For those of you who live in Pittsburgh and use public buses regularly for transportation, you know that the last week has been a nightmare. At all times of day and night the buses are crowded and most service that we had come to depend on every 15-20 minutes is now only coming once every hour. Many bus drivers are frustrated and exhausted and riders are squished and even riders that have no business standing and hanging on for dear life are being asked to do so. With the reduction in service, many buses are too crowded to stop and pick up new passengers along the route. As I looked out the window when we passed stops by there were literally ten to twenty people waiting at these stops who would now have to wait 30-minutes to an hour for the next bus with absolutely no guarantee that one might come that would actually be able to stop and pick them up.
I am currently 30+ weeks pregnant and was riding the bus with my four year old son last weekend since I had promised him a trip to the library. It was the middle of the day on a Sunday and we got onto a very crowded bus. One person in the front got up to give us their seat and I had my preschool age son sit down and I stood in front of him. The way the seat hit him in the back of the legs caused his legs to “fall asleep” during the ride and when we got up to push our way out of the bus his little legs buckled under him and by the time we made it off the bus he was complaining that his knee hurt. We had to go into a drug store for something and, by that point, my son was loudly insistent that his knee hurt VERY MUCH. Upon inspection it was clear to me that it was related to the seat on the bus and would be relieved in a few minutes since the cause of the problem had been removed.
About 5-minutes later, a man wearing exceptionally filthy clothing and pushing around a small cart of equally filthy belongings came up to me in the drug store. In one of his hands, he held out a damaged children’s toy that had, in its day of new glory, probably been a plastic jeep car of some kind, but was now a three-wheeled go cart without doors or a roof—-just the base and three-wheels remained. The man said to me, “Your little boy’s knee is hurt? Would this help him feel better?” I was so shocked that all I could come up with was, “Oh, no, we couldn’t take your car! Thank you so much, but his knee will feel better in just a minute.” But after we left the store, all I could think about was the incredible human capacity for compassion and generosity that is possible regardless of our perceived or actual economic resources.
Here I was, completely self-absorbed in my clean clothes with my floral Vera Bradley purse working through my frustration at having had to wait for a bus and be so inconvenienced by the uncomfortable ride while I searched the shelf for allergy medicine that I could afford to buy for my child and this man, who appeared to have nothing—certainly, he had less resources than I did at that moment—offered both his compassion for my son’s pain and an extension of a gift of all he had. My response was to refuse the physical gift, but the extension of compassion and this generous offer are gifts that will remain with me for a very long time.
So many of us think that we don’t have anything to offer, when, at any given moment, we are given infinite opportunities to extend compassion and generosity to the people around us. While making donations to organizations and individuals who are doing important work in our community and around the world have their place, if we do not have the financial resources to make these kind of donations, there are still opportunities to give and to improve the lives of other people. A kind word, an offer of help, giving your seat on a crowded bus, or an extension of the resources that you do have without any selfish intent—–these are gifts that we can all give to one another.
Research shows that meditation that includes the extension of compassionate thoughts and wishes, even to complete strangers and on a large scale such as an intention for the happiness of “all living beings” has a profound impact on the shape of our brains and, ultimately, our own health. This is not to suggest that we should be compassionate only to reduce our own emotional and inflammatory response to stress, but there truly are benefits to all living beings, including ourselves, when we make this a part of our practice. Instead of thinking that we have very little to offer, we can delight in the fact that being alive gives us myriad opportunities to explore the gift of compassion regardless of our economic status, career choice or lifestyle. Even better news is that every breath we take is a new opportunity, a refresh button of sorts, and a chance to take this moment to improve the experience of all living beings.
Post by Sharon Fennimore Rudyk, an independent yoga and meditation instructor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Find out more about comprehensive meditation and stress reduction programs on Sharon’s website.