Well, of course I should and shall still be trying to do my compassion meditation (although I am failing in dramatic style whenever I try to extend metta to Tories these days) – but what I mean is, that’s the end of this year’s tour for The Trouble With Compassion. Many thanks to all my venues and all my audience members. You can still buy the poetry collection from Burning Eye Books.
In the meantime, here is my scary-lovely alter ego Imelda, taking out her frustration and self-loathing on a party-sized chocolate cake.
And here are all the wonderful pieces of advice and encouragement given to Imelda via the Heart Of Hearts…
Wonderful times at Jabberwocky Market Festival, where these delightful souls drew pictures of one another whilst finding out what made their subject happy. Kudos to Katie who likes ‘control’ and ‘sarcasm’! Her own, or other people’s, I wonder?
LAST SHOW is on National Poetry Day, this Thursday 6 October, 1pm at City Library, Sunderland for Sunderland Literature Festival. It’s only a suggested donation of £2, so you can easy afford to buy a copy of my collection as well 😉
Compassion without action is nothing, so they say. I’ve been looking for examples of concrete goodness in the communities around me, so a few weeks back I went to a deserted car park in Middlesbrough on a Monday evening, to help members of the Sikh temple hand out food to the homeless.
Now, I think I’ve been conditioned by many TV shows to expect a certain kind of soup-kitchen vibe, perhaps featuring a cheery guitar-playing proselytiser or two, and of course a load of grateful recipients. But it’s not like that. Of course it’s not like that. For one thing, Sikhs aren’t big on preaching while they work. The development and practical application of compassion is an essential part of devotion for Sikhs, with particular emphasis on the distribution of food. In cities with larger Temples, for example in Birmingham, the community goes into the town centre on a weekly basis and simply gives away free hot food to whoever wants it. In our slightly Walking Dead-style Boro car park, we were five people, two camping tables, forty takeaway cartons of lentils and rice, and two boxes of second-hand Greggs donuts. The handout was swift, slightly chaotic, and mostly conducted in silence by both givers and receivers. I wondered what the youngest member of our group, just a boy, made of this dutiful work.
I had a bit of a chat on with one woman, who carried in her head the days, times and locations of all the charitable food handouts currently running in the area. It’s obvious they are essential for her and many others. But do they provide compassion, emotional sustenance beyond the bare nutritional essentials? It was very difficult to make human contact, very difficult for both sides of the table to make eye contact, very difficult indeed to feel anything other than desperately sad as the thirty-minute feeding frenzy came to an end and the last six spoons of sugar were ladled into the last cup of coffee, and the forty homeless men and women drifted away to places I can’t fully imagine.
I swear, I don’t know I’m born.
I had a rather nice time in Hexham yesterday, doing the show and wangling some unofficial production shots out of my lovely photographer friend, Lilly. Here’s me in action, looking not nearly as muggy-sweaty-rumpled as I felt!
Next show is in the wonderful Alphabetti Theatre, if you’re around in Newcastle on Thursday please do come and see it 🙂
So tomorrow I take the show to Hexham, one of my favourite venues, to see whether or not a matinee slot of 2pm brings in a good audience. If you’d like a ticket, you can book one here.
I’m very much looking forward to meeting people during the show, but even better than that is meeting them all again afterwards when I look through the results of the ‘sketching a stranger’ portion of the show! It got quite out of hand at ARC last month, we ended up playing two tracks from my Compassion playlist, not just one 🙂
Here’s some of the Stockton Rogues…
An hour is a fair length of time to listen to spoken word, even when there are films and funny bits. Which is why, halfway through my show, we all take a break to listen to some music from my tracks-donated-by-the-public Compassion playlist while we draw happy stick-people portraits of one another. Oh, and it’s sort of about getting to know strangers so you can feel kindly towards them.
Here are some of the magnificent drawings produced by the compassionate punters of Hartlepool on Tuesday, complete with doodles representing what makes the sitter happy. May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering!
The last Teesside show is tonight at ARC, Stockton – 5.30pm, pay what you decide, buy a book for a tenner. More coming next month in Newcastle and Hexham.
Any repeated action has the potential to become a form of meditation. ‘Form’ not only meaning ‘type’, but also ‘form’ in the sense of ‘a shape that we can follow’. The shape of the repeated action endures, is a constant; the breath, a tai chi sequence, the schedule of a day, the structure of a retreat. We repeat the form not in order to ‘get it right’ or ‘be good at it’, but because by placing ourselves into the constancy of its shape we can more clearly observe ourselves. We provide the ever-changing contrast.
So this retreat was both the same as others, and at the same time completely different. Dhanakosa retains its form, breathing us and and breathing us out, but the dynamic of the people changes. We are here as a chance sangha, temporary and at the mercy of random association. We make the best of the situation that we can, through our external actions and relationships, and through our private contemplations.
The bells calling us from sleep to waking, from silence to community, from leisure to attention – these are like the changing postures of the tai chi form, guiding us to act and move to the same purpose, in the same direction at the same time. In this way our individual energies are brought into synchronicity, and are amplified, until the sangha emerges as a single energetic organism of which we are the cells.
