves so much with the problems of wanting (because the things we call mental illnesses are more often problems of not wanting), those problems are plain to see. We all eat the wrong food, are glued to our phones, and generally make poor decisions in the grip of desire. And some of us get into serious trouble, from drug addiction to ruining our marriages through infidelity or workaholism.

So where does caring fit into all this? Well, caring can be our way out of the otherwise endless push/pull of wanting and not wanting. Think of someone you care for, in a fairly uncomplicated way. Maybe a good friend, or a child, or a pet. Do you want to grab hold of and possess them, as you do money, or status, or a fancy car? No, not really. And do you want to get away from them, like you do something frightening or disgusting? No, of course not. Instead, you want to move towards them and offer care; to embrace them without needing to jealousy grasp and cling. And so an attitude of kindness, care, and friendliness can free us from wanting and not wanting and all the trouble they bring. If we could spend more time in a caring mode of mind, then maybe things would get a bit better.

How can you do this? Well, you can start like a good behaviourist, by acting kindly. And you can be kind to everything, because the point is not just to benefit the recipients of your kindness, but to benefit yourself by working on your own mind. If you can be kind to your gardening tools, after all, you can probably be kind to anything. Try it, and see how it feels. Your watering can doesn't care if you're kind to it, but maybe now the world seems a little softer and more welcoming; a little less threatening. Maybe you'll be a little more willing to face whatever is uncomfortable for you.

And you can continue like a good meditator, by working not with your actions but with the quality of your attention. To get a feel for what I mean by this, consider what it's like when you look at difficult work problem. What is your attention like? How about when you look at a huge spider in your bathroom? And what about when you look at a good friend, a beloved child, or a pet. Perhaps your gaze softens, perhaps it takes on a gentle, loving quality.

You can seek to bring that kind of gentle, loving attention to more and more things, including, ultimately, watering cans, spiders, and even you own most painful feelings. And if you can do that, you might find that it gets a little easier to approach what you are inclined to avoid. And then it might be possible to overcome that spider phobia, that agoraphobia, that depression.

So, try it in meditation: see if you can cultivate an attitude of friendliness and care towards whatever you are aware of.

You could start with the breath. Tune into it and focus on it as best you can. See if you can notice your attitude to it. Does it seem like something you need to grasp - to focus intently on and not let go of? Or something unpleasant, perhaps because you're feeling anxious and so your breath is shallow, quick, or rough? Or perhaps it seems like a problem to be solved - like it's your job to pay attention to it, and you have to figure out how.

Whatever point you're starting from, see if you can start to nudge your attitude just a little in the direction of kindness. See if you can soften your gaze, as it were, and treat your breath as a friend. It's fairly helpful, after all - it keeps you alive. And it's loyal, too - it's been with you all your life.

And if you can't do it, or can't even quite imagine what it would be like, of course that's fine. Just hold the intention to be kind to your breath, and keep very gently working at it. It can take a while, but if you keep coming back to this intention, day after day, week after week, you'll find that you feel your way into it

And don't stop with the breath. See what it's like to bring a kindly gaze to everything you notice in meditation. If you can hear traffic as you meditate, can you hear it with kindness? If you feel your clothes on your skin, can you look kindly on those sensations? And if you can feel some discomfort - perhaps pain in your back, or an itch that you're tempted to scratch, can you bring a kindly attention to that? See what it's like to bring this attitude, this way of seeing things, to every moment of your meditation.

And don't stop with meditation. Try to bring this attitude to every moment of your life outside of meditation. You won't succeed, of course, or even come close - most of the time you'll forget, and be pulled mindlessly into aversion or grasping after things. But every now and again you'll remember, and you can pause to notice the attitude you're bringing to whatever you're aware of. And then you can try, very gently, to soften your gaze; to reconnect with an attitude of kindness.

And as you work on bringing kindly attention to whatever you notice, both in and out of meditation, perhaps it will get easier to act more kindly, including towards your gardening tools. And as you see things more kindly and act more kindly, maybe the world will become a friendlier place.


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