On Court Street in Brooklyn, underneath the scaffolding of my psychotherapy office, a homeless man waits most days under the awning with a bruised paper coffee cup, asking for money. Everyone ignores him, myself included. It is easy to see why. The rancid odor of urine emanates everywhere. His lined face scowls as he shakes his cup. He says nothing but stares at all who pass.
I have consciously avoided him, making little eye contact with him, and with good reason: I am an Asian American living in New York City where hate crimes are spiking. Many of the attacks have been carried out by either homeless or mentally ill people. When the hate crimes began to rise, I became increasingly anxious, so I began taking precautions. For the first time ever, I considered carrying pepper spray. I started to cross the sidewalk whenever I saw a homeless person who seemed dangerous. I found safety in wearing a mask and sunglasses–the anonymity was my armor. No one could see me, so no one would want to hurt me.
But living with this protective, anxious armor began to take a toll. Fight or flight became my only way of viewing the world, perceiving experience as threatening and unwelcoming.
Last month at lunchtime, I ran into the homeless man in front of my office again. Something about him called to me. Perhaps it was guilt or shame for turning away from suffering. Perhaps it was because I see him often, and his face is stuck in my memory. Perhaps, like the Buddha on his first trip outside of his palace, the man’s mien reminded me of what awaits us all: old age, sickness, and death.
This man’s fragility was a reminder of my Buddhist practice, particularly the notion of bodhicitta. I’ve heard bodhicitta translated many ways, including as “awakened mind,” but I’ve always liked the translation, “open heart.” For me, this means being in touch with the most tender, scared, and vulnerable part of ourselves—the part that feels like an open wound, the part that wants to love and be loved without judgment. I realized then that my heart had hardened because of fear—that I had shut out the suffering of the world, including that of this man, and that by shutting out suffering, I had shut out my open heart.
This is not to say that I need to stop in front of every homeless person, give them money and food, and speak to them for 30 minutes about their mental and physical health, directing them to resources they might need. It does mean, however, that I shouldn’t shut down from others who are suffering, especially the homeless and mentally ill. It means an opportunity to open my heart further in the face of my fear. It means a chance to challenge the illusion of “myself” and “others,” to remember the interconnectedness of all sentient beings. For me, it means practicing one of my favorite meditations: tonglen. When I see suffering, when I see the homeless man outside my office, I breathe in all his suffering, including all the karmic bonds that have brought him to this place. Then, I breathe out with a bodhicitta mind, breathing out feelings of compassion and love toward him. With this practice, I connect to this soft, achy part of myself—my vulnerable, open heart.
Bodhicitta informs my psychotherapy practice, too, and has been particularly helpful for something all therapists suffer from on occasion: compassion fatigue, when daily confrontation with trauma and suffering makes empathy harder to feel.
Over the last 16 months, I’ve been all too familiar with compassion fatigue. It happened so quietly that at first, I didn’t even notice it. The stress of illness, death, politics, my work, and my personal life had completely overwhelmed me. As the pandemic continued, Asian hate crimes started to increase, and I followed this news with heightened awareness, but also rage. As more and more Asian people were attacked, I imagined my elderly mother being attacked and felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness. How was I supposed to help my patients when I could barely keep it together myself? When I felt constant anxiety not only for myself but for all my family members?
Because of the state of the world, however, there was no time to rest. Almost everyone was suffering, including most of my patients, and I felt a duty to be there for them, despite my own mental state.
But because of my compassion fatigue, I sank into old, mindless habits, and even stopped meditating. Then, one day, a patient asked if I was all right during a Zoom session. “What do you mean?” I asked defensively. They said they could tell I had a lot on my mind. First, a wave of shame came over me. I was a fraud and finally had been found out, I thought. Then, I almost burst into tears in the middle of the session. It was a wake-up call. I had not been present to what was going inside of me.
So I began to meditate again and instead of trying to hold it all together, I let myself fall apart.
Tonglen practice became particularly instrumental for my recovery. Every morning I would breathe in the suffering of all sentient beings and breathe out compassion in return. I began to practice tonglen during my video sessions too. When I felt disconnected or closed off from my work, I returned to tonglen, breathing in the pain of my patients and breathing out compassion toward them. Because of COVID, I had retreated into survival mode and had closed myself off from the rawness of my open heart. But as I let myself fall apart, my practice became connected to bodhicitta once more. Once I let in all the raw vulnerability, I felt lighter. I was in pain, but it was fine. I didn’t have to hold it together. Bodhicitta had freed me from having to pretend to be OK.
This newfound mindset has softened my relationship with my patients. During sessions, I do my best to exude a therapeutic presence that represents bodhicitta—mainly an open, vulnerable heart that is connected to all my patients’ pain. This approach, I hope, helps my clients feel heard, loved, and accepted.
As I’ve worked with more and more patients over the years, I’ve realized how fragile people really are. Even the most confident and successful of my patients are just one or two missteps from losing themselves into despair, anxiety, or depression. Yet many lack awareness and are terrified of opening up to any hint of this fragility. So with a spirit of bodhicitta, I give my patients permission to fall apart.
One of my jobs as a therapist is to help my patients realize that their depression, anxiety, and trauma are nothing to be ashamed of, but are rational reactions to the pains of the last year and a half, and also to existence itself. It is fine to be raw and vulnerable, and that when they are connected to that part of themselves, they are connected to the best, most compassionate part. When they can connect to the spirit of bodhicitta, remarkable transformations can happen.
So, in the spirit of bodhicitta, the same spirit I hope to bring to therapy, I walk through my city trying to be just a bit braver, trying to be just a little more open to the suffering around me. I don’t have any good answers about what to do about Asian hate crimes. I am not a politician or a community leader. I can’t pass laws or train people in self-defense to protect themselves. As I type, I think about a video I watched earlier of an Asian woman being sucker-punched in Chinatown, and I feel rage at first and then fear for the safety of Asian people, especially the elderly, like my mom. I know those feelings are all rational and normal. I can accept those feelings with an open heart.
But as a way to live, so I can be a better therapist, husband, and friend, I practice tonglen once again this morning, breathing in all my rage and fear, and breathing out compassion to the Asian woman who was hurt, but also to the perpetrator, wishing them both freedom from their suffering. And when I see the homeless man outside of my office later today, the one I’ve avoided eye contact with, I will do the same, looking him in the eye and wishing him all the compassion I can muster.