We were having one of our usual disagreements. My friend had been meditating for many years, and he felt I disapproved of it. He knew how strongly I supported the path of compassion — and now he was making his case against it.
"Altruism is nothing more than 'right action' — and this flows naturally from 'right mindfulness' and 'right meditation.' Having compassion as your highest ideal just fills your mind with more distracting thoughts and feelings and keeps you from concentrating on what is happening."
As my friend spoke, I knew we weren't communicating. Each of us was criticizing the path of the other without any sympathetic understanding. And what would I achieve by extolling the "higher wisdom" of theosophy over other spiritual disciplines? This would surely reinforce our sense of separateness. It would be wiser for me to set aside ideas of higher and lower and just explore his point of view.
When he heard what I intended, the contentious atmosphere dissolved and we began a real exchange of thoughts. It started with what he called "the essential importance of being mindful."
"Suppose you're involved in a delicate process where people could get hurt. What would happen if you didn't pay attention?"
"I'd probably get hurt, and end up hurting others," I replied.
"What if you couldn't see the process and didn't know the consequences because you were just too busy with your own thoughts?"
"Then I'd just keep causing a lot of suffering. It would be a vicious circle."
"Yes, it is a vicious circle, and it's called the Wheel of Life. Along the rim are the desires, perceptions, attachments, and fears that keep us preoccupied with our own concerns. At the hub are the three factors that keep us trapped in endless cycles of suffering: greed, hate, and separateness. Greed begins with simply wanting what makes us comfortable. But as our `comforts' become increasingly complex, we end up wanting more and more. Hate begins with the simple desire to avoid discomfort. But as our attachments grow stronger, anything that disturbs them is met with intensified aversion. Now both of these are driven by the ultimate factor that causes us to suffer: our own sense of separateness. It leads us to think and act as if we're separated from the rest of life, as if ignoring the process of the whole has no painful consequences."
I interrupted. "But what if a person is genuinely trying to change his self-centered thoughts and actions?"
"His 'trying to change' would just form new attachments, and these would continue to distract the mind from the responsibility of the moment, from the awareness that we are one with what is happening as an interdependent whole. The only real way to end suffering is by watching without trying. When we watch our thoughts and actions as part of a regular practice, we weaken our attachment to them. We see them less and less as our identity, because we start to identify with the one who is watching. And finally, when our old self-centered thoughts are stilled, we become the process of watching itself, as we're totally absorbed in what is happening around us."
I could see the logic in his line of thinking. "Trying" would keep one bound to the Wheel of Life, the living symbol for endless cycles of suffering. But I wondered how this conclusion would change if the symbolism were different. And so I posed the question: "Could there be another Wheel?"
"What do you mean, another Wheel?"
"Well, suppose deep within all of us some part of our consciousness knows we're involved in the process of the whole."
"A part of us does know."
"Then deep within we also know it's a delicate process where people can get hurt, and that from moment to moment we need to pay attention to the welfare of the whole."
"Of course! That's right mindfulness."
"Now think of those moments when we just naturally forget ourselves — without even trying — as we're completely absorbed in the process of what's happening. So instead of being trapped in a vicious circle of separateness, we're suddenly transported — to another Wheel. Along the rim are all the natural impulses that soften our desires, loosen our attachments, and overcome our fears. At the hub are the qualities that free us from greed, hate, and separateness. Our freedom from greed begins with putting the welfare of others above our own. But the more deeply we sense our involvement with other beings, the more we realize their welfare is our own. Our liberation from hate begins with understanding how attachments and aversions cause suffering. And as we feel for the plight of all who are struggling with their own desires and fears, we become more tolerant of their shortcomings, as well as our own."
This time my friend interrupted. "And what's the driving force within this Wheel? What's the ultimate factor?"
I replied with a question: "Remember the part of us that knows we're one with what is happening?"
"You mean the ultimate driving force is the collective deep awareness of every living being."
"That's it! Every time we touch that Source, it pulls us directly into mindfulness. No matter how we're distracted by attachments and aversions, it instantly returns us to the responsibility of the moment."
"But how can one learn to touch this Source without years of meditative practice?"
"We practice allowing the Source to touch us. When we get involved in the interests of others, we are touched. When we see their welfare as our own, we are moved. When we feel for their plight, we are stirred. It's as if the Source were using us to be totally absorbed in what is happening. It is meditating through us.''
My friend was silent for some time. And then he looked up and smiled. "This kind of practice would work only if we did it all the time."
I smiled in return. "Naturally! That's the highest ideal."
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Theosophical University Press)