Michael Ortiz Hill


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The Craft of Compassion
A Video Essay

Michael Ortiz Hill
(310) 455-0301

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"No self and no other" is how Glaser explains the mysterium, the (non) vision that is living compassion.  I will try to describe it though  the lived truth is outside of language. Glaser merely says,

"The self-other axis cannot be separated from the no-self – no-  other axis if our compassion is to achieve full expression. Both are equally true, but taken alone, each is false. Self and other, and no-  self and no-other, must be understood as co-existing and inter-  dependent realities if we hope to find the grail of compassion."  


    Just as self-compassion done for real slips into compassion for others, radical empathy can give way into the spaciousness and clarity of living compassion.  

     "To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things," says Dogen Zenji.  

     Across cultures living compassion reverberates from "not I but Christ in me," and the Muslim fatiya of forgetting oneself in Godís will. I and Thou  momentarily drops away and one is amidst the forever plural truth of living beings, loving them unconditionally.   

     Unconditional love is another way of expressing living compassion.  

     In this, one is enlightened by all things. You are no longer self-  consciously kind towards another – you step forth as compassion   un-self-consciously. You are fully identified with the process of compassionate activity.   

     You know when you have entered into living compassion when the profound gift nature of the loving act reveals itself.  You are not compassion if you are expecting anything in return.   

     Living compassion  is the essential nature of human freedom.  

     And living compassion is itself pure gift.  Zadie Smith describes it precisely: "The moment when the ego disappears and youíre able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither."            

      Compassion as a presence – as presence – is most relevant here. The person  who meets this or that situation compassionately is vehicle for this quality that the bottom line of which is not personal. The spiritual practice of living compassion requires that the self step aside. It is radically and blessedly simple, and its experience extraordinarily ordinary. Compassion is the environment that one is in.  One is alert to its presence, available to being its vehicle but one doesnít for a moment  possess compassion.  


The imp in me writes in the margins: "Bodhisattvas are numberless I vow to recognize them."  


    When I met Lewis I was not well. Iíd just returned from Africa and my body and soul were in the African time of my friends – which is to say a slowness not at all compatible with what is required to endure a twelve-hour shift as a hospital nurse. I took to the poison of course – half a dozen cups of coffee – thinking it would help me meet the tasks at hand.  


      No go. 


      I was in a dream, agitated, the other staff members spinning around me like so many drunken dervishes. And so when I was told at 3 a.m. that I had an admit,  I was less than enthused.

Nonetheless, when I came to the door of his room I took a deep   breath and sighed a hopeless, exhausted prayer, "Make use of me."  


    Lewis was fifty-five years old with Downs syndrome. His head was a lopsided melon bulging in front, his hands and feet curled up and a wheelchair at his bedside because he couldnít walk.  

His elderly mother had brought him to the hospital because he had a nasty infected abscess in his left foot.  

     Admitting Lewis, I got a little of his story – very little, very sparse. His father had died recently and it was not altogether clear how long his mother would live. And then? An institution, I suppose, but it wasnít the content of his story that touched me so much as his inscrutable manner. The lack of self-pity or melodrama could certainly be read as a "cognitive deficit" but the indefinable nature of our interaction left me stranded between  interpretations.   

      An imbecile? A holy one? Neither or both? I simply could not read him.  

     "You are a remarkable man," I told him later as I cleaned his

wound, laid strips of wet saline gauze across it, and wrapped it in Kerlix dressing.  

     "Thank you," he replied.  

     Did he understand what I meant? I left his room feeling put back together again, grateful and humbled by a humble soul.  

     Where was the spirit of kindness with Lewis? In him? In me?       

Or hovering between us in the neon glare as he told of his fatherís death while I tended his wound? It was my meeting with Lewis that convinced me that the spirit of kindness is indeed a spirit, for I  could not locate it but was nonetheless healed by it. The closest I can get is to say that the meeting itself healed me of my fragmentation. Lewisís story carries light, gentle, and  lucid, and through the simplicity of two men meeting across worlds I learned that compassionate activity itself is medicine. I was incoherent before we met, and was rendered whole. I could not find the thread until we received one another.  


     Lewis drew something out of me that was new and unanticipated, and Iíve tried to fold the lessons into the day-to-day life of living compassion inside and outside the hospital.  

     To approach another person, each interaction with quietly stated intent, hopeful, hopeless but reaching towards being available to kindness. Yes – to keep the faith with the intent.  

     And then we meet – I to Thou.   

     In this life the spirit of kindness "bloweth where it listeth." One can be responsive to  its presence but cannot control it. One can only be hospitable to it, alert to its movement in oneself and others in whatever situation.  

     And one can be attentive to the crazy discipline of being available as its vehicle. This is a fierce and glorious path. Fortunately, there are many teachers and, as they say, "a  teacher touches infinity." It is for us to recognize them, discern their teachings, and live by what we learn.  


      With Lewis the self-other axis was illuminated up by a third – the spirit of kindness – and with that there was an aware self-  forgetting. The thought of me being compassionate toward him would be simply false. He and I met in the environment of compassion, radiant and fresh.  


     My time with Lewis adds a twist of paradox to Shakespeare:  


     The quality of mercy is not strained.   

     It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven  

     Upon the place beneath, it is twice blessíd  

     It blesses him that gives and him that takes  


     Lewis and I were thrice blessed because the spirit of kindness allowed us for a few moments to extend and receive mercy from each other.  

     Self and other are not abolished by living compassion. They are contained within selflessness but they also lend body and ground to selflessness. They are necessary to one another, interdependent truths.   


     The sacred nature of plurality is honored  but in the meeting of two, the Hasidic Jews say, an angel is born.    


 The mysterium of living compassion is in this light of presense which I tried to express with the story of Lewis.

In this light love is made visible. 

With the craft of compassion, for we forever return to loving this peculiar self made in Gods image and love him or her unconditionally.  True love does not divide self from other and the mandate of living love sees no one unworthy of love.

Living compassion is loving the self and the other selflessly.

The opportunity to love is always now, the place this very place.

From now and from exactly where you are – withhold nothing.

Follow the contours of this arc (of your heart) --  loving yourself and daring to love all you meet, dare even to live compassion --then the craft of generosity will become the vibrant truth that you live for.

T.S. Eliot writes: 

We shall never cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time


And what possible video to complete this video essay?

No image of the Imageless God, no name of the Nameless One, can possibly complete what is without end.

I leave instead this post script for those who know this familiar place "for the first time."  

No man or woman is an island.  Islands themselves donít float hither and thither on the ocean disconnected from the submerged landscape at the bottom of the sea.

Self-compassion likewise relies on the submerged ground of our common humanity and this submerged ground is what links self-kindness with kindness for all we meet.

Copyright © Michael Ortiz Hill.  All rights reserved.