Sunday, March 21, 2010

From competition to compassion

I was probably 10 when I first competed on horseback. Kiowa, my Appaloosa mare, dutifully carried me around in circles as the judge looked over her clipboard. My first ribbon was pink, the second was blue and it came with a silver bowl in a box. I posed for pictures, I drank in the congratulations, and I remember clearly the feeling of a smile on my face that wouldn't come off for hours.

I had taken a place in the time-honored stage of human development that pre-dates the first Olympics. Competition. Humans and animals alike have always competed. In the animal world, competition between individuals and/or family groups determines who gets the food, the mate, the territory, the shelter. Humans, with their innate drive to create beyond our immediate needs, have continued to develop the forms of competition from there. In our current society, some form of competition typically determines who gets the job, the accolades, the respect, and the ultimate form of security in this day and age, money.

Competition historically has been an integral part of human development. Anything that we make into a competition, children seem to be naturally attracted to. When teaching kids about horses, it became obvious that competitive games could grab and hold the attention of almost any child. We could make games of learning horse colors, breeds, markings, identifying parasites, and learning anatomy. When I was playing with the neighbor kids a couple of days ago, in order to get their minds off complaining about the walk we were on, I suggested we make a game of counting who sees the most animals on our journey. Again, competition. The game served its purpose. We looked out and saw many more animals than if we hadn't been competing, and in the end, the kids had a memorable adventure.

Over the years, the line of ribbons hanging in my room lengthened as I continued to chase that competition high and the sense of accomplishment, approval and security that it brought. I mounted fancier horses and spent longer hours studying and training. I learned from human experts, each with their own line of ribbons. What a seductive call it was, to chase the ribbons and surround myself with the community of other ribbon-chasers. I taught kids how to win ribbons and readied countless horses to take their places underneath the humans.

The cost of competition

As adults we seem reticent to relinquish our interest in competition. Ours is a society where individuals compete for jobs, recognition, money and mates. On a broader scale, throughout human history, kings have sent subjects to compete for land and resources. Religious leaders send followers to compete to win back holy sites and homelands. Dictators, and despots, presidents, and prime ministers send armies to win their wars, to fight for the human rights their society believes in, and to protect the foreign governments that they have allied themselves with.

Aren't we justified if today we are fighting the Taliban, taking a stand against the veiling and subjugating of women, fighting against terrorism? Shouldn't we also be fighting against equestrian competition, taking a stand against the bridling and punishment of horses? Is fighting what the women need? Will it help the horses? Are the deaths of American, UK, Canadian soldiers, our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons worth this? What about the death of racehorses and other competition horses who have been worn out by overuse, like a professional gymnast or dancer forced by societal pressures to continue performing beyond the limits of what their bodies can endure? Is this the price they are expected to pay for being born a racehorse or for having Olympic dreams?

If we win, what is it that we will have gained? A ribbon? A signed piece of paper? Some numbers added to our checking account balance? Have we changed the heart of any human being, or have we driven something further into hiding, from which it will re-emerge later as it makes its next bid to be heard and understood in the only way it knows how, fighting and competition?

If we are the ones who believe that we have the higher consciousness in these matters, then isn't it even more of our responsibility to be the ones to become the examples of how to operate in the world we are creating? Are there any Gandhi's today? Is there anybody loved and respected by Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists? Who is respected by Sunnis and Shiites, Parelliites, and Nevzorovites? Who is respected by both professional trainers and the horses themselves?

Who decides when will it be time to end competition? Who determines when is it time to look at others and ask how we can help? What do we have that we can give to help another?

The condition of compassion

When Hindus and Muslims were fighting amongst each other, after being freed from British rule, Gandhi chose not to listen to his friends debating the best course of political action. He stood up and went to the heart of the rioting in Calcutta where he, a Hindu, stayed at the house of a Muslim friend. He listened to a voice within and chose fasting for himself and advocated non-violence for all who would listen. Through his self-imposed penance, he brought peace to the land.

Near the end of his fast, a Hindu man came to him saying that he was going to hell because he had killed a child in retribution for Muslims killing his own child. Gandhi told him that he knew a way out of hell. He said to find a child whose parents had been killed and raise him as his own. And he added that he must be sure that the child was a Muslim and that he raised him as a Muslim.

Maybe we are incapable of understanding why someone believes that a woman should be covered from head to toe with a burka and should not continue her education past age 10. Maybe we think that we would never condone keeping a healthy two year old Thoroughbred in a 12' by 12' stall, taking her out only under the subduing forces of bits, chains, whips and spurs. Maybe we are so disillusioned that we see ourselves as separate from and superior to anyone who believes that this is the best way to live our lives and take responsibility for the lives of those around us.

We can hold on to these illusions or we can look to see if indeed the same seed lies within us, waiting for the right conditions to allow its germination. What if we had been born in Pakistan to a loving mother and dedicated father who had been told that the best way to raise their child and be part of their community was to follow their religious laws? How would we know that there are other alternatives? How is that different from a new mother being told that the best way to treat her newborn baby is to circumcise him and vaccinate him and leave him in a sterile plastic crib to be viewed through a glass window? Isn't that the way most of us were brought into this world?

We cannot feel so righteous when we see that the seeds within each human being are the same. What germinates depends on many factors including the society, class, religion and family that we are born into.

Competition will always be a part of the animal world, and it has its place in human development, but if we are going to survive and evolve, the seeds of competition must be left untended and we must direct nourishment to the seeds of compassion.

By the circumstances of the family I was born into, the time and place and society that I am part of, the gifts of a healthy body and mind that I have been given, and the outrageous good fortune of knowing a living human being who has traveled the road to true freedom, I consider myself one of the wealthiest people on the planet. This kind of wealth has nothing to do with the size of a bank account; it is the ability to see that we have enough, and to give what we do have to help the lives of others. By being able to individually touch and influence another's life we can move from competition to compassion. By holding the hand of a child, of a suffering adult, by giving our neighbors a hot meal, or traveling across the world to help build a school for poor Muslim children, we are watering the seeds of compassion within ourselves and those we can touch. These are the actions that can change hearts.

In Thailand on the border helping to build a school for migrant Burmese Muslim children

I can still see the seeds of competition within myself, in the small moments in my life. I am not different from the president who sends his troops to combat. He wants to win to help assure the security of his people and his homeland. The Taliban wants to win to gain the security of their people, their religion, their homes and their beliefs. In my own ways I want to win to assure the security of my way of life, to enlarge my monetary resources, to be able to improve the lives of my horses and my human friends.

If I cannot see the other in myself, I have succumbed to the illusion that we are separate. It takes a brave soul to look within and see the seeds of competition still germinating. It takes an even braver soul to admit it in a moment. It takes a great soul, a mahatma, to inspire others to walk the path from competition to compassion. All of the seeds are within each of us. The ones we care for are those that will grow.

At the end of his life, Gandhi headed to Pakistan, the land of the Muslims. He said, "I am simply going to prove to Hindus here and Muslims there that the only devils in the world are those running around in our own hearts. And that is where all our battles ought to be fought."

He was asked, "And what kind of warrior have you been in that warfare?"

"Oh, not a very good one," he replied, "that is why I have so much tolerance for the other scoundrels of the world."

The biggest smiles on the faces around me now come not from competition but from compassion.

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