Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Field Notes on Love and Compassion

More than a month ago I wrote a little bit about "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" by Marc Ian Barasch. I finished the book, but ran out of time to write about it before I left for a trip to Wisconsin. I was hopeful I could put some new thoughts, new lessons on radical empathy into practice there. The author wrote this book of field notes because he wanted to find out how to be compassionate. It was full of questions, and he sought answers from the experts, either those who studied the science of the heart, or those who were acknowledged to be extraordinarily giving by folks around them. Marc asks, "It's a perennial question about the amplitude of compassion and the carrying capacity of the heart: Do we only have a fixed quota of loving to allocate between family and the world at large, so that if one receives more, the other gets less?" (p. 181) I had a similar question as I headed back for my family visit, I who talk much about it being all about love: Can I be a lover to my birth family?

I was anxious about visiting Wisconsin. When I got there, I felt like I was in a different country. I truly am a Wisconsin expatriate. I was reminded of one radically empathic person interviewed by Barasch, I think he was a rabbi. He gladly indiscriminately dispensed compassion to all, but confessed he did take St. John's Wort for depression. It isn't easy loving all. I did manage to have some connective conversations with my stepfather, and afterward my mom said it made her happy when we talked more. She clearly didn't know how uncomfortable those conversations made me, and I didn't want her to know. On the one hand I thought it was good he seemed to want to connect with me, on the other, the weird warped craziness around alcoholism that is viewed as normal was very difficult to be around. I needed daily conversations with my loved ones back home in Portland.

My visit there sparked thoughts about the difference between urban and rural folk. As far back as the Silk Road, cities have been places where people had to get along if trade was to flourish. People had to get along if they were going to live so closely together. Folks in the country must rely upon themselves for defense, and will often resort to aggressive strategies. I could not go back to the xenophobic, insular society that is found in much of rural Wisconsin. That low buzz of paranoia and racism never lets up. I've heard about Madison, a small haven for progressives, but even there, a few years ago myairportt shuttle driver said, "Yeah, we have some freaks here." (meaning folks like me.) I am still pondering this city mouse/ country mouse difference.

This "carrying capacity of the heart" was significant to me. We polyamorists often encounter the prejudice that it must be unnatural to love more than one person. We commonly counter that with the parent/child analogy. When a parent has a second child, she doesn't worry about having less love available for the first. Really, and this is a very Buddhist construct, the most limiting notion of love is in our own minds. While outsiders glance at this growing subculture and dismiss it as hedonistic or as overrun with jealousy because we're 'wired' to be monogamous, we who experience it and take the time to work the knots out of our societal conditioning find love grows the more one gets practice at loving more than one. Jealousy is understood to be a knot of karmic conditioning that needs untangling. The untangling process reveals fears and insecurities than can be addressed and they dissipate naturally or with a little encouragement, a little changing of mind.

Much of spiritual tradition separates love of humanity from romantic love and sexual love. In my experience they do not need to be mutually exclusive. More thoughts on that soon....

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