First Steps 2

by Mirabai Bush

In this issue, we publish further extracts from Mirabai Bush's advice in Compassion in Action: Setting Out On the Path of Service (Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, NY :Bell Tower, 1992). Her series of essays is prefaced with 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.

Pain and suffering may often seem to be calling us to jump in and fix things, but perhaps they are ask­ing us first to be still enough to hear what can really help, what can truly get to the cause of this suffering, what will not only eliminate it now but prevent it from returning. So, be­fore we act, we need to listen. When we do become quiet enough . . . the way opens, and we see the possibili­ties for action.

We give very little attention to learning to listen, learning to really hear another person or situation. Yet think back to the moments with other people when our hearts were engaged and we felt fed by being together. In those moments, weren't we hearing one another? In times like those, when we have listened to and heard one another, we have felt life arising from a shared perspective.

Each situation, each moment of life is new. . . . For our often hum­drum lives to retain the taste of living truth, we have to listen freshly — again and again. A human interac­tion includes both the uniqueness of each being and the unity of the two, which transcends the separateness. For our minds to take such a subtle process and trivialize it to 'just this again' or 'nothing but that' is to re­duce us to automatons, to objects for one another. And for action to be compassionate, we need to eliminate the idea of object, we need to be here together doing exactly what needs to be done to relieve pain and suffering in the simplest way we can. We need to listen.

When we begin to act by listening, the rest follows naturally. It's not so easy, of course — it requires us to give up preconceived ideas, judgments, and desires in or­der to allow space to hear what is being said. True listening requires deep respect and a genuine curiosity about situations as well as a willing­ness just to be there. . . . Listening opens the space, allows us to hear what needs to be done in that mo­ment. It also allows us to hear when it is better not to act, which is some­times a hard message to receive.

The music of life often gets lost in the music of our voices. We think that we already know what there is to hear. Sometimes we are simply moving a little too fast. Recently the phone in a friend's kitchen rang; it was the organizer of 4-a local project that was bringing Guatemalan vil­lage leaders to town for a three- week conference. 'Yes,' she said, be­fore he had a chance to ask. 'That's great. I have a house you could use for a gathering.' 'Thank you, that's very nice,' he replied in his Puerto Rican accent that sounded like salsa music, 'but what we really need is someone to drive them around.-'

Ah, it's small, you may think, but there it is again — acting without listening. Isn't it at heart the same impulse that leads the World Bank to build a dam for villages that don't want the electric power it provides or the U.S. Agency for International De­velopment to decide that a village needs a road to the market without asking the people if they have any­thing to sell there?

Listening to others clearly opens the way to understanding the helping situation. But listening to others requires quieting some of the voices that already exist within us. When this happens, there is space not only for the voices of others but for our own truest voice .. .

We need to take time to quieten down and listen to ourselves with attention — not only in the midst of action but when we are alone, walk­ing in the woods, making tea, pray­ing in an empty church, [wading] in a stream, or sitting in meditation. A simple breathing meditation can be helpful, because it returns us to our basic connection with the world. As we breathe in and out, and bring our awareness gently to our breath, we are experiencing the world coming into us and ourselves going back out into the world. We are reminded, in a simple physical way, that we are not separate from the world but con­tinually interacting with it in the very make-up of our being.

. . . We need to listen fully. It's the basis of compassionate action. We need to listen not only to the voice of the person who is hurting but to her bare feet, the baby wrapped in her shawl, and the stars in the cold night. Such full listening helps us hear who is calling and what we can do in re­sponse. When we listen for the truth of a moment, we know better what to do and what not to do, when to act and when not to act. We hear that we are all here together and we are all we've got. In Gandhi's terms, we are letting the music of our voices make way for the music of life.

First Steps


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