Monday, May 28, 2012
A lesson in empathy
During the last three years I have cycled again and again along different regions of the Tibetan plateau and no matter how tough the conditions might have been, there is something about this massive piece of land elevated at 17.000ft that doesn't cease to captivate me and attracts me like a magnet from which I cannot detach myself.
The rigorousness of its geography coupled with the extreme harshness of its weather constantly pose physical, but mainly mental, challenges, where one has no other option than getting over them to keep moving forward. It is when one is facing these adverse conditions when our own limitations come up. These limitations force a necessary encounter with oneself, in which all psychological mettle is put to test, and the success of the journey will depend on how we deal with each of these tough situations that arise. Added to this, the infinite beauty of its landscapes, the mysticism of its colors, its lights and shadows, and the mystery created by the vast horizon are the series of daily events that stimulate the senses and charge the body with energy. However, it is the altruism and compassion of the Tibetan people that embraces the heart and becomes the daily teaching about life. Every encounter, every moment shared with them, are what give this place its added value and makes it magical. It is on the Tibetan plateau, where trip after trip, I personally feel an emotional intensity generated by a mixture of physical sensations and mental states, emotional and spiritual, what profoundly connects me to this place.
This is of course subjective, as when traveling (as in life itself), it is sometimes very difficult to explain why we feel more intrinsically connected to a group of people than to another. Although I could get very close to a rational explanation for this, I think there are factors that go beyond rationality. In my experience, Tibetans are the most compassionate people I have come across in this world, and the ones who have the greatest ability to selflessly open their heart to another person, even when that person might be a total stranger. This is simply because they can see themselves reflected in that other human being and they can recognize that within that person, there is someone that in essence is identical to what is inside them. This penetrates both consciously and unconsciously through the use of gestures, attitudes and empathy and it is in this very last word where to me lies the key to understand what differentiates them from the rest of the people, because it is in this bond generated by it what makes one feel their human touch.
Empathy, however, must have two sides, that of the one who generates it to later transmit it, and that of the one who is willing to receive it. That is why, sometimes the perception of one with respect to the people of the places one visits varies drastically according to who one is and the conditions one is in at a determined place and time. Still, Tibetans often have the enormous ability to bend the bad mood and bad energy that one brings with oneself and purify them to turn them into gentle feelings, such is the power that has the way they are. This empathy not only invites to transform one's energies but it is also contagious, it is planted in ourselves, thus it becomes reciprocal.
While Buddhism of the Vajrayana tradition, which primarily promotes the practice of altruism and compassion, and how thoroughly Tibetans practice it surely has a critical influence on how their characters were shaped over the centuries, I do not think that it is the decisive factor that differentiates them from the rest. Rather a combination of spiritual and geographical and historical factors is likely to be the main reason that makes them who they are. It is because of the result of this mixture that I can feel their magic, connect and feel truly blessed and benefited by it.
To the eyes of someone coming from our highly overrated, so-called advanced society, where it seems that a mere handful of technological advances are direct synonymous of progress and the only way to go in order to evolve, Tibetans might look primitive, almost prehistoric, because their customs and living conditions are simply basic. But it is in that simplicity, in that life devoid of superfluous objects, where values like love, hospitality and altruism not only prevail but continue to thrive. When there are no objects to which chain our lives and souls in perpetual dependency, priorities continue to be our contact and relationship with our fellow human beings and the preservation of them.
Their future, however, is uncertain. Cultural genocide still goes on. New generations are brought up under different conditions, and little by little, they absorb the habits and idiosyncrasies of a culture that it is alien to them. One that has been and still is being implanted by force. Their environment is transformed everyday and there is not even the slightest glow on the horizon that might indicate that the control of their destiny will ever be returned to them. Nevertheless, they keep facing adversity with stoicism and above all without losing that great compassionate spirit they carry within, the very one that allows them to preserve their ability to smile, to help, to be able to see in the others the same intrinsic qualities that they carry inside, thus owing themselves to the preservation of this bond.
That is the lesson of Tibet, its people and its landscapes. They get inside oneself and they grow and stay to transform us. Traveling along these rough roads makes me stronger physically and mentally, but above all, it makes me more humane. It brings back perspective. It helps me to bring the focus of attention back to the really important things in life, to appreciate the core values that connect us between humans. Those values that are far from the illusion of happiness promoted by our society based on consumerism till exhaustion to which one is dragged into every day to keep surviving, that which separates us, alienates us and ultimately makes us fight each other. With Tibetans, I learn that what it is needed to keep the heart joyful and alive is essentially very little, but most importantly, available to all of us without exception. We just have to want it and pursue it, make it the goal of our lives. It really does not take much.