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           Selfless Compassion, Radical Optimism


All the passages below are taken from the book, “Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death” by Joan Halifax. It was published in 2008.


OVER THE YEARS people have asked me questions like “How can you touch someone whose body is covered with lesions?” “Isn’t it difficult to be around so much pain and suffering?” “Don’t you feel worn out from giving so much?” “What kind of gratification is there in doing this kind of work when the outcome is death?” “Don’t people’s emotions overwhelm you?” “Isn’t it frightening to be around dying all the time?” “Don’t you get numb from facing loss and sorrow so often?”

In the beginning it wasn’t easy. It did not come naturally or instinctively. Working so closely with death often scared me; I was afraid I might get what the dying person had. When I recognized, however, that I already have what dying people have—mortality—I stopped being afraid of catching it.

Recognizing this very interconnectedness is the ground of giving no fear, and the beginning of compassion. Patient and caregiver are one and the same, connected by life and death as by suffering and joy. When we manage to step through fear by reconnecting with each other, real compassion arises.

Zen uses the images of the iron man and the wooden puppet to describe giving no fear. The iron man—or iron woman—embodies compassion through unshakable strength and equanimity. He exemplifies the three qualities of resoluteness, resilience, and durability. He’s not attached to outcome, and has absolutely no interest in offering consolation—he expresses love without pity. With his deep equanimity, the iron man works from a pivot of intention that allows him to be fully present and immovable in this very moment. He puts himself in a difficult position and is strengthened by it as he offers strength to it. This is the very heart of our work with being with dying, this ongoing practice of sublime defeat, like a tempered sword, defeated by the fire and pounded to become strong.

My father was an “iron man” as he faced his death. A friend with AIDS was an “iron man” as he lay in my arms and accepted his death as a gift to all those who suffered like him. One caregiver friend showed an “iron woman’s” strength as she sat quietly by her mother’s bedside, bearing witness to four days of unrelenting, wild anger that finally resolved into bliss at the moment of her mother’s death.

The other Buddhist image for giving no fear is the wooden puppet, a very different kind of symbol for compassion. The puppet simply responds to the world as it is. There is no self; there is no other. Someone is hungry; food is given. Someone is thirsty; drink is offered. Someone is sleepy; a bed is made. For the wooden puppet, the world is the puppeteer to which she seamlessly responds without strategy, motivation, or thought of outcome. She can always be counted on because her front is soft and open; to be a wooden puppet is to bear witness and respond to suffering with a tenderness that knows no bounds.

The wooden puppet and the iron man both practice what I call “radical optimism.” They don’t have expectations about a specific outcome—about dying a good death, or being a perfect caregiver. And because they don’t have these ideas or expectations, they can really practice optimism. This kind of optimism arises directly out of not-knowing. It’s free of time and space, self and other—yet it’s embedded in the very stuff of our daily lives.

This might sound cryptic, but it has real meaning in being with dying. When I sit with a dying person, or with prisoners in maximum security at the local penitentiary, if I allow one single thought of outcome to rear its head, the truth of the moment dies. I’ve stopped being with what is and I’ve started to have ideas about the way I think it should be.

People often ask me about having a “good death.” But in the view of the radical optimist, there is no good or bad death. Being with dying is simply being with dying; each being does it his or her way. With no gaining idea, no attachment to outcome, the radically optimistic caregiver bears witness and gives no fear. An old Zen saying offers another way of putting it: “Fishing with a straight hook”—meaning, don’t look for results. Whether at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end, just exist in the right-now.


A friend of mine with AIDS struggled long and hard in his dying. But he finally came to a place where, after a lot of pain, he decided that he was suffering for all men who had Kaposi’s sarcoma. In this way he brought himself into peace. As he felt his connection with all those whose bodies bloomed with purple lesions, his self-absorption left him, and he was flooded with love. He told me one day that he could see why Christ’s suffering was a model for ours. “When you suffer, you suffer along with everyone else,” he said. In his pain, he knew he was not alone.

As he spoke, I saw a tear of relief slide slowly down his cheek. His fingers reached out to mine. There was nothing to say. We simply let our fingers touch and intertwine. He then asked me to hold him and sing. As I held him, he looked like a small, emaciated child, purple blooms covering his body. He sighed in tune with the simple song he had requested. For a time, he was completely relaxed and seemed to be free of pain. And I relaxed, too. He had given both of us a deep reason to live and to let go.

