Roles

Jizo 5I had the good fortune earlier this month to attend the first day of a FACES Compassion and Wisdom conference here in DC. FACES conferences focus “on the integration of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘compassion’ in the counseling field”. They are largely intended for mental health professionals and therapeutic service providers, though members of the public like myself may also attend. I attended one plenary session with Roshi Joan Halifax called “Inside Compassion” and two presentations/workshops by Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion: “The Proven Power of Kindness” and “Difficult Relationship Interactions”.

The talks I attended concerned compassion for self as well as others. There was a tangible atmosphere of caring in the audience, magnified by the feeling of proven compassion-in-action that radiated from the speakers. Before Roshi Joan began her talk, she asked the audience to identify themselves in terms of their roles, which was expressed here in terms of livelihood. Waves of people stood up to be counted as therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, physical therapists, and the like. A few proudly shouted out titles that didn’t neatly fit into the category of healing professions, like accountant and home contractor, to be met with good-natured laughter.

There were either no other attorneys in the room or perhaps, like me, none that wished to publicly self-identify. Sitting there surrounded by individuals who’d devoted their lives to the service of others’ mental, physical, or spiritual health, I felt that my own profession did not adequately explain the connection I felt with those around me. In fact, my job title seemed largely irrelevant to my self-concept at that moment. And so a huge smile came over my face when Roshi Joan began with a teaching given by Ram Dass to the Upaya chaplaincy class: tapping his hand to his head he’d said “role”; tapping his hand to his heart with a broad and loving smile, he’d said “soul”.

The meaning was unmistakable in that moment, but since the moment is passed, here is a more thorough explanation from an interview with Ram Dass that I found online:

I asked, “Do you have any words of advice for people in leadership roles—therapists, doctors, nurses, teachers, or parents? Really just anyone in a position to be of service?”

“I wrote a book called, How Can I Help?” [Ram Dass] said with a smile. “It answers this question. When you’re in ego you inhabit your roles: the nurse role, doctor role, teacher role, mother role, or the seeker role. They’re all roles. You stand in your role and talk to other people, but because your role is a cover it makes everybody else get in their role. For example, there is the role of nurse and the role of patient. So, the game is to bring your identification from ‘role’ to ‘soul,’” he says as he slowly brings his hand down from his head to his heart. “Role to Soul. The roles have anxiety and fear in them, but the soul came from the One. It came from love. As you go through these planes of consciousness, first you see love, then you be love. See love, be love.”

As a Buddhist, I don’t believe in an immutable soul, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand what Ram Dass is talking about. In fact, the whole role-soul dynamic feels very relevant to me as it’s been a topic of personal struggle. In particular, I’ve been trying to find the balance point between accepting the role(s) I have (embracing the present moment) and striving to be of greater service (trying to increase my contribution to the world). I’m beginning to see how I have internalized the concept that certain roles and livelihoods are more “helpful” than others; that is, that certain ways of being in the world are more inherently of service than others. I still think there is some truth to that, but I’m coming to recognize that this belief is accompanied by the danger of also internalizing a concomitant falsehood: that if I do not have one of the inherently helpful roles, I cannot truly serve.

In writing this blog, I was reminded of a quote of the Dalai Lama’s that I’ve long cherished: “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.” This is one of the quotes (like Anne Frank’s “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”) that has inspired my own spirit of service since I was a teenager. When I looked up the Dalai Lama’s quote to make sure I was punctuating it correctly, I discovered that the quote is taken from his book Ocean of Wisdom: Guidelines for Living, and has a context that I’ve not known all these years:

It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.

There are two aspects to action. One is to overcome the distortions and afflictions of your own mind, that is, in terms of calming and eventually dispelling anger. This is action out of compassion. The other is more social, more public. When something needs to be done in the world to rectify the wrongs, if one is really concerned with benefitting others, one needs to be engaged, involved.

Like Ram Dass’ teaching, the Dalai Lama’s quote, taken in full, points the way forward to service through the way within.

I found this message reiterated in a beautiful questions-and-answer segment by Thay that was recently uploaded to Plum Village Online. The questions, submitted to Thay via Facebook, were “How do you know you are really living the life that can contribute the most to humanity?” and “All of us have to make a living, but how can we also help to really heal this world?”. Here is the video:

I’ve also transcribed Thay’s answer below:

Just imagine a pine tree standing outside. And the pine tree’s asking what it can be in order to help the world. And the answer can come easily: be a healthy, beautiful pine tree. If a pine tree is vigorous, beautiful, healthy – then every one of us will profit from it. And if a pine tree is less than a pine tree, not healthy enough, not beautiful enough, and then we will suffer, all of us.

So the answer is that the most helpful thing for you to do is to be a happy human being. You should be solid, fresh, happy, and everything you do for yourself in order for you to remain solid, fresh, happy – is happening to all of us. So that is the problem: how to be healthy, how to be fresh, how to be beautiful. That is the answer.

And then in the question there is the idea that if you have a profession, you have a job, because you want, you need, to make a living, so how can I choose a job in order to be more peaceful with myself and with the world? To be more helpful to myself and to the world? So this brings in the topic of Right Livelihood. You have to earn a living. But there are many kinds of jobs that can help you to express your joy, your compassion. So you decide to take up the kind of job that gives you a chance to be more compassionate, even if you earn less and you are happier, even if you have to earn less.

So if you are lucky, you can have a kind of job that can help you express your compassion, your love, to all of us human beings, animals, plants, and minerals, and if you do not have that kind of job, you may continue the job that you are having and you have in mind that if the situation presents itself that you can have a better job, a job that can help you express more of your compassion and joy, and that you are ready to take up that job, even if you have to earn less, to earn less but to be happier, that is the suggestion.

Just after seeing the video of Thay, I read an interview from a 2012 issue of the Mindfulness Bell with Order of Interbeing Dharma teacher Joanne Friday, in which she discussed how her invitation to receive the Lamp Transmission (formal recognition as a Dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition) came as a complete surprise to her. It was not something she had sought out or expected in any way. It sounded to me as if she’d completely embodied what it meant to be a teacher without considering the outward form or title.  The formal transmission was merely recognizing the lamp already shining within her.

Taking the two teachings together, video and interview, I can’t help thinking of the old saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Perhaps I have been too focused on the outward signs and symbolism of particular roles. Perhaps when the soul is ready, the role will appear.

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

― Rumi

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