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Readings for Reflection: September 2012
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Anger and Compassion by Barbara Brodsky

Barbara writes that this article is revised from her contribution to the anthology Buddhist Acts of Compassion (ed. Pamela Bloom, 2000) and from public talks she has given.

I’m often asked how we can effect social change in the world from a place of true harmlessness, especially in a situation about which we feel passionate. The same question is raised about our daily lives. How do we respond authentically, firmly but kindly, to the difficult people and situations in our lives, which sometimes seem to bulldoze us? Equanimity does not mean complacence. How do we say “no” to abuse? Compassion does ask us to speak, and not be misused, but speech must mingle with non-harm. The issue is not that we speak, but whether that speech is motivated by kindness or by fear and our own desire to control the situation.

For kindness, I find that the necessary ingredients are presence and compassion. When these are available, they allow us to move from a deeply centered aspect of being that is, by its very nature, pure and clear. This expression of ourselves is not something which is hidden and reveals itself only in some distant enlightenment. It is available and may express daily in our connected and loving actions in the world.

In the sixties I spent a lot of time working with human rights. In the early years, I was sometimes more motivated by fear, and saw some of the painful results of that ego at work. I remember a sit-in at a small Southern lunch counter. We were so young, and so self-righteous, two Northern students. We had no idea what those in the town were thinking and feeling and we did not want to know. We only wanted to express our viewpoint and self-righteousness. We wanted to change them, to fix the situation we abhorred.

We came into the lunchroom and sat at the counter, facing the glares of those sitting around us. The cook just looked at us and asked what we wanted. “Coke, milkshake, doughnut,” came our replies. We were feeling smug; was it really this easy? He gathered some items and carried them to the counter. I remember how he approached me with my doughnut and the large glass of coke, sweat-covered from its icy contents. I looked at the glass with pleasure since the day was hot. He reached out with the glass, and with no hesitation poured it over my head. While I sat there in shock, he crumbled the doughnut over me too. The second counterman did the same to my partner. Then he nodded and others at the counter simply picked us up, two young women, one white and one black, carried us out the door and dumped us on the curb. They reentered and locked the door behind them.

In those early days I totally lacked compassion for this opposition. They were wrong and I was right; it was that simple. I had no ability to be present with their pain nor to hear them. I had no ability to be present with my own fear nor hear myself.

Years passed and I did learn. It was a tough learning, a fruit of many tears and bruises, of much pain and confusion. But slowly, I did learn the power of compassion and presence. I can’t choose any one incident as primary teacher, but I remember a few hours in a small jail, one of my cell partners an older, Southern black woman, large of body and with soft, deep eyes. She wore a black dress covered with red roses and a tiny hat still adorned her head. I was angry at what had happened that particular day, an incident not too different from that above. I was expressing that anger, muttering, pacing the cell. After about an hour she walked up to me so sweetly and in a kind voice invited me, “Sit down.” “Aren’t you angry too?” I asked her. “Yes”, she replied, “but I also love them, sweetheart, and they are so afraid.” She hugged me gently as I wept. She taught me with those simple words that anger and compassion were not mutually exclusive. It was the first time my eyes really opened to what was happening around me and from this sister, whose name I never even knew, I began to learn the power of love.


Barbara will speak about her book Cosmic Healing at Reading and Discussion on September 23 and October 28 (see announcement).


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