Need Compassion? Look Within.

July 19, 2010

This is the way I remember this story.  I’m sure there are details I’m not getting exactly as it happened, but the events described are real. 

In January 1992 my sister, Kerrie, and her husband, Kelly, who were living in Gretna, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans, went out driving with their 3 month old daughter, Chelsea, who was fussy that evening.  Kelly had just gotten off work and was tired and Kerrie drove. They pulled up to an ATM at their bank to make a deposit.  When they stopped, another vehicle blocked their exit and two young men- probably only teenagers- jumped out wearing nylon stockings over their faces and weilding hand guns.  One ran to each side of the car.  Kerrie shoved her purse out the window thinking that was what they wanted. 

The man on the passenger’s side smashed the window and shot across the front seat, hitting Kerrie in the left thigh.  The bullet went clear through her leg, missing the bone but barely, and lodged in the door of the car.  Then the same shooter turned to Kelly who was turning to block Chelsea in her car seat in the back.  The gun was aimed at Kelly’s chest, but as he turned and raised his arm the bullet shattered his elbow. 

A courageous woman ran to their sides and held terrified little Chelsea and talked with them while they waited for the police.  She stayed with them in the danger and prayed with them and comforted them as much as was possible. 

My mother called to tell me, and I felt like I was in an elevator that suddenly dropped.  They were alive, but they’d been seriously injured.  Chelsea had only minor scrapes from flying glass. But someone shot my sister and her husband and the world was no longer safe for anyone.  Always before when I had thought of someone hurting my loved ones I thought that I would want revenge. There would be no revenge for this crime.  The young men shot and injured four people that night, but they were never caught. 

The surprise was that I felt no desire for them to be hurt in return. I wanted them to be stopped and incarcerated since clearly they were not safe members of society.  But the thought that haunted me was, “What happened to these boys to make them so willing to hurt my sister’s family?”  When I talked with my brother and mother and sister, they all echoed the thought.  What happened to them when they were little boys?  Who failed to love them?  What hurricane took their security?  What parent failed to provide them with unconditional love?  Who exploited their trust with pain so deep that the only way to expel it was to cause intense and overwhelming fear in others?

The police surmised that they were doing a gang initation, but they didn’t kill anyone.  They shot 3 women in the leg and one man in the arm… although I suspect if Kelly had turned less quickly the bullet would have entered his chest and the death count would have been one. But it wasn’t.  They weren’t good enough at evil to kill. 

I’m not sure why compassion was available to me then.  Compassion didn’t make me wish for those boys to have freedom nor to think that what they did didn’t matter.  It meant that for some reason I was able to see that a long chain of causes and effects led to what they did and that if not my sister’s family, someone else’s.  The chain of events was already in motion, rolling downhill and gathering speed. I was able to see that those boys were responding without introspection to things other people had initiated beyond and outside their control. 

In Shambhala and Buddhist study we are taught about lovingkindness.  It is also known as buddha nature, which we all have.  (Buddha was a man, not a god.  If he could do it, we, as humans, can also become buddhas.)  Basic goodness is in all of us. 

So, what of those boys that shot those good people on that dark night? Why did they behave in ways that were neither loving nor kind?  These many years later I think I know.  I think this knowing was with me all along, and revealed itself when those boys shot my sister.   


I just finished a weekend of Shambhala Training.  Level 2 was very difficult for me.  In Level 1 we learned about our innate goodness and lovingkindness.  In Level 2 we pulled our gazes inward, both physically during meditation, looking at the floor just in front of us rather than six feet beyond, and in terms of our mindfulness.  Rather than focusing on our inward breath, we focused on inhalation and exhalation.  It sounds easy, right?  Sit on a cushion, look at the floor beyond your feet and breath.  For an evening and two full days we sat and breathed and pulled our vision inward.  There were periods of walking meditation, interviews with our directors, talks, discussions and meals, but then it was back to the pillow.  We all struggled.  My avoidance for the weekend was fighting an urge to sleep, which has never been a problem for me during meditation before.  Sunday morning I woke up completely congested and unable to breathe through either nostril.  I got up and went to the retreat anyway, and the congestion went away.  It was like my avoidance realized I wasn’t going to fall for its trickery.  I was going whether I was sick or not.  I was not sick.  The congestion was completely gone by mid-morning. 

It was in this sitting and  breathing in and out and looking that we encountered those things in our lives that are holding us back.  For each of us it was unique, but many of us found similar obstacles.  For me, I came face to face with my tendency to avoid problems.  I’ve been working on this for ages.  In my youth if I ran into a glitch at my job, I would get a new one, or maybe a new apartment. Later if I had a problem with my marriage, I would talk and interrupt and insist that I was right. In my 40’s when things were challenging, I’d engage in some activity that kept me from having to face what was difficult. Stay busy, zone out in some hobby, don’t look anyone in the eye. 

In my 50s I began to meditate and running away or putting up barriers was revealed to be a way of attaching myself to pain.  Who knew that running away was a form of attachment?  I’ve been so attached to avoiding troubles that I haven’t learned how to deal with them very effectively. 


So where does compassion come from?  It comes from a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of cause and effect in this world.  Those boys that shot Kerrie and Kelly have either grown into men or they have died.  If they are alive, they have either straightened up or they are still living their lives of attachments and pain.  If they have straightened up, it is because they found a way to look themselves in the eye and realize that they did possess basic goodness.  And if they are still living outside their basic goodness, it is still there inside them, untapped and unrealized.

There is no moral polarity.  Good does not exist without bad.  Black does not exist without white.  There is only awareness and its companion, lack of awareness.  Awake and not awake.  Once we recognize this, compassion arises.


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