Cheshire cats

A colleague of mine recently started some Buddhist meditation classes, but was quickly put off by the smugness and complacency of the regular attenders who, having found a kind of peace for themselves, seemed oblivious to anyone else. It is the Cheshire cat syndrome, purring with self-satisfaction, and does not reflect the true spirit of Buddhism which seeks to develop compassion for all sentient beings. As the Dalai Lama has said, when we meditate we do not do so just for ourselves but for others as well.

This chimes with a passage I have just been reading in a book called Hope by Joel Rothschild, who has lived with full-blown AIDS since 1986. In it he describes the clinic to which he went when he was first diagnosed. It was, he says, like a tomb with fluorescent lighting. There was no privacy, no comfort, no security. The walls and floor were concrete, dirty and demoralising: ‘I understood first hand the reason for the emotional barrier people built up around themselves there,’ he writes.

‘I determined to befriend as many people as possible. I made an effort to greet, and compliment, and smile at everyone I could. I would find anything positive, pleasant or kind to say to the other patients and staff. Whenever possible, I would practice the smallest acts of kindness or generosity even with the sickest or most disfigured people; I struggled not to look away and to find anything positive to say to them, no matter how minor. To comment on a haircut, a new pair of shoes, the weather, it didn’t really matter, I would find something nice to say.

‘Also I listened to the other patients. Everyone was desperate to be heard. Perhaps it was a last attempt to be remembered. I listened out of genuine interest and was rewarded by hearing wisdom. I witnessed people finding new meaning in a time of danger.’

The message of true spirituality is that we are all one. The joy and the sorrow of any of us is the joy and sorrow of us all. We meditate to get a richer sense of the here and now, to live more humanely, and with greater compassion for ourselves and for others. If our practice results in our becoming detached or shutting ourselves off from others then we have gone down the wrong path!


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