The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

*     *     *

Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.



Savoring the Good Times

Puzzle Pieces

A friend of mine called last week sounding a bit frantic.  Last April, she said, when was doing her spring cleaning, she decided to throw out an old Barbie Doll House that her grandchildren had enjoyed.  They were older now and lived abroad, and it seemed unlikely that they would still find it interesting.  But a month ago, her daughter said they were going to be able to come for a visit late this summer and the younger granddaughter said she was looking forward to playing with the doll house.  They didn’t have anything like it where she lived.

After a bit of a search, my friend found an identical one on eBay, a bit of a wonder since it was over 30 years old, and it had just arrived at her house.  She had spent hours trying to assemble it, with no luck.  Could I come over and help?

I arrived to discover a pile of plastic pieces on her dining room table.  There were no instructions, of course, but my friend pulled up a photo of the assembled one online.  We carried the pieces to her basement TV room where the children usually played and laid all the pieces on the floor.

Two hours later, after much laughter and trial and error, we stood arm in Finished Doll Houearm admiring the towering construction.  “We did it!” we laughed in delight.  We toasted each other with glasses of ginger ale.

That experience was one of the highlights of my week, a week filled with the stress of world events and news from friends with unexpected health challenges.  The memory of it flashed through my thoughts from time to time, unfailingly bringing me a smile.

It’s important to savor your accomplishments, however small.  That’s one of the reasons I keep a daily gratitude journal where I record three moments I enjoyed during the day.  It helps me keep my balance.  It reminds me that it’s the little things that make life worthwhile.  I can’t do anything about the insanity that seems to be enveloping our planet these days—the anger, the division, the violence, the threats.  But gosh, it sure was fun to put that doll house together.  And I loved the video of my granddaughter’s skating performance.  And wasn’t it great to get that chimney repair done at last!

Savoring the golden moments makes the rest of them worth enduring.  Whether you’re looking back on a warm moment from the past, celebrating a current accomplishment, or anticipating an upcoming event, savoring adds depth and flavor to your life.  It lets you sink into a kind of relaxed pleasure and to remember that life contains much that is good.

Whether or not you make a written note of good things that your day held, take time to do a little mental review of them each night.  Try to recall at least three experiences that you enjoyed and to let yourself taste them again.  It’s good conditioning; it makes you more aware of the delicious parts of your life as they occur and keeps your mind on the outlook for them.  “What we focus on, expands,” the adage goes.  And it’s true.  Savor the good times, and watch as more and more of them unfold for you.


Choosing Easy

Choosing Easy

I’m a big fan of synchronicities and love it when I notice them happening in my life.   Yesterday, I had the radio on and I was leisurely leafing through an old card file looking for a topic to write about for you today.   Four notes at the beginning of a song caught my ear and made me close my eyes, deeply relax, smile, and listen to what I knew was coming—a old, old favorite from Porgy & Bess, an early 20th century Broadway musical:  Summertime.

“Summertime, and the living is easy,” the lyrics go.  “Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

When the song finished, I opened my eyes and turned back to my card file.  The very next card I ran across had only seven words written on it:  “How easy can I let this be?”  I got the message from that synchronicity right away.

I don’t remember where I picked up the phrase.  But I do remember that the moment I first heard it  I knew it it was an important one, one of those phrases that can work magic in your life.  I was glad to find it again.  My do-list for the weekend was challenging and it was exactly what I needed to hear.

“How easy can I let this be?” 

Contrast that with “How am I going to get all this done?”   It’s like the difference between looking at a huge mountain you have to scale and letting yourself float on a warm, sun-kissed pool.

Asking yourself how easy you can let a task be reminds you that you have the power to relax into it, that you can choose the attitude you’ll take.  It gives you permission to allow yourself to be at ease.   It puts you—and not the situation–in command.  It nudges you to be present with the task at hand, to take it a step at a time.  And when you do that, almost anything becomes easy.  When you relax, your mind clears.  Time expands.  Tension disappears.  And suddenly you have complete confidence that you can do that tiny, very next thing.

I’ve used it to clear the way for myself in all kinds of situations—preparing for an interview, before giving a speech, when I had to take a test, when I had to confront somebody about something unpleasant, and like this weekend, when I was tempted to let myself be overwhelmed by all I had to do.  It’s a great tool to use when you have to do something new, something you don’t really know how to do yet.  I even used it on my way to the hospital once when I broke an arm, and it really did make the pain much easier to bear.  Not only that, but it stopped me from catastrophizing about how hard things were going to be without the use of my arm.

I took the index card from my box and propped it up on my bedside table to be a daily reminder for me for a while.  I’m working on that end-of-year challenge I mentioned a couple weeks ago, and letting it be easy is going to make it a lot more fun.

“How easy can I let this be?”   Try it out.  Let its magic work for you.


The Amazing Power of Kindness

Unlikely Kindness

I’ve been doing some research on kindness. I figure it’s one of the best tools each of us has on hand to counter all the hostility in our current world. And I’ve learned some amazing things about it. For one thing, it’s contagious. Not only do both the giver of a kindness and the recipient feel its warmth, but all who witness it are touched and lifted by it, too, and tend to be kinder themselves.

Kindness produces all kinds of wonderful chemical reactions inside us. It give us a boost of happiness by stimulating serotonin. It eases pain. It also increases trust and generosity, strengths our immune systems, reduces stress, and slows down aging. It’s a kind of wonder drug, you might say.

Because a story can illustrate the effects of kindness better than a list of facts, I want to repeat a story I shared with my subcribers a little over a year ago. I call it . . .

