Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

The Interplay of Awareness, Presence and Compassion

--by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche (Mar 15, 2010)

 Many Masters have said: "Urge on the horse of awareness with the whip of presence!" And, in fact, if awareness is not quickened by presence it cannot function.

Let's examine an example of awareness: suppose that in front of a person in a normal condition there is a cup full of poison, and that person is aware of what it is. Adult and balanced persons, knowing the poison for what it is and aware of the consequences of taking it, do not need much clarification about it. But they have to warn those who don't know about the poison being there, by saying something like: "In this cup there is some poison, and it's deadly if swallowed!" Thus, by creating awareness in others, the danger can be avoided. This is what we mean by awareness. […]

Now we can continue the metaphor of the poison to show what we mean by presence. If the person who has a cup of poison in front of them, even though they are aware and know very well what the consequences of taking the poison would be, does not have a continuous presence of attention to the fact that the cup contains poison, it may happen that they become distracted and swallow some of it. So if awareness is not continually accompanied by presence it is difficult for there to be the right results. This is what we mean by presence. […]

In truth, if one does not have awareness inseparably linked to presence, there absolutely cannot arise a really genuine compassion. As long as one does not have the real experience of being moved by compassion for others, it is useless to pretend that one is so very full of compassion. There is a Tibetan proverb about this, which says: "Even if you've got eyes to see other people, you need a mirror to see yourself!" As this proverb implies, if one really wants a genuine compassion for others to arise in oneself, it is necessary to observe one's own defects, be aware of them, and mentally put yourself in other people's places to really discover what those persons' actual conditions might be. The only way to succeed in this is to have the presence of awareness. Otherwise, even if one pretends to have great compassion, a situation will sooner or later arise which shows that compassion has never really been born in us at all.

Until a pure compassion does arise, there is no way to overcome one's limits and barriers.

--Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche

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On Mar 16, 2010 Dharmesh wrote:

i am really thankful to read this & its good stories & good knowledge who share this to the world.


thanks & regards

On Mar 20, 2010 Somik Raha wrote:

This was a very deep piece. Uncle (CF Dad) started us off with an incredible welcome (usually Nipun does this) and it was a treat. I don't know how to capture the genuine love with which he spoke, which comes from so many years of solid service and meditation.

On the passage, I found myself struggling a little bit. All the talk about awareness and presence is well and good, but how do I know I'm not fooling myself into thinking that all is well, when things are not? What is the practical 1-second test which might guide my thinking?

Upon reflection, it seems to me that we often live with memories of past-awareness, as opposed to being present all the time. These memories can be used constructively to continue the work and be a source of love and compassion, or destructively, to generate anger and contempt. For example, if I've woken up to the fact that the earth is in danger and I need to be more conscious about my actions and how they impact our home planet, I have two paths in front of me when interacting with someone who (according to me, assuming I know better - a very big assumption) does not perceive the same reality. I could either choose to be compassionate, knowing that it took a lot of help and kindness for me to wake up, and I should extend the same if possible. Or I could react with contempt - how could this person be so insensitive? What a terrible fellow!

Research has shown that contempt is a toxic reaction - in marriages, when couples start showing contempt for each other, such couples have been found to be in marital unbliss. I think this is true for all relationships. The metaphor of the poison is a wonderful one - I know that contempt is poison for me. And yet, there are moments when I unwittingly drink from it.

The choice is between the two c's (or seas). Should we drink from the sea of contempt, or the sea of compassion, both of which are abundant? Getting back to the practical test - it seems to me that if we can remember what feeling is predominant - contempt or compassion, we will know whether we are in a stage of presence + awareness, or whether we are living with past memories of awareness and no presence.

