First Steps - Act from the Heart
by Mirabai Bush

Extracts from Part Two of the book Compassion in Action: Setting Out On the Path of Service (Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, NY:Bell Tower, 1992) are to appear in the next several issues of our electronic newsletter. This helpful series of essays is prefaced by the following remarks: Once we begin to understand the path of action, we still have many practical steps to take in finding our way into appropriate service. We have to begin somewhere. And often the beginnings are confusing or difficult. Here is a guide into the world of service, a little help on the path, some suggestions to ease the entry, a handbook for compassion in action.

Once we are called by the suffering around us, the path of action encourages us to respond from the deepest, most conscious, best informed, and most intuitive place we know. We listen and question and look for ways that not only relieve the immediate suffering but also go to the root of the problem. We get in touch with who we are inside, and we remember that everyone else is very much like us, longing for basic human needs to be met, for a peaceful and nourishing life, and for love. We remember we all share that great gift, the human heart, and we try to keep it open and act from it.

For many of us wanting to change things, it feels too risky to listen to our hearts. We lean toward the conventional, the sensible, and the efficient, and we miss the opportunity to contribute what is most important about us — our own understanding of what is true and unifying. Of course, we need to be practical also, but only to serve what starts in the heart. This is the source of radical and enduring change. We need to listen for what we know to be true, and do what we love to do.

We may need to think about service in a completely new way if we are to find an opportunity to do something we love. Our first thought may be to use our most expert skill, the thing we do best in our daily work, such as repairing cars, massaging aching bodies, practising law, or negotiating international peace. But sometimes we need to look at our other talents and skills. We often think of these as hobbies, but these activities may be just what we need to perform truly effective service. Maybe we can help heal the world through arranging flowers, writing poetry, or baking bread in a shelter. Why not? The 'serious' methods that have been tried — from the war on poverty to the war in the Gulf — haven't ended the pain; often they have created more. We need to free our minds if we are to find new paths through the dark forest of suffering.

Finding the time and space to do what we love can be difficult; we all already have full lives. So sometimes we have to change our present situation dramatically to make space, and sometimes we fit it into our existing life, especially when that life includes children or others who depend on us. A woman who is a mother, wife, homeowner and therapist sees on television a South African policeman bring his club down hard on a black man's head; the man falls to the ground and people run over to him in panic. She becomes haunted by the image and wonders what she can possibly do about human rights in South Africa. She wants to help, but she may not feel able to add more responsibility to her life. Once she thinks of something she'd like to do, she also has to make sure that it is not going to add so much stress to her life that she gives it up. She may make a better contribution addressing flyers or serving food at a fund-raiser, if she enjoys that, than devising a boycott strategy or traveling to Johannesburg, even if those options are in some ways appealing. It's important to know what each of us loves and yet what each of us can do so that we can find service that is both appropriate and deep enough to be satisfying and renewing.

This exercise may help you to find a means of service that will come from what you do well and love. Sit quietly. Either say out loud or write down the words 'The way I'd really love to help is . . .' Keep it going.

One friend, who had been haunted by thoughts of people living in welfare hotels and on the streets, wrote, 'The way I'd really love to help is to work with homeless mothers, because I know if I were homeless I would be scared and tired. But I don't know how I could be helpful. What I'd really love to do is use my camera to take pictures, but what good would it do? What I'd really love to do is be together as people, not relating to houses but to each other. What I'd really love to do is have fun together because I know that when you are stressed it's hard to have fun, but that doesn't sound right somehow...' These rambling thoughts became a small project, in which, after talking to homeless mothers about what they would want, she taught them to photograph their children. The photographs became a gallery show, which raised public awareness about the issue. To go with the photographs of the children, she created portraits of their mothers. The show was eloquent; people saw the beauty, the humanity, the joy, and the sadness of these families without homes. The young women not only gained treasured photographs of their children but developed the sense of mastery that comes from learning a new skill. And our friend was able to do what she really wanted to do.

Richard Sandler, by contrast, is an accomplished New York journalistic photographer. One of his concerns is the number of homeless people and the number of people walking by them without paying attention. His extraordinary images of these two worlds coexisting inches apart without contact have been shown in a number of galleries. While doing this work, Richard also began to want to do something more and something different, and he began to play the saxophone in a place that needed the healing and had interesting acoustics: the subway, where, as he says, 'people walk around in a bubble of territorial exclusion' that is rarely penetrated. As he acted on this idea, two things happened: the music at times entered the bubbles, surprising and waking people up with its beauty, and the money that was dropped into his saxophone case he dropped into the hands of the homeless who were also hanging around listening. The best response, he said, came from people who weren't asking for it but who clearly needed it. 'The smiles on their faces were something to believe', he said. 'What is this? Who am I? Is this really happening? Is this New York? It was fabulous.' He knew this wasn't changing city policy on low-cost housing or real estate development, but was what felt right for him at the time. And who doesn't understand what healing music can bring into the world?

We need to care more about one another and to ease another's pain, or a great blanket of suffering is going to drift down and cover us in sadness. So start your list. 'The way I'd really love to help is ...'

We are all trying to find what it is that we love to do so that life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we feel the rapture of being alive. It's time to get started: to act from the heart, to do what we love with compassion, to walk together down one of those paths that leads home.

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