The Tale of the Tattooed Biker

I created a mini-nightmare for myself this week. I drove off with my purse sitting atop my car, and by the time I discovered that I didn’t have it, it was long gone. Oh my. I sincerely wish that such a thing never happens to you! It took three days to remember everything that was in my wallet, besides cash—a debit card, credit cards, driver’s license, car registration, proof of insurance, AAA card, health insurance card, advance directives card . . . the list seemed to go on and on. Replacing all that stuff is not fun!

The good news is that most of it could be replaced with a phone call, and the rest with the submission of appropriate (and happily downloadable) forms.

A few irreplaceable personal items are gone, mementos of loved ones. But no one can take the memories.

I shared my tale of woe with one of my friends a couple days later. She told me she’d done the same thing one time. She was a single mom with two toddlers and had set her purse atop her car while she buckled them in their car seats and loaded the groceries she had just purchased in the car. She’d spent her last dollar on the food and was anxious about how she’d find money for gas to get to work the rest of the week.

She was almost home when reached for her purse to grab a tissue when she realized what she had done and broke into tears right then and there in despair. She drove to the local police station to report her lost purse, certain she’d never see it again.

To her astonishment, the police did have her purse! It was beat up, as if it had been run over. They said some gruff, dirty, tattooed biker had just brought it in. He told them to please tell her that he hadn’t taken anything from it and to ask her to call him. He had left his phone number.

Puzzled, she called him while the police listened in, afraid he might have extortion of some kind in mind. He said he was just returning from a charity run and had spotted the purse by the side of the road. He looked through it for ID but only saw the photos of two babies in the empty wallet and thought the woman who owned it must be having an awful day. He said he was sorry she had lost whatever else was in the purse, but he had brought it in just as he found it. Except for one thing.

My friend said, “One thing? What was that?”

“Look in the zippered pocket,” he said. She did as he asked and discovered a crisp $100 bill.

“I hope that helps a little,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that good things happen in life as well as the setbacks.”

The police officers on duty were as shocked as my friend. “Just goes to show you,” one of them said, “You really can’t judge a book by its cover.”

That was years ago, my friend said. And she never forgot the biker’s amazing kindness—or the lesson about judging people on the basis of stereotypes.

When I left the visit with my friend, I found a check from her in my pocket, along with her note saying “good things happen, too.”

You never know how much impact a kindness that you do will have on other lives. Each gesture of kindness ripples on and on.

I know the scruffy biker’s moment of generosity is still flowing outward. I’ll be looking for ways to pay it forward. And I hope by telling you about it, you’ll benefit from his kindness, too.

Pass it on.


Upgrade Your Game: A Challenge


One of the things coaches like to do every now and then is challenge their players to push their limits, to reach a bit higher than they think they can. It wakes something in the players. It makes them dip into their reservoirs of power to add an extra jolt to their game.

Earlier this week, I noticed that August is just around the corner, and I decided to issue myself a 122-Day Challenge to see what I could achieve in the remaining weeks of the year. And I gotta tell you, that flash of a decision pulled me right out of my summer doldrums. Life took on a whole new charge for me.

It was so inspiring that I wanted to share it with you. So let me offer you a 122-Day Challenge to see what you can accomplish between now and December 31st.

The Game Plan

Here’s the game plan: Take some time each day between now and August 1st to give some focused thought to five things you want to upgrade in your life. Pick things that you know would make a real difference in the overall quality of your life, things you have wanted to do but haven’t got around to doing.

You can probably pick five things right now; you do know what they are. Just ask yourself—sincerely, as if you were asking someone from whom you really wanted an answer—and see what comes up. If you’re stuck, consider how things are going in these life domains for some clues:

• Health
• Career
• Finances
• Relationship with Partner
• Family
• Friends
• Fun/Recreation
• Physical Environment
• Community
• Spirituality

After you have your five projects identified, put them in priority harder—the most important first. What would make the biggest difference? Start working on that one on August 1st, and keep at it all month or until you’ve successfully completed it. Start working on the next one September 1st, and so on.

Decide that you’re going to devote yourself to it ruthlessly—and to work on it with joy, because it’s going to impact your whole life in a beautifully positive way.

Tips for Success

To keep yourself motivated, try making a mental movie of yourself easily making progress. Give the movie a title, “Joey Cleans the Garage,” and see the title in big glowing letters. Imagine a soundtrack for it that captures how you’ll feel when you see the final result—something uplifting, maybe playful, or soothing, or energizing. I’ve used the original Star Wars theme in some of mine. It always makes me feel powerful and up to the task. Play your movie to yourself at night as you go to sleep, setting an intention to make progress on your selected task the next day. Even better, identify for yourself exactly what you’ll do and how you’ll do it, and play that as a scene in your movie.

Find your own pace. Do something, however small, every day. Use the days between now and August 1st to figure out where you’ll take the time. What will you give up? TV? Online time? Phone time? If you commute, use some of your travel time to think about your next steps. Think about it while you’re standing in line or waiting for an appointment. Let it become your personal glorious obsession.

I heard a neuroscientist today say that our brains actually change depending on where we focus our thoughts. We sensitize our amygdalas to be aware of positive experiences when we focus on positive thoughts. So think about your project as a wonderful opportunity to become more of the person you want to be, to actualize more of your potential.

Imagine how you’ll feel going into the New Year with five months of spectacular achievements under your belt. Imagine the momentum you’ll have created!

Up for it? You have nine days to prepare. Why not? Join me! And let me know how it’s going. I’d love to hear what projects you choose and what progress you’re making. I’m going to finish writing a novel. And that’s just my August plan. I’ll give you a report in September to let you know how it worked out.

Wishing you the daring to accept!