A story on this - I was discussing research with a colleague, and found myself criticizing a decision-maker who I had initially wanted to help, for making what I thought was a mistake in thinking. My colleague responded with utter disarming compassion, saying, "I'd be really interested to learn what you find when you apply your research tools to help this decision maker." The purity of her intention hit me instantly. I realized that by bringing contempt in, I'd closed myself off from learning what was really going on with the decision maker. As a researcher, it is very important that my learning mode never shuts down. It seems then that to be a better researcher, one must develop in compassion. I got to meet the decision maker, and decided to be compassionate with presence. Within five minutes of our meeting, I was shocked to discover using the tools I was working on that the decision maker came from a very lofty position of values, one that I had hardly expected. With great respect, I pointed out the error that was still being made. Funnily enough, it hit the decision maker immediately, and as he gasped, it hit me too. I couldn't tell who was the speaker and who was the listener, and got really emotional that clarity had been achieved. I wish this joy upon all who work - if we cannot tell who is being helped and who is helping, although we may have started off being instrumental in some way, wow! I couldn't pay enough to be in that space, and yet, it is I alone who sabotage my efforts by drinking from the wrong cup. This piece is so apt, so practical, I remain in gratitude.

As we went around the group, it was wonderful to see how the question organically emerged, "what is my cup of poison?" Someone thought it was fear. Another thought it was judgment. She shared this lovely story about judging someone (maybe roommate?), and sitting down in her car, and uttering a prayer, "God, please help me see her point of view without judgment." The minute the prayer had been made, that she saw the other's point of view, and was overwhelmed with compassion.

Another thread that went around emerged with a gentleman who wondered what the right action was when one encounters beggars on the street. He found himself wondering if he should give money. What if the money would be used for drinking or smoking? People responded to this question in different ways. Uncle (CF Dad) shared a story when, in India, he was in a car with Nipun and was approached by a beggar. He didn't know what to do, and announced that he would give at a better opportunity, to which Nipun responded that uncle couldn't be too sure that he'd live the next day, so he should honor his impulse and be of service! Another attendee shared an experience (from Nepal, I think) where she resisted the urge to give to a beggar, and the next day found the same man outstretched, perhaps ill or dead. That made her so sad that she might have made a difference but didn't that she has learned to honor her impulse to give.

I find myself conflicted on this one. The Buddha always advised having a cool head and a warm heart, and it is certainly true that many things we try to do to help others may actually end up harming. Yet, there is something about the stories people shared about a deep impulse to help. I remembered my father's own story - during a festival in India called "Durga Puja" (a celebration of the feminine force of the Universe), my father wanted to offer Rs. 100 for the service. He decided to go cheap and instead gave only Rs. 50. Thereafter, as he came out, who else but me greeted him with a long face - someone had stolen my new sandals, which had cost.. you guessed it, Rs. 50! Thereafter, he decided always to honor his first impulse to give and gave us clear instructions in the family never to second-guess ourselves. I don't think he implied this as a causal event - instead, I believe he recognized a larger pattern. Money and other resources come and go in our lives. When we start to think that such resources are static, our thinking becomes distorted, and we try to hoard, without realizing that there is no way we can prevent what has come to us from leaving. It is a matter of greater wisdom to trust the unknown future - that all will be well, and the universe will provide. This does not contradict the Buddha's message. There are many moments when we are clear about what to do, and we should just do it. But there are several other altruistic moments, when we stand confused about what to do. I see no harm in using one's head to seek clarity, and harmonize with our heart.

Pancho's message (which is always too beautiful to be captured by me, so I hope he offers it in writing), was also about harmonizing with the heart instead of staying only at the intellectual level.

Chris shared a lovely story toward the beginning which was about how native Americans did not see the ship on the horizon (of the first pilgrims), although it was there to be seen. However, someone did see the ripples caused by the ship, and slowly, that person traced it to the ship, and helped his people develop awareness about it. Aumatma built on this, and said that this was the process of healing - one had to see the ripples and trace them to the source to find the cause of the problem.

An attendee shared reading a piece in the Times of India with a host family in Cuttack - it was about CharityFocus! He had brought the cut-out with him and read this line:

The inspiration behind Charity Focus, a brainchild of Nipun Mehta ( declares that "it's impossible to create a better world without inner change that results from selfless service''.

The article is here, written by none other than Deepak Chopra. Talk about ripple effects - this was incredible.

Finally, aunty (CF Mom) closed in a powerful way expressing the need to stay aware and present in her own life. Her humility and practice stands like a mountain of inspiration for all of us!

On Mar 22, 2010 Alphonsus Nwoye wrote:

This is interesting. Knowledge sharing is imperative for civilization. It is educative.

