By Kellie Schorr
In the Deep Midwinter is a 4 week series on the Four Immeasurables as a Buddhist meditation in the tradition of Advent, a Christian season of introspection the weeks prior to Christmas.
Everyone knows that one person who is always cold.
The one in the office who wears a sweater in the summer because the air conditioning is “freezing them to death.” The one who sneaks down the hall in the middle of the night to inch up the thermostat and hope nobody notices. The one who gets blankets, snuggies, and earmuffs from every secret Santa and gift exchange ever. The one who wears socks to bed, on their hands.
I am that person.
I’m sitting at my desk writing this article in jeans, heavy socks, a shirt, and a hoodie, with a blanket over my lap. The thermostat is set at 70 degrees. I clutch hot tea with shaking fingers, draining the warmth through the ceramic of the mug until the tea becomes ice. I could make Elsa from Frozen look like a Bahama Mama. And let’s face it, I’m not the only one.
So many people stand shivering in the icy air of indifference, apathy and calculated cruelty there isn’t a blanket thick enough to wrap around them all. Fear mongering narratives rain down on us like shards of sleet stabbing at the tender vulnerabilities we keep so close to our heart. Memories—the good ones we cherish and the bad ones that drip over our souls like stale molasses—cause us to slide backwards, losing our footing and composure, on the slippery slope.
Frostbitten, with stinging eyes and frozen breath we run to Christmas as if it is a roaring fireplace in the center of a room. We hold our chapped hands toward it, marveling at the way the lights, the music, the food—all of it—make everything seem okay, if only for a moment. We don’t get too close, because we know the utter devastation fire can cause. Yet we are drawn to the small, controlled blaze that promises us warmth and solace.
In winter, fire is beautiful.
For Christians, the narrative tells of a baby in a manger, filling that vacant space and cold, dark night with stars and hope. The glow of that moment, that family, that proclamation has warmed the air for generations with a message of love. For Buddhists, our narrative tells of a young prince, under a Bodhi tree, withstanding the fire arrows of Mara (the very troubles of all the world) to become enlightened. The searing flames that flew through an open field in anger transform in mid-flight and fall around him in a gentle blanket of lotus petals. He touches the warm earth with open hands and sees the end to suffering on a compassionate path.
Though different, both stories lead us to several important truths to remember in the deep midwinter when the storm winds blow:
Hope is born in troubled times.
The emptiest spaces in our lives are often filled with change.
Fire requires courage.
Compassion gives life.
Compassion (Karuna) is the second of Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables. Loving Kindness (Metta) is defined as the desire for all beings to be happy. Compassion is the desire for all beings to be free from suffering. As surely as loving kindness lights our way to a better world, compassion is the warm heart that makes the path possible.
Compassion is a fire kindled within our core being, and the first person it must warm is ourselves. By extending to ourselves the understanding, the help, the presence that we would offer others, we cultivate an awakened heart prepared to meet the coldness of an unskillful world.
If you would sit with someone else as they go through a struggle, how can you not be present for yourself? Listen to your heart, your fears, and your longings. Honor the bravery it took to get where you are. Offer solace and healings words to yourself, as well as needed support for the journey forward.
We have a tendency to think of compassion as an emotional response, but it is actually an intellectual process and a personal commitment. Compassion is the fuel the keeps the fire of life burning. Compassion doesn’t observe. Compassion involves. Compassion connects. In a tumbledown season of “It’s the thought that counts” the alchemy of our compassion reveals it is the reaching, abiding, change-making action that really makes a difference.
Our compassion can bring warmth to this season in portions large and small.
Karuna may simply be not rolling your eyes or mumbling “time to go home” when an exhausted toddler has a meltdown in the store, but silently breathing a prayer for parental strength and comfort. It may be offering a ride to someone who has lost independence through age or illness so they can be a part of the season, or do some shopping without their adult child standing right there, or enjoy a nice hot chocolate with a friend. Anonymous donations, food providing, pet fostering, challenging prejudice by offering genuine acceptance and making space at your table or in your heart all take the chill out of the bitter cold of these days.
At a time when many of us make budgetary and practical choices with our gift giving, deciding between “need” and “want” or “possible” and “that would be great, but, no” let us pause and remember the wise counsel we have been given.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
As for me, I’ll continue to remember when I hear the stories and songs of the season that the awakening light and birth of hope happens best in dark days and empty spaces. And I will admit there is something so real, so beautiful, about watching softly falling snow float down on a world that requires the rest of a stark winter to bring a blooming spring.
As long as I’m in the house, fully dressed, wrapped in a blanket, eating hot soup, by a fire.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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