A spiritual life is not about being self-conscious, or wearing a button that says “I’m a bodhisattva!” It is about doing what you have to do with no attachment to outcome. True compassion just does what needs to be done because it’s the only thing to do—just because it’s natural and ordinary, like smoothing your pillow at night. Sometimes the outcome can seem to be a happy one. And often enough we are faced with so-called failure. And thus it is.

There’s a famous Zen story about compassion that consists of a dialogue between two brothers, Tao Wu and Yun Yen. It goes like this:


Yun Yen asked Tao Wu, “What does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion use so many hands and eyes for?”

Wu said, “It’s like someone reaching back, groping for a pillow in the middle of the night.” Yen said, “I understand.”

Wu said, “How do you understand it?”

Yen said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”

Wu said, “You have said quite a bit there, but you’ve only said eighty percent of it.”

Yen said, “What do you say, Elder Brother?”

Wu said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”1


This conversation seems kind of mysterious, until we think about what a “bodhisattva” really is—a Buddhist archetype of compassion and fearlessness, an awakened being who has vowed to come back lifetime after lifetime in order to save others from suffering. Bodhisattvas could leave our world of pain and suffering behind forever, but they deliberately choose to be reborn into the terrible and beautiful wilderness of life to practice compassion. Earthly bodhisattvas are those men and women, those wooden puppets and iron men, who have dedicated their lives to awakening these qualities—whether qualities—whether caregivers or those receiving care. In the metaphor Yunyan uses, they’re covered with eyes that see others’ needs, and hands that reach out to help. So this exchange between the two brothers teaches us that true compassion, with its myriad hands and eyes, is every bit as natural and ordinary as pulling the pillow toward your head in the darkness of night. Then Daowu goes further: he observes that compassion is like the blood in our body, like the nerves running through our fingers—it is our whole being. In total compassion, Daowu suggests, throughout the whole body, we feel and give no fear.

My friend Susanna, an anthropologist, lived with Huichol Indians in northwestern Mexico when she was a young woman. One day she met a large Huichol family as they visited the remote mountain village where she lived. The mother held a baby in her arms, an infant that looked ill and neglected. When Susanna asked what was wrong with the baby, the mother told her the little one was dying. Horrified, Susanna wanted to know why they weren’t doing anything; but the mother simply repeated that the baby was going to die.

Bewildered by what was happening, she asked the family if they would let her take care of it. She took the little one, washed and fed her, wrapped her snugly in a thick blanket, curled up around her, and fell asleep. When she woke in the morning, the baby was dead. The parents reminded her that they already told her the child would die. As she related this incident to me twenty years later, she said very simply that she would still do nothing different.

Death is inescapable. All beings, you and me, are heading straight into its mouth. What kind of optimism can be born from such a raw truth? “Learn to cooperate with the inevitable,” Jonas Salk once advised me. In the bright light of the inevitable, how do we sustain buoyancy, optimism, and the heart to help others?

Simple, but not necessarily easy: We abandon our fixed ideas of outcome. If there is even one wish for a certain kind of result, then we aren’t being with what’s actually happening. The radical optimist is not investing in the future, but in the present moment, free of design. Only a radical optimist can bear to bear witness. When I sit across from the man on death row who raped and killed an eleven-year-old girl, his eyes stare into mine through the food port in his narrow cell door; any thought of “saving his soul” would destroy the truth of that moment. I watch ideas about what I want for him arise, and I let them go with a breath. When I touch the hand of an old woman as the breath rattles out of her body, wanting to make her dying easier would only be an obstacle to my being there with her. Can we hold such moments without a sense of tragedy, frustration, or fear? I, for one, don’t find it easy—I have a basic intolerance of suffering. But I give it my close attention, while holding myself as open as possible.

Years ago, a student of mine contracted kidney cancer while still a young man. One day as I was visiting him, he complained about his useless life of the past. Only now was he having a taste of what he thought was really important to him, a life that was not about making deals and making money, but a life that might be of help to others, a life where suffering was teaching him about humility and kindness, a life that was without hope, in the best sense of the word. In spite of pain after surgery and with an undetermined prognosis, his spirits were high and he felt an unusual optimism.

As it turned out, my friend’s cancer went into remission. During this period, he was grateful beyond words for what had happened to him. He was free of cancer, and his enthusiasm for life and his love of others was like a fresh lake after rain. He valued most especially the insight that he could now live a different kind of life if he wanted to. At the same time, he also expressed concern that he might forget and fall back into his old ways.

