Monday, June 15, 2009

Growing Hearts of Compassion

Recently a friend shared an evocative experience that occurred during a field trip with her elementary school class to the Ludlow Monument near Aguilar, Colorado. 

The Monument stands as a haunting memorial to those murdered on April 20th, 1914, when the Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of striking coal miners and their families. The 1200 residents of the tent village had lived there since September of the year before, surviving a brutal Colorado winter under harsh living conditions. While some tents were built atop wooden platforms, crude cellars had been excavated beneath others to enlarge living space, allow for storage of supplies, and offer refuge from the bullets often fired through tent walls as tensions with the coal company escalated.

At the current site, just one cellar remains. Lined now with concrete, it allows visitors a first~hand glimpse of what life in the camp might have been like. My friend’s third graders had just ascended from this cellar and were seated around the Monument itself~~granite column, plaque listing the names of the dead, and statues of a miner and a woman holding her toddler. An interpretive guide was explaining that members of the militia had set fire to the tent that had been erected above the very cellar the students had stood within just moments before, killing 2 women and 11 children through suffocation.

This is what happened next. Three students, moving as one, silently and without prompting, placed their hands together in the universal gesture of prayer and bent forward, “bowing their little heads until they rested on the base of the monument.” Four more children spontaneously followed suit.

“It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw!” my friend whispered, tears springing to her eyes. Tears come to mine as well.

I am grateful to these children. They remind me that compassion is part of our instinctive nature. No one instructed them in their response. It came naturally because their hearts were open. The suffering of others encountered no barriers; welcomed, it elicited an innate empathy. Such is the way of a healthy heart.

But there is another response common to humankind~~the tendency to recoil from hurt. While this might be an appropriate reaction to physical pain, brought into the emotional realm this tendency can cause grave difficulties. Hearts restrict, become wooden. We close off from life, falsely believing that in doing so we limit our pain.

We do not. By closing down, we simply diminish our experience of all that is joyful as well. Hardened hearts also limit our ability to heal from the sorrows we absorb anyway, despite all our attempts at protection.

With my friend’s third grade students as our guides, we can renew our relationship to the responsive heart we were born with. It is our birthright, and we can reclaim it at any time, and as often as needed.

Pema Chodron, Buddhist author and educator, writes, “When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless…that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there.”

By allowing ourselves to be moved, our hearts open further and grow deeper. And we expand with them. No longer needing to withdraw into a false safety, we allow life to touch us and to grow us into the precious beings we are, and have always been~~in our hearts.

May your huge, vast and limitless heart be touched throughout the coming week, and may that touch deepen you and bring you home.


Loanne Marie

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