A simple act can change a person, one word can turn your life inside out. David’s word is compassion and he has dedicated his life to understanding, embodying, and raising awareness about it. He stands on the corner of 3rd and C Streets in Davis, CA asking people for their definition of compassion. This is his story…
Vlad: In the introduction to your book, you mentioned the motivation for this work, which I think you call “duty” being self-inquiry. Can you describe this journey and where it has lead you?
I was in a state of discovering who I was at the time, this was probably at the beginning of 2008, I had separated from the person I was going out with and moved into a place of my own. I decided to spend as much time as need in order to delve into who I believed myself to be. I went to a well known college so I had always exercised my mind, and I had always stayed in shape, ran marathons, biked so I had always exercised my body.
One day the question came up “how do I exercise my spirit?” I decided to start a quest to understand what that means. I came across a TED video, by Karen Armstrong about compassion. I got a pen and a pad and started writing down what compassion is, but I was dissatisfied with my definition. So I went around the community of Lake Merritt in Oakland to try to come up with a collective definition, and in doing so I found a tremendous purpose and fulfillment.
At the same time, I came across a John Francis talk about being an activist and taking action now. In early 2009 I came across the teachings of Peace Pilgrim, and I decided to relinquish a lot of the material goods that I had and the negative thought patterns that I was thinking.
I spent about three weeks in my studio. I laid on my back and with the exception of eating, food shopping and using the restroom and said, “I will stay here until I know what it is that this mind and body will do.” The questions that I was asking were always answered by “take a pen and note pad and ask people about compassion.”
I went through a series of very practical and impractical questions, “Where will this lead me? How can I earn a living doing this? Will I keep in shape?” The answer from that deep place, that small voice was always “take the notepad and ask people about compassion.” After those three weeks I trusted the voice I put all faith into that voice.
The transition was gradual, from leaving the conventional world of looking for work and wasting the day away doing irrelevant superfluous activities to living a life towards a duty with purpose. I moved to Davis in May 2009. And on June 3, 2009 went full force asking people about compassion.
I call that day my unofficial birthday, so I’m four and a half years old. I’ve come to know the true meaning of gratitude and grace. Living with simplicity. With a positive and righteous intent. That brings a tremendous amount of support from the universe and I’ve witnessed that and it continues to grow. It has grown into something I could not have foreseen.
On June 2 I was on the edge of a cliff, and I jumped off on June 3. It was a leap of faith that I took. Instead of falling I was caught.
The moment I leave the house, I am talking with people. I am known in Davis, so people will wave, people will stop and talk. On average I’d say 20-25 people each day. At the corner where I stand, on average, I will have a rich conversation with 5-10 people. There is a phenomenon that happens – I’ve become a street therapist. People will come up, they know what is happening at the corner and so they seek some type of spiritual advice, relationship advice, career advice.
Over the years I’ve asked close to 20,000 people and I’ve received close to 10,000 responses.
Vlad: Standing out on the street day after day, do you ever get discouraged? Where do you find the courage and strength?
Yes, there are times when I am tired. Physically sleepy or tired. I rest. The place that I go to is within my heart. Whenever I feel anything less than, I always go to the goodness of it all. Whenever that happens, there is always reassurance or an event that pops up exactly when it is needed to let me know that what I am doing is a good thing. At the foundation, I quiet all that brain chatter and simply go back to my intent – bringing an awareness to compassion by asking people to write their concept of it in a notebook. I always go back to that one statement.
It is all of the above. Primarily because of the place I was able to reach four years ago. And I remain in that awareness of that experience. There is a woman that made one of the bricks for a Peace on Earthbench that is at the corner where I stand. She had a brother who passed away. She put a letter to him and stuffed it into one of the bottle bricks for the Earthbench. That was at the end of May. A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone and I noticed there was this woman carrying a bouquet of roses. She had come back to pay homage to her brother, leaving roses at the bench just as one would leave it at a headstone.
It is that connection, relation to oneself, and with other people that has helped create the energy that is present at the corner. People know that, and they come forward with various purposes to incorporate that into who they are and how they wish to feel at certain times during the day.
It has taken on the name “the corner”. There is a documentary in the making about it called “The Corner”.
Vlad: What is the most memorable act of compassion you have received, and given to another?
I’ll say the second one first, because I know that answer. Same event answers both questions. There is what I know, and what I don’t know.
There is a woman that comes up all the time, an elderly lady that has an aura of wisdom. She is losing her memory and she repeats the same thing over and over which is great because she reminds me of the impact that I am unaware of that I have on others. And she keeps saying that so it keeps reminding me. So the fact that she does not remember what she told is sort of great because it is a constant reminder. Sort of bitter sweet.
This story is the first time I received a deeper awareness of the impact of my duty. It was January 14, 2010. It is 8 – 8:30 am, I am at the corner asking people. And there is a gentleman who is approaching me and he is someone who I have spoke to a few times. He had already shared his concept by writing in the book. That particular morning he was not carrying his usual work stuff. As he approaches me he says, “here give me the book.” Rarely do people assertively ask to receive the notebook. I rarely on occasion look to see what people write in order to separate the writing from the person.
So he wrote something and he is walking on. I glanced down to see what he wrote, “Today my Mother died. Mother always meant compassion.” A few things instantly clicked in my head.
One, that he came to the corner to write this in probably within three or four hours of his mother passing away because it was a new day. Two, a simple act of writing helped him through a life moment. Three, my own mother has passed away, and I connected with him on that level. Four, was to take an action. He had walked off after he wrote it, and I looked down and he was probably 20 feet away. I invited him to come over. At this point we were semi-strangers. I simply offered him a hug and he wept on my shoulