Duck presence

The difference between pity and compassion is presence. This fact is being impressed upon me by the teachers around me at my family’s mountain cabin this spring. Shortly after I arrived, I found myself holding a wild duck in my hands. When I had walked past my neighbor’s pond on my way to a spot that might get cell service, a male duck had taken off, quacking loudly, but the female was somehow tethered to the shore, beating her wings frantically, but uselessly, trying to follow her mate. Thinking that she was tangled in a bit of fishing line, I moved to free her, increasing her agitation as she doubled her efforts to flap away. When I knelt down near her I found a chain anchored to the shore; pulling it up revealed that it was the duck’s own leg keeping her from flying, caught and mangled as it was in a steel leghold trap, holding her by what seemed to me the flimsiest of tissue and skin. The trap was not likely meant for her but was effective nonetheless.

Her frantic flapping exacerbated my own horror at the sight (or perhaps the other way around) as I unsuccessfully tried to pry open the trap. As the duck’s determination began to wane, she sank into the pond as if surrendering to her fate. I gently wrapped my hands around her wings and body, lifting her up and out of the water and placing her on the shore. Her heart was beating as fast as a hummingbird’s wings; mine was pounding in my ears. I held her quietly for a long moment, closing my eyes, feeling into my breath and feeling her. As we both quieted and established what felt like connection, I asked her to stay still and trust me for a few moments. As I released my grip, she lay quietly, watching me through her upturned left eye. I figured out the mechanism to open the trap jaws and gently removed her leg, the lower portion of which was dangling. She didn’t move until I placed her back into the pond at which point she immediately flapped her wings and skidded to the center of the water, calling to her mate. She was gone the next day.

After finding and springing another identical contraption, I continued my walk up to the road, shaking from the adrenaline. As soon as I found a place to sit, I burst into tears at the shock of the situation. As I let the tears flow I thought through the incident and noted that the duck had required my full and complete presence before she would allow me to help her. There was a state in between giving herself to her fate and continuing her efforts to escape in which she was completely alert and calm. She came to that place only when I also came to that place, when I was no longer pushing away the cruel reality with my horror, nor giving up in frustration, nor hardening my heart against her plight and walking away.

I am reminded of a set of Eastern teachings called the brahmaviharas, translated variously as the divine qualities or the divine abodes, or similar. The brahmaviharas are four qualities that are both practices and by-products of spiritual development. In other words, they can be cultivated according to both yogic and Buddhist practice, yet they are also innate attitudes or qualities that are expressed naturally as part of spiritual maturity. True compassion, as opposed to pity, is the one of these divine qualities that the duck insisted upon before receiving my help.

In the teachings around the divine qualities, including compassion, each quality is presented along with its “near enemy” and “far enemy”. The far enemy of a divine qualities is simply its opposite, such as hatred as the far enemy of lovingkindness. The near enemy, however, is the subtly distancing quality that can often masquerade as the real thing. In the case of lovingkindness, the near enemy is attachment, that kind of grasping love that is more to satisfy a craving of the one loving rather than a freely given and unconditional love.

Compassion in its purest sense is “suffering with”. True compassion is respectful in that there is absolutely no sense of being different or better than the being who is suffering. The insidious near enemy of compassion is pity. What makes pity an “enemy” is that it masks a subtle, or not so subtle, sense of resistance to the pain of the other person (or duck,) an unconscious pushing away of the suffering of the other. In other words, pity is very much opposed to suffering “with”. There is also an equally subtle relationship hierarchy with pity: “you poor thing”, who is suffering, are somehow lesser than me, who is not.

When I reacted with horror to the sight of the duck’s leg in the trap, I was creating distance between us: she was the poor, vulnerable, mangled creature. I was the whole, free human being on the shore transmitting shock and fear. It must have felt like an assault to such a sensitive creature. But when I knelt down and held her, slowing my breathing, accepting the situation as it was, really being with her, feeling her heart and letting her feel me, the whole situation changed. She went from intense effort to escape (and subsequent giving up to die) to lying quietly in the grass, stretched out on her side and watching me. My full presence, as her companion and equal allowed her to stop struggling.

The far enemy of compassion is ill will or cruelty, to the point of increasing someone’s suffering. I have a hard time imagining this with a wild duck, but when I lived in the city it was very common to see this far enemy played out towards people living on the streets. Epithets, beatings, or simple disgust seem to be all-too-common reactions to a homeless person. But there are certainly many who react with pity, often in the form of coins dropped in a can but without acknowledgement of eye contact of conversation. Both attitudes, that of epithets or solicitous gratuity, are founded on a subtle sense of hierarchy, that one being is better off (or better) than another.  I am making it clear that I am not you, that I could never be you, that you got to this place by your own wrong-headedness (in the case of ill will) or by some form of fate (in the case of pity) that could never happen to me. I am not “with” you, could never be in your place. There is no compassion as long as I believe I could not be where you are, whether you are a wild creature with a caught and mangled leg or a bag lady who talks to herself. It is only when I deeply acknowledge and accept that I am not different than you, that it could just as easily be me that is injured or homeless should the world turn just a bit differently that I can experience pure compassion.

There are far less dramatic examples of this particular quality at work or not in daily life. Offering unbidden advice or trying to “fix” someone who is sad or angry or whatever I don’t want to be is one of the most common. Although advice and help may become appropriate, they will only count, not to mention be effective, when they come from the same side of the table, rather than on high. When you are with me as I grieve or rage or hurt, simply by my side, I know you are in a position to offer something sound and true.

Wild things are far better teachers than most humans about this essential component of presence in compassion. Unlike me, they don’t suffer from self-pity, and they command the respect that is missing from pity. Whether it is a duck in a steel trap or a raccoon staggering around with distemper, my animal neighbors will accept compassion but ignore, or worse, any trace of disrespectful pity.

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