Sunday, October 12, 2008

Paying attention

Recently a colleague asked me how, after more than 20 years of daily interaction with people with injuries or illnesses, I manage to avoid becoming hardened to the suffering I witness.

I believe this to be a cornerstone question for any work related to the suffering of others.

I understand how people become jaded to suffering. After working in this area for awhile, it's hard to keep the sad stories from running together. Instead of focusing on the unique details, it's just another case of low back pain with disc herniation at L4-5.

I think we become jaded toward suffering, not primarily because of monotony but to protect ourselves. In order to make sense of people's stories, you must possess empathy; it's necessary to the process of understanding. Exercising empathy takes a lot of energy. Mostly,it requires close attention to what the other person is saying.

But such attention necessarily opens a window into the other person's messy life. These details overlap the problem we are committed to solving. She cannot understand that we don't need to hear for the ten thousandth time that she is behind on her car payment, or that money problems are wrecking their marriage. We are impatient with his lack of concern for what we are trying to do for him. He doesn't say “Thank you” when we get him necessary medical care. We put ourselves out for them, listen to them rant, but they don't reciprocate. It's downright tiring. Worse, sometimes they are miserable, unhappy people who hurt so much they don't care how nasty they are to others.

As a judge I've become even more aware of the amount of energy it takes to adequately pay attention to people's problems. I spend hours reading hundreds of pages of medical reports, then an hour asking questions of each claimant about the details of their disability. At the end of the day I'm tired and emotionally worn out.

Over the years I have adopted some strategies for maintaining compassion and a healthy distance at once.

First, I remind myself daily that my role in other people's lives is quite limited. In this regard I try to implement some basic Buddhist concepts regarding humility. Every day for the past year I've read the “Eight Verses on Mind Training” in the morning before leaving for work. This practice helps me remember to keep my ego in check. [I've attached a copy of the verses for those of you unfamiliar with them.]

But I'm not a Buddhist. I don't subscribe to the most basic Buddhist beliefs. I know that the world and other sentient beings exist totally separate from my consciousness. The key insight for me is that I need each and every one of these others to bring me joy. I receive this joy at the moment of each conscious genuine interaction. When someone does something that takes me by surprise, even something distasteful, I feel this joy. The more I pay attention to the details, the more things take me by surprise. Paying close attention becomes its own reward, its own source of energy. In order to pay attention, I need to clear the noise of modern existence out of my mind. I do this by taking a little time to meditate and get focused before taking on my daily routine. I know if I fail to pay attention to the stories and lessons out there, my life will be governed by petty routine and become impoverished.

To the extent I can control my ego and open myself to what is outside of my limited consciousness, I can tap into the energy of existence. It's in nature and it's in other people. People with illnesses or disabilities carry this energy too. Partaking of their energy in this way does not reduce them; on the contrary, it affirms them.

Most days that's what keeps me going.

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