I remember being six years old and visiting the Sri Lankan city of Kandy. I had never experienced anything like it. I was there with my Mum and my two younger brothers and there were so many things that I had never seen before. I remember to this day the sense of being dumbstruck with amazement and wonder as we rode through the chaos of the city at dusk, amidst the sheet lightning of a tropical storm. The intensely loud rain on the roof of the taxi, the smell of incense, the elephants on the road. For a six year old used to the hot, dry and dusty openness of his home in the Australian outback, this was an entirely different world.
Of all the things that made an impression on me during those few days in Sri Lanka, there is one memory to which I have returned again and again during the three decades since. Before we got into the taxi, a man came right up to us with a look of urgency and desperation on his face. He carried a strange contraption on his head, which turned out to be a box full of trinkets that he was trying to sell: padlocks, key chains and who knows what else. As we rushed to get into the taxi and out of the warm rain, and as this Sri Lankan man stood there with his box, speaking in a language that we couldn’t understand, a communication happened that sent a shockwave through me and my next thirty years.
“Mum! We have to help him!” I shouted. Staring into the pleading eyes of this trinket seller, a confusing mixture of panic and heartache welled up in me. The single most important thing in the world at that instant was to help this person in front of me. Nothing else mattered, or even existed. It was a shocking, raw and compelling moment of communication between a desperate man and an innocent open-hearted six year old. I now wonder if it was the most honest and direct experience of my own compassion that I have known. I was utterly motivated to act in the light of another’s needs. I didn’t even know how to look away from the inescapable fact of that other person’s suffering.
As our taxi drove off into the city I was confused, silent and unaware of being at the beginning of what would become a lifetime’s inquiry. As an adult I know that there is tremendous suffering in the world. But it is now rare for me to feel anything like the urgency I felt in that moment, on a humid and hurried Sri Lankan evening. The force of empathy that surged in the uncluttered heart of that child, all those years ago, was so shocking that I can’t imagine integrating similarly strong feelings in daily adult life. I do however allow myself to be gently shocked by the reflection, “Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, the same is true for this person, and this person, and this person,” as I move through the world. Despite our many differences, we are profoundly the same in our wish to be happy and not suffer. As I remember this simple fact I am rediscovering something of the immediacy and honesty of a child’s way of meeting others. I am discovering that compassion can be spacious and gentle as well as engaging and responsive. And I am learning that there is tremendous peace in noticing how the sense of self is really not so personal after all.
Article also appears on Conscious 2