New York City. The city of a million dreams; a projected kaleidoscope of neon lights. I had always imagined my future in its skies filled with skyscrapers and its streets roaming with people, fashioned in a color wash of eclectic expression. So, when I finally moved here, to find corners of its most visited streets and subways frequented by the underserved and homeless, I tried to seek out the heart of what mends a people.
My first observations and reactions of compassion in the city were of hope. During the holidays, everyone seemed to be in merry spirits. People were donating to funds and giving money amply to musicians, veterans, dancers, and people who were impoverished. I tried my best to contribute in any capacity that I could, as well, but after a time, I was wearing myself out too thin. Living in the city had its own expenses, and I felt I could not always contribute in the way I desired.
When time passed, I also found the world around me becoming cold and uninviting. I found passersby not giving a second glance to those in need. I felt it was unfair that I could enjoy a decent life in New York, and others could not. I began feeling that New York City was becoming devoid of compassion. I could not understand why my hopeful outlook was caving in on itself. Later, I regretted moving, although I had a fulfilling job rehabilitating the geriatric population through the physical therapy field. As a last resort, I went on to seek meditation centers to gain some insight into the world, and myself.
In the meditation centers, I learned about practices centered around my breath. I was very doubtful at first how breathing could have any impact on my day to day life. After all, I had been breathing for all of my life, and there was little solace I was getting from it, other than obviously keeping me alive. But what I later found out, through the practice, was that the breath was the gateway to my inner contentment. In my breath, I found a path towards mindfulness. I was learning not to reject nor feel badly for the myriad of thoughts passing through me, but rather acknowledging them, and continuing to focus on my breath.
Usually, when I had been thinking throughout my day, there would be an inner dialogue supplied by my ego, peeking out from nowhere and causing havoc from nothing. It would always leave me with a sense of anger, guilt, attachment or sadness. A typical scenario would involve me noticing someone in need and immediately feeling terrible for not knowing how to help them. I would have incomprehensible feelings lurking within me, and these negative thoughts would grow throughout my day making me feel inadequate and inhumane for simply passing by a stranger. I knew this way of thinking was unconstructive, but I did not know how to change this behavior.
Through meditation, I was given the building blocks to be present, gain clarity in the moment, while learning to be kind and forgiving towards myself for whatever thoughts passed within me. I had the mind space now for heightened awareness and productivity to be of service to all sentient beings, including myself. My senses were awakening, I finally could see the world giving me opportunities to help mend itself. I was learning about compassion.
If compassion is an ocean, we are just the entry, one river pouring into another. We cannot fill another stream, unless our stream is full. We need to be compassionate with ourselves, first, if we have intentions to help others. This may seem to be contradictory. But when our needs are met, we become fulfilled and have the energy to pour our energy into another vessel. If we do not take care of our needs first, we end up feeling depleted and often times, find our work feeling like it is done out of an obligation, rather than feeling it is being done out of fulfillment.
After weeks of introspection into myself and closer observation into the world around me, I found that hope and humanity were not only living, but they were thriving forces in the city. I saw people doing whatever they could to be of service. While some offered money and food others participated in community service activities. Many even dedicated their lives towards social services. The city, itself, also provided its citizens with soup kitchens, shelters and community centers. Yet, there were still people in need. What happens when we do not have enough money to give, when we may not have the time to participate in volunteer projects, when our work is not intrinsically tied to giving back to the community? How do we still find compassion in our day to day lives?
A simple act of kindness is sometimes all it takes to find compassion in a big city, and anywhere, really. Whether it is opening a door for another, helping someone with directions, or providing resources to others, there is always something we can do to make someone’s life a little easier. When we equip ourselves with the knowledge on how to contribute to the welfare of society, the tools to help are always at our disposal. Being mindful to the world around us and helping in any capacity that we can reestablishes our confidence in ourselves, in others, and humanity.
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