Robert Aitken Roshi once said that he was not so interested in the day you attained enlightenment—he was interested in the day after! As my friend feared, after a year went by, he forgot his commitment to his inner life as his old priorities again took hold of him. He went about his everyday living rarely giving thought to the fact that he had recently recovered from cancer. He went back into doing business, and we saw little of each other. When we did meet, he spoke only about money and women.

Several years later, when we met again, slightly wiser for his misery, he wondered aloud what had happened. He saw that the habit of materialism was so strong in him that not even the threat of dying of cancer had been enough to keep him on the path for long. He felt that he was living a lie and denying the gift of insight that had been given to him as a result of his illness. He felt deeply dissatisfied.

Another year went by, and my friend increasingly felt that life was meaningless. He found himself in another catastrophe, but this one was psychological: he was suffering from severe depression. He felt angry with himself and at the world, and helpless in the face of his habits of mind. As I sat with him, listening to him pour out his unhappiness and failure to find anything worthwhile in his life, I tried to let go of my expectations of a good outcome for my young friend. My only job was to bear witness to his suffering and at the same time to see his good heart steadily beating underneath all of his misery.

One day, he said to me, “You seem to see something that I don’t.” I asked him what it was that he thought I saw. He paused and then replied, “I think you see who I really am.” I asked him what that was, and he said, “I don’t know, but when you see it, I can feel it.” At that moment, we both relaxed and smiled together for the first time in five years. Although he had lost sight of the gifts suffering had brought him, he regained his vision. I felt glad that I’d borne witness to both his suffering and his true nature, so that he, too, could glimpse his own fundamental goodness.

Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche often talked about “spiritual materialism,” meaning our desire to “get” enlightenment and even our noble-seeming aspirations to help others. Aspiring to awaken, or to benefit others, can be useful—it often helps with our priorities, just as having the goal of a sane and conscious death can help us to appreciate and relish this present moment. But if practice becomes a means to a “greater” end, then it becomes an investment—and we start expecting a profit. How can we be at one with a particular moment if we’re expecting something? How can we die freely if we’re fettered with the expectation of a so-called “good death?” And how can we really serve others if we’re attached to our particular altruistic outcome? When we first start to practice, and for a long time thereafter, altruism can give our practice body and depth. The commitment engendered by kindness helps us to remain steadfast when practice gets difficult. So the vow of the bodhisattva can be a skillful strategy at first, helping us to move away from our self-centeredness. Practicing for the well-being of others, we take a step away from the local, small self, and move toward the realization of our boundless interconnectedness.

But ultimately, the radical optimist realizes that there is no self, no other—no one helping, no one being helped. The radical optimist becomes like a wooden puppet responding to the world, her limbs pulled by strings connected to the world’s suffering. With time and experience we may develop a way of working with suffering rooted in raw and honest self-observation, and a view of reality that actualizes our awareness, equanimity, and compassion in seamless responsiveness to the world.

A person practicing in this way tries to exclude nothing from his heart. This often takes effort. It may take effort to mourn deeply, or to sit for hours doing nothing by the bedside of a dying child or a spouse dying of Alzheimer’s. It may take effort to help others and not expect something in return. It may take effort to return our mind to practice. And it usually takes effort to bring energy and commitment to everything we do. Effort at its very core means letting go of fear. It is the courage and stamina to stay stripped to the bone and come face-to-face with what is. It is also manifesting wholeheartedness in the midst of the tight knot of suffering.

Effort gives our practice depth, character, strength, and resiliency. Can we hang in there when the situation is hopeless? Can we return again and again to our intention in doing this work? Can we be disciplined about self-care when the world around us seems to be crying out for attention? Can we be wholehearted in the midst of a heartless world?

Some years ago, walking across the Himalayas, I realized I would never make it over those mountains unless I let go of everything extra. That meant I had to lighten up my mind as well as my overloaded day pack. It all came down to one simple sentence: Nothing extra! Just as these two legs carried me across mountains, those same words carry me through complicated days. They always remind me to let go. They also remind me of the weightlessness and ease of a whole and dedicated heart.

Like souls in Dante’s Purgatory, we carry the load of living and dying not simply to suffer but to learn to bear burdens lightly. The stones of hidden and silent wisdom become our teachers and companions along the way. They slow us down, ground us, and teach us about the weightiness and lightness of being. They ask us to stop and bend down low, touch the earth, and lift that which seems impossible to bear. Finally, making our backs strong, we open our eyes and discover that the stones are also beautiful.