The repetition of the days, our willingness to immerse ourselves in the joint endeavours of meditation, cooking, eating, silence and writing – these are the things that polish the retreat until it becomes a smooth, heavy gem. Then it is able to drop deeply, taking our joint and several practises to more profound levels.
We all write our names of slips of paper, then drop them into the bottle-green velvet bag. We all pick out a name, and write on the slip of paper what colour of the rainbow that person would be, and why. Then we share the positivity. Some people are sunshine yellow, because of their enthusiasm. Others are blue for calmness, pink for their loving hearts. Even if they are new to the group, like me, they are still gifted a colour and the benefit of the doubt. I am white, for clarity and honesty. It’s a positive version of judging a book by its cover, and I’m surprised at how touched and buoyed up I am by this simple exercise.
This is just one of the ways in which things are kicked off each week at the MAP Project, a very lively and welcoming support group at ARC Stockton that engages anyone having mental health issues through Mindfulness, Art and Poetry – and a whole heap of friendly enthusiasm. Their strong focus on positive reinforcement comes directly from personal experiences of anxiety and depression, and they are creative, practical, committed practitioners of inclusive kindness.
One member has set up her own support group for people living with invisible illnesses, so I visited them too. They meet up just for a Wetherspoons breakfast and a chat, twice a month. The tales they told me of ways in which they have been able to help others was an inspiration, literally – I have decided that part of the show will be the creation of an ‘instruction manual for compassion in action’, turning examples of kindness that have been donated to the show into a set of (sometimes strangely specific) instructions. For example – ‘take someone black tights and cigarettes after their mother dies’.
If you’d like to contribute an example that can become an instruction, please take my survey, and be as detailed and specific as you can!
Imelda is my alter-ego. She’s the troll under my Bridge of Sanity, she’s a mostly-dormant sub-routine, she’s development so arrested she has a rap-sheet. Little id-dy creature, she is not me. Except when she rises up from the depths like Godzilla, and eats me whole, with her slappable stupidity in matters of the heart.
She gets her own slot in the new show, because compassion starts at home, and the trouble with that is – who here really likes all of themself? But I don’t want to ‘be’ her when I perform, so I plan to hide under the table while I play a film of her poem. Luckily, I know a very talented film-maker. Laura Degnan and I will be spending a couple of days this month out and about in Hartlepool and beyond, making two of my poems into films for the show. In preparation for this I have bought the following items: a ‘High School Sweeheart’ curly wig in strawberry blonde, a vastly oversized pink floral nightdress, a vastly oversized fleece cape with a sleeping-cat-head hoodie bit, and an enormous chocolate cake. Now, doesn’t that make you want to see the show?!!
After she has her moment in the spotlight, I will be asking the audience for words of kindness. In my opinion, what she needs is not tea-and-sympathy kindness, but some tough love, a little bit like these wonderful words of advice to wibbling narcissists everywhere. As one respondent to my teensy survey has said, when asked about kindness received in their life:
“Several good souls over the years have pointed out and guided me towards the truth of certain key situations in my life. Telling the truth hurts a little (like when you give blood and the staff say “Sharp Scratch!) but it’s best to hear it. Then you can make informed choices, take ownership of your life.”
The Trouble With Compassion will have its first outing as part of Crossing the Tees literature festival, with dates at Hartlepool Library, ARC Stockton, and Middlesbrough’s Rainbow Library.
This time last week, I was immersed in silence at the Friends Meeting House in Darlington, thinking about compassion. I’m sure that if I were a Christian I would have found my way to the silent worship of Quakerism by now, it appeals to something very deep in me, probably the same thing that has been sending me off to Buddhist retreats for the last eight years. I appreciate the way Quakers think profoundly about very big issues indeed – conflict, war, refugees, tolerance, peace. Their writings emphasise inclusion, welcome and bridges between faiths. I think this is an expression of compassion.
We had a very lovely time talking and eating the homemade carrot cake someone had kindly made. Everyone engaged with my fumbling questions with great integrity and thoughtfulness, but I’d like to share one anecdote here in particular, because it really illustrated for me the challenge and beauty of acting compassionately.
A man goes into his regular pub and finds to his dismay that there is printed material on the bar containing racist and anti-refugee jokes. He is boiling over with indignation and anger towards the two barmen, who he had previously thought of as friendly, welcoming people. He doesn’t know how to confront them, how to argue with them, how to defend the victims from this attack. He shows the ‘jokes’ to a friend who also drinks in the pub, and asks him how he would handle it. The other man goes up to the barmen and says “I have known you two for years. You are always the first to help people round here when they need it, I know you are kind. Why are you refusing help to these other people when they need it most?”
I don’t know the outcome of the story, and to a certain extent it doesn’t matter. Of course it would be wonderful if the barmen suddenly had epiphanies and stopped fearing immigrants, but I suppose it’s more likely they would have retorted with some ‘charity begins at home’ position. But for me, it’s an example of how to be in the world and actively engage with divisive issues on a personal level – without compromising on the aim of compassion for everyone.