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when (not) to help

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Sitting outdoors in late October, Joe and I were enjoying our coffee when a man approached asking for money. Joe turned to him and politely said No. All the while I was looking at Joe, taking my cue from him. Right afterwards he said, “I knew you wanted to say Yes.”

Such a tiny incident. The man asking for money soon got what he wanted at a nearby table. I (barely) resisted jumping to his rescue, my vow to “save all sentient beings” notwithstanding. An ancient story speaks to this:

Student asks teacher: “What can I do to help all the suffering beings in this world?”
Teacher replies: “Indeed, what can you do?”

The wisdom of self-care demands that if we want to look after the welfare of others, we need to consider our own as well. For much of my life I’ve found it difficult to mark and guard my boundaries. Being poorly defined and frequently violated during childhood, they didn’t develop ’til late into adulthood. People could easily walk over me — and still do, just less frequently. Someone observed that if you want to change the world, start with myself. Thus I bow to both Joe and the man who asked for a handout: both were my teachers today.

image: source unknown


13 responses »

  1. Saying No is a challenge to me, especially when i’m being asked for my help.
    Lately i’ve had to say No twice to friends, and afterward I am still feeling some guilt about it. I ask myself why i cannot just say No, and then forget about it.

  2. It’s important to realize, though… the teacher isn’t saying that nothing can be done, or precisely to take care of oneself first. He’s saying that the student, right now, as an unenlightened being, does not have the capability to do very much, no matter how great his compassion, or how great his resources. The point is to demonstrate the need to strive for enlightenment, and so to awaken bodhicitta, since it is only as an enlightened being that there would even be a chance of helping all suffering beings.

    There is no absolutely right or wrong answer to the question of whether to give someone money. It depends on him/her, and on you, and on the situation. You have to use your wisdom to determine if it is better to give or not, and if it is better to give, how much, or indeed, how and what to give. One time when I was up very early in Tokyo I went out for a walk and ended up sitting next to a homeless man. We started talking. He pulled out his little bottle of shochu and some sashimi that he’d picked from the garbage of a restaurant and we had a nice (if weird) breakfast together while he showed me his prize possession: a booklet with the official stamps from the temples he’d visited in Kyoto. He, at least, didn’t worry about giving a total stranger half of the only food and drink he had in the entire world. Maybe he actually was one of the bodhisattvas depicted in the temples in Kyoto.

    Lots of food for thought in your note. Who is this self that has, or needs to have, boundaries?

    • karamatsu, lots to chew on, thank you. for now, my resply tpo your last question. “this self” is the aspect of Peter that’s frightened, that bleives, based on lived experience, that the world can be a hostile place and that intimate relationships may cause pain. furtunately such conclusions are temporary and, through whole-heatred practice, may lead to liberation.

  3. “Someone observed that if you want to change the world, start with myself”. Well put.

    Defining our own boundaries is never easy. Feeling guilty is our body reminding us how difficult it is to change/grow.

    • nicole, i doubt that the body is capable of feeling guilt. i see the body as a depository of past suffering, which can be transformed, in my experience, through such practices as psychotherapy, meditation, being-of-service, self-care, and a loving (thus healing) relationship. guilt, on the other hand, is a mental construct given to us by being inductronated into religions where a revengeful God dishes out punishment for various trespasses. the above-mentioned practice may be used to rid our/selves from such affliction.

      • You certainly know how to trigger my responses, Peter. But how different are our responses to this world.

        My body often seems to experience guilt. How could it not, given an early Judeo-Christian indoctrination: a world-view that in my experience is built on guilt-tripping.

        Guilt starts in my gut, extends to my throat then, on occasion, brings on blushing that depending on the intensity of my guiltiness, can manifest as a sweat. I’ve never witnessed my mind experiencing guilt by itself. Always it seems to express guilt physically. Is it possible for my mind independently to experience guilt? I don’t know.

        Don’t even know for sure if my mind can exist without a physical container – my body. What do others think or believe?

        • since you asked, malcolm: my body experiences a range of sensations which the mind then labels as guilt (or other construct, such as pain, pleasure, sadness, anger). such sensations may be a tightening here, an ache there, a tingling elsewhere … or in your example, sweating.

          the busy mind names these sensations, then judges or categorises them as pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, welcome or irritating, etc. It also, as in your example, seeks to explain them by way of childhood, schooling, religious inductronation, family dynamics, etc.

          for years now an interesting practice (for me) has been to stay as close to the sensation itself, to experience phenomena as they are. My mind routinely wants to name and judge and I’m learning to take my awareness back to pure source in the body.

        • Malcolm, you already know all this!!! (re my reply above). in your comment to my post on October 22 (living with uncertainty), you write:

          “And yet, when I’m willing to be still, to let go pre-conception, memory and instant judgment, and simply look at a painting or piece of art – to pass thru’ the cloud of un-knowing ….”

  4. the way i would see it is that my body is the place where the experience of guilt, or anger, or whatever, is felt, where it manifests. this is where i become really aware of it. a thought is fleeting, more easy to ignore or avoid. a bodily sensation really brings my attention to the imbalance within me.

  5. This is very good, resolving emotions into thoughts and bodily sensations. What seems to be the case is that they are, at first, just thoughts, like any other. The difference is that we have conditioned physical responses to some kinds of thoughts, and it’s the reality of those physical sensations that makes emotions seem more “real,” important, or demanding. Unfortunately this often leads to feedback loop. A thought appears in the mind, the body reacts, the mind notices the reaction (pleasant or unpleasant) and projects the cause onto whatever the object of thought was, which generates new thoughts/elaborations, which generate new sensations, round and round, more and more intense. A key move that often happens is that the mind interprets all this in light of the self, which brings in all sorts of other strong conditioned responses (what I hope for, expect, deserve, don’t deserve, etc), and the whole thing grows and grows.

    But if you can separate the experiences (which pretty much requires catching them very early on — something that usually requires good mindfulness, but you can also notice it if you are surprised), then you can see the thought as “just a thought” and the response as “just some tension in the muscles around my mouth and eyes” and then let the physical stuff go (relax) and deal with whatever the thought entails without getting caught in the net emotional reactions. Or at least that’s my theory! Practice is harder.

  6. Pingback: Buddhist Notebook: Feeling | Mu

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