The Golden Well of Compassion

Light River of the Heart I met the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; I lived with them for five days. It was heaven on earth; powerful transformation, golden drops from the well of compassion entered my heart.

I wrote these words in my journal on the day I returned home from the 2002 Stonehill College retreat with Thay.   It had been an unforgettable week.  I had witnessed the retreat give birth to a national peace initiative. It was like watching a collective Dharma wheel turn toward peace and reconciliation. On an individual level, I experienced my own turn of the Dharma wheel. As I left the retreat, I vowed to make peace within myself. This decision has reverberated in my life ever since, with far-reaching effects.

Many elements of the retreat nourished my soul and inspired me to change my perspective. I loved Thay’s Dharma talks, the meditation exercises, the energy of the other participants, the relaxation and silence. Most powerful of all was participation in a survivors of abuse Dharma discussion group. The Stonehill survivors group came to embody the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for me. It was a profound healing experience.

I had no idea of any of this when I signed up for the group, rather furtively and with some shame, on the day it was to begin. Later I learned that almost no one had signed up for the group in advance. On the first day, I positioned myself near the door to be able to make a quick escape if necessary. I watched the people as they entered the room, quickly trying to find their psychological weaknesses so that I could protect myself in case of attack. I made jokes to disarm them. My heart was beating rapidly.

Our leader invited the bell to sound, and then lay down boundaries. We were to strictly preserve confidentiality and privacy. We were to practice deep listening. We were not to solve others’ problems, but to offer our own experience if it could be of help. One by one, we began to share. It was soon apparent that every member of the group shared not only the childhood experience of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse and its long-term effects, but also the sincere desire to embody spiritual values and to practice compassion and loving-kindness. There was immense good will, clarity, honesty, courage, respect, thoughtfulness, and humor in the group.

Many of us were reluctant to identify ourselves as survivors, feeling that this labeled us as victims, or that it would lure us into negative, blaming states of mind. For myself, I hated identifying as anything. I never wanted to be part of any group larger than two.  Being in a circle with twelve or fifteen other

human beings meant that I had completely lost control. I had grown up in the war-zone of a nuclear bomb family. Violence, rage, terror, grief, secrecy, blame and denial were part of my “normal” life. At an early age, my connection to other human beings had shattered. Trust was broken and never rebuilt. I took isolation, fear and distrust for granted. Terror was hardwired into my being. I never realized there was another way to be.

On one of the first days of the retreat, I did a guided meditation led by Thay. As I visualized myself “fresh as a flower, stable as a mountain,” I felt peaceful, calm and at ease. The energy of seven hundred other meditators in the room supported me. Suddenly I realized that pain, suffering and a continual state of hyper-alertness were my everyday state of mind. I knew how to protect, hide, defend, and retaliate, but rarely how to trust or relax. These behaviors had served a purpose when I was a child, but now they stifled my adult life.

Identifying myself as a survivor was a powerful healing tool. It made me able to participate in the group – an act which I think of as prayer in action. Showing up in the survivors’ group was a prayer to rejoin the human race and to heal myself fully.

Before I left for the retreat, I had a dream in which I found two polished amethyst stones that looked like stained glass windows in a cathedral. I heard Thay’s voice saying, “The city is now safe for people to walk in.” Participating in the survivors’ discussion group was like being inside a cathedral and watching light illuminate stained glass windows one by one. Each person offered his or her own slant of light. Listening to others and being listened to alternated in a natural rhythm. There was no agenda; we revealed ourselves as we were in the moment. Compassion arose naturally for each other.  Kindness and understanding blossomed everywhere. In an atmosphere of honesty and safety, bonds of friendship were forged and the illusion of separateness dissolved.

My sisters and brothers of the survivors group were all bodhisattvas for me; through them, I experienced the transformative power of compassion. The group was the Dharma in action, as we helped each other bring painful emotions into light and awareness. It was a Sangha, each individual person having integrity and wholeness, yet functioning in relationship to a greater community. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha were not ideals or abstract concepts, they were alive and present in me and around me. As old assumptions, fears, and wrong perceptions crumbled, new and beautiful feelings of connectedness, trust and wholeness began to emerge. Being part of this group of survivors was powerful healing medicine. It seemed like nothing less than a miracle.

On the long drive home, the group continued to “meet” inside my mind. I held a conversation with my friends, sharing the most painful things about myself and my family. Suddenly a shift in my perceptions took place: instead of seeing the suffering as mine, I saw the terrible suffering of my family as a whole. Compassion flooded through me for all of us. These experiences have strengthened my resolve to practice mindfulness, to develop a deep well of compassion within myself, and to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Light River of the Heart, (dharma name of the author) shares, “Since I wrote this article, many perspectives have shifted and I have begun to open my heart to family members. Healing is slowly and steadily taking place.”

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