When the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi was dying, one of his students went to say goodbye. Standing at his bedside, the student asked his beloved teacher, “Where shall we meet?” The old dying man made a small bow from his bed, and then the gesture of a circle with his hand. I think he was telling his student they were meeting right then and there, in form and in emptiness as well. Past and future were in that moment, and at the same time the past and the future did not exist—and there was no place to meet that could be greater than the openness and intimacy of that very moment.

The radical optimist follows that intimate path, the path of impermanence through the great ocean of change. She is one with the tides of transition, unresisting. A true bodhisattva, she surfs on the waves of birth and death, with no destination in mind as she rides along, no other shore to head for. Having realized unconditional acceptance and cast aside her expectations, she coasts on the crest of the wildest waves with effortlessness and total involvement. Choice has disappeared in her world. She is thoroughly alive; and she gives no fear.


MEDITATION---Contemplating Our Priorities

The meditation that follows is a way we can explore our priorities, given that death may come at any time. Do this practice in a spirit of genuineness as you get in touch with your own impermanence in a very personal way. And don’t hesitate to do it repeatedly; we may need to remind ourselves of our priorities in light of the fact that we don’t know when our moment to die will come.

Please look at your life and your priorities: What is really important for you to do now? What do you want to complete or let go of right now? Offer your life to realizing these priorities.

Recall that we will all die. Each evening we go to bed and are convinced that we will wake up in the morning. We make plans for the next days, weeks, years, and even our old age. Most of us are probably convinced that we will live until old age. Most of us go to bed with this same feeling. Yet many people do not wake up in the morning. Death has taken them.

Now we have the opportunity to really set our priorities. Let the posture settle. Breathe deep into the body.

Imagine that you are an old person on your deathbed. Probably you have more wrinkles on your face, more stiffness in your limbs. Imagine your face as realistically as you can. Imagine that your breath is shallow; your body is tired and frail. Ask yourself, What goals would you like to have achieved by this stage of your life? What was most important for you in sustaining your daily life, your work, your relationships, your creativity, your spirit? What things are around you and where are you? Who is with you? What do you want your life to be like when you are an old person?

Now ask yourself, what can you do today so that you can be fulfilled at the end of your life? What do you need to let go of now to create a life filled with meaning? What do you need to take care of now so that old age may be a little easier and freer?

Imagine you are ten years older than you are now and are lying on your deathbed. How old are you? Who is standing by your bedside? What do you wish to have realized and achieved by this time? What are your inner and outer goals? What must you do today to achieve these goals? What must you let go of? What is wasting your time? What is important for you to do now? What hinders you from realizing what you really want for your life and the lives of those you love? What can you do today to support a good death?

Imagine that you are five years older than now and you are facing your death. Imagine you are peacefully in your bed and have just a few moments more to live. What do you want to have realized? What state of mind will support you in a peaceful death? What can you do now to help you strengthen your mind and heart so that you can bring this strength to your dying?

Now imagine that you will die in one year. You will probably not look very different from the way you do right now. You are lying peacefully in your bed and are prepared to die. What can you do at this moment to support your peaceful death? What gave your life meaning? What would you do differently right now, with the thought that you will lose your life in a year? What can you do tomorrow to realize the best death possible?

Imagine that you will die in one month. What would you change in your daily life? What do you need to do so you won’t leave so many problems behind? What do you need to let go of, what habits do you need to break, in order to die peacefully? Which relationships need to be addressed? From whom do you need to ask forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive? What in yourself do you want to nurture at this time? What can you do tomorrow to support a peaceful death?

Now imagine that you will die next week. Who do you want around you, to share these last moments of your life? Who do you need to talk to about how you want to die and what should happen with your body? To whom do you want to express your deepest love and gratitude this week?

You go to bed tonight. No big deal. As you are falling asleep, you realize you are going to die. What is the most important thing you can do today in light of this possibility? What has been the biggest gift you have received in this life? With whom do you want to share your love for the last time?

Now take this love and thankfulness and go back to your breath. Gather this practice in the heart and mind and experience its essence. In your heart, share this practice with all beings, and hope that all beings will transform their fear of death and impermanence so that we can use our lives creatively to foster stability and beauty and to truly be of benefit to others.



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