First lesson: There is a relationship between suffering and compassion. Compassion is born from understanding. Understanding what? Suffering. And if you know how to suffer then you suffer much less. Second lesson: Compassion should be directed to yourself first. Our civilization has a tendency to want to run away from ourselves. But we can go home to ourselves without fear. Third lesson: As a community, you can generate energy of compassion. This power can help others much more quickly. -- Thich Nhat Han
Om mani padme hum. “Jewel in the lotus.” This is the Sanskrit mantra tattooed in Tibetan lettering across my right arm. All of the Buddha’s teachings is thought to be contained in these six syllables. It is thought to inspire compassion in its utterance and simply by being in its presence, which is why it is carved into stone, tucked into prayer wheels, inlaid in bowls-- and inked across arms. Because I, too, want to be a transmitter of compassion. I, too, want to inspire the enlightenment I so desperately seek. I, too, want to at least seem to be the person my dogs think I am. Permanent body markings should do the trick!
These characters were etched into the upper flesh of my right bicep seven years ago in Costa Rica with a temperamental, mail-order tattoo gun by my friend Robin, a beautiful Canadian recently transplanted with her then-boyfriend Jonny Nitro. Amidst the low hum and speckled shade of the surrounding jungle, I sat in their small log cabin, the living room warm with incense and full of wakeboarding gear, overlooking Lake Arenal. While the sun set behind the west-laid mountains, Robin scratched the ink into my arm with frequent stops and starts, shaking and rebooting the gun which kept petering out mid-jab. We laughed and joked about it, but I was nervous about leaving with a half-finished tattoo, and I am sure she was just as nervous about giving me one. (What would the symbolism of a half-finished mantra of compassion be?) So we stuck at it while and Chris entertained our boys (a 5-year-old Wilder and a 6-month-old Sage) and drank beer with Jonny.
It was dark by the time we were finished, moths beginning to gather around the bare outdoor bulb as the warm night air began to settle and cool, but I had a complete tattoo. It was just the thing I had to have before getting on an airplane bound for California in two days, a permanent reminder of what the last few years in Costa Rica had been--a lesson in compassion. I had certainly cultivated a bit of compassion during my stint there--for myself as well as others--but, more importantly, I’d come to fully realize that it’s simply life’s most important work. Mine and everyone’s. I am constantly “practicing” it, constantly succeeding and failing at it, constantly wondering what all this happiness and suffering is all about. But I try to remember it at all times. The tattoo would make it all but impossible to forget. Plus, I love a tattoo. It might as well be somewhat meaningful as well as ornamental.
You see, I am really not a great student of mantras and their associated deities. But Om mani padme hum sticks with me. Compassion must be called upon in every aspect of my identity. As a woman, a mother, a wife, a friend, an artist, a mentor, a professional (all of those debatably non-existential modes of being), I am constantly called upon to give. Which is why the tattoo is on my right side, the giving side. It informs every aspect of my life, endeavoring to temper my inclinations toward irritation, frustration, anger, blame (and constantly failing). I am, of course, only tragically human, and simply following a course already plotted out by countless beings before me. But I am on the path. And that’s something.
I dabble in spiritual experience, but in truth I lack the self-discipline (or desire for it) to subscribe to anything too deeply. Scratching the surface is ultimately the extent of digging into my deeper places. But compassion has been endorsed and peddled by all the major religious players throughout time--from Jesus to Allah to Thich Nhat Hahn--and it’s a tenet I can dig my spiritual claws into.
When others inquire about my tattoo and I explain it, I sometimes also ask, with tongue in cheek, if they themselves are now, in fact, feeling more compassionate. A friend once responded not only in the negative, but with the distinct opinion that my tattoo was broken. I am beginning to wonder if this is true, because for all the compassion I do show, I still fail to show it quite a lot, and can’t imagine how deficient I would be if I did not have the tattoo at all. Not only did my friend not feel more compassionate, but I am myself finding it consistently difficult to be compassionate with those in my own life—namely my kids and husband as well as the needy, barking dogs and the old, senile cat (the fish and chickens pose no threat to my compassionate worthiness whatsoever, bless their predictable, pea-brained, self-contained little existences).
I know that my life is constantly meant to test me. I know that as a mom my daily life is my meditation, that every moment of happiness and productivity and frustration is my path, my journey, my destination, my opportunity to practice mindfulness and patience and compassion, blah, blah, blah. Well, sometimes, I just want to say, fuck that shit. With all due respect to Thich and HH, and all those blessed, beautiful bald monks who never bled or birthed or breastfed, fuck that shit. Compassion is difficult. Which is why it is work and suffering. Conscious work and suffering. And I'm working on it. My tattoo proves it.