There was an teacher of Zen who when asked where enlightenment could be found would point with his finger into the air. A student saw his teacher's behaviour and began to imitate him. This went on for many months. Each time the student was asked where enlightenment could be found he would point his finger into the air in imitation of his teacher.
The teacher came into town one day and saw this. He went up to his student and asked him where enlightenment could be found. The student pointed his finger into the air. The teacher responded by pulling out his sword and chopping the student's finger off in one clean cut.
It was immediately apparent the student had a great attachment to his finger. But the goal of Zen is to loosen yourself from attachments, to possessions, to fixed ideas, even to your own body. If it is a choice between enlightenment and the loss of a finger or any body part for that matter, then enlightenment is more important than attachment.
Most of us want to hear only feel good messages which encourage self-importance and allow us to ignore the imperative to abandon selfishness and share with others, even when it means personal sacrifice. This is not where I have a problem, since selfishness has roots in the attachment to possessions.
Where I get in trouble is when I can't understand why others don't care (we're talking politics here, not individuals) about sick children or hungry elders, how they can despise people who have to sleep in cardboard boxes or on park benches and eat at soup kitchens. There are many who believe in the political philosophy that only the privileged deserve a full stomach and a life of dignity.
This attitude terrifies me, because I identify with (and can't disengage from) the vulnerability poor people live in. And also because though we've worked to our full capacities and beyond, the life-threatening health issues we were born with have meant that at times not only the table but the cupboards were bare, there was no money for desperately needed medication, and the four of us lived in a 12 x 16 shack without plumbing, electricity or running water. I have walked that mile, and my compassion is hard-won but all the more sharp for the experience.
This is compassion, the ability not just to recognize but to actually feel the suffering of others. When you feel others' suffering it drives you to do something to relieve it. Where I fail, and I think where everyone fails, even those without compassion, is that we become attached to outcome. Compassion is easily neutralized by attachment, fear, resentment or shame.
What if I give that teenager begging at the door of the grocery store $5.00 and he spends it on drugs? What if the food stamps are traded for an i-tunes card or spent on candy bars? What if feeding old people makes my taxes go up? What if that person who doesn't work as hard as I do gets a health care subsidy? What if the person I buy the box of food for yells "Fuc* off! I don't need your charity!" and slams the door in my face?
Certainly compassion can be taken advantage of, you can be made to look a fool. It shakes your trust. It's what happens when you become attached to outcome. But even when a gesture of compassion fails to produce the results we'd hoped for, just feeling compassion is good for you. Studies have shown that feeling compassion activates the immune system, stabilizes the connections between the neurons in our brains, and compassionate people are more emotionally resilient and stable.
So we come around to the pointing finger once again. Stuck up there, pointing at nothing in particular, it reminds us that we are all attached - to each other. We will all eventually lose everything we have, so there's little point in fighting over it, and practicing true compassion is not for the faint of heart, especially when you are on Facebook.