On Mar 22, 2010 Pancho wrote:

My family calls me Pancho and I'd like you to know that I love you all...

If you have ever attended to a Wednesday, you know it is no cliche when I say that last Wednesday was another incredible one. For me, it was the first time in almost two years, that the six pack (the way we fondly call all the Mehtas), was formed only by mamá Harshida and papá Dinesh. Hermana Gurita is learning about the Latin American cultures; hermano Viral is in a 30 day retreat in India; hermana Pavititita is finishing up the writing of The Infinite Vision book in Madurai; and hermano Nipuni was engaged in some (r)evolution mission. So, there we were, 40-ish people feeling at home with our adoptive parents, all by ourselves.

As hermano Somik shared it already, papa Dinesh set the tone of the circle with a warm loving greeting and the magic, as usual, kept flowing facilitated by brothers Somik and Hafeez. Equally loving, grounding and powerful was the closing of the circle when mamá Harshida embodied her loving fully presence and awareness. This were the 3 points that I shared:

1. The Best Present.
2. A Moment of Awareness.
3. The Balance of Spirituality.

1. The Best Present.
Attention is alert stillness. So, the best gift that one can give to anyone, is our attentive presence. Have you noticed the wide-open eyes of a child or the shining eyes of a sage that can be distracted with nothing but the connection of the person in front of them? That's what it means to be alert in stillness, to have an alert still presence. Irresistible for the mind and heart.

2. A Moment of Awareness.

I had to travel to the other side of the World, to the part of the Planet we call India, to have a dramatic revelation. Due to my almost only secular perspective during my early education, I used to find Religion and Science mutually exclusive. In an explicit way, I was primarily exposed to only the dogmatic aspect of religion: when you remove the kernel of truth from any philosophy (for example, the Saint Inquisition). in other words when one doesn't walk the walk.

But implicitly, my heart kept storing and taking care of the seeds of compassion planted by my four interracial grandparents, all spiritual in their unique way. So, when I entered to a temporal temple in Wardha, the Ashram where Vinoba Bhave and his brothers lived, and I noticed the picture of Gandhi, Yagananda, Vinoba, other sages and in the middle... Albert Einstein... something happened to the sprouts of my heart.

It was a profound moment of awareness, as if all the kindness, generosity, love, forgiveness, compassion, the sense of responsibility and the sense of harmony (also known as spirituality) were hibernating, were waiting for me to sprout in that moment.

I looked around and noticed the Science and the Village tent: compost toilets, solar panels, rain water catching systems, organic fertilizers... all smiling at me. But that was not all.

The Ashram was intended to be managed by women. The power of the heart, the power of the Feminine Divine was all around. A profound balance between the mind and the heart. I went to the little bookstore and grab the pamphlet that eventually, helped me to start walking on my path for real: Science and Self-Knowledge by Vinoba.

Then what I found is that in evolutionary time scales, violence and science are mutually exclusive; the two cannot coexist in the long run. Vinoba was quite aware of this: “Violence must be done away with if science is to survive. If both are sought to be retained, (hu)mankind, along with its science also, would be destroyed.” This disastrous combination inhibits the development of critical inquiry, our thinking becomes narrow and circumscribed if we are associated with any organization which will not be fully conductive for the quest of nonviolence.

3. The Balance of Spirituality
That's what happened to me in Wardha. Once for all, I was aware of the balance of spirituality. All of the sudden, everything made sense. Today, I'm convinced that self-control, self-governance, self-reliance, interdependence, mutuality, individuality, an equilibrium between Science and Arts is where the beauty of life manifests at its best. I found that the organic cosmic glue that keeps altogether, for example Anarchy and Nonviolence, is spirituality: a balance between the mind and the heart that brings harmony to the being.
"The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power ... There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man. --Tolstoy
After all, we might be living the Great Turning, we might be living in the Cour-Age (the Age of the Heart!). Please surf the web of life and don't forget to use your heart-drive! ;-)

May all become compassionate, courageous and wise.

On Mar 23, 2010 prakash wrote:

I love those metaphors -- "Surf the Web of Life" and "Operate from your Heart-drive" :-)


On May 1, 2015 Burt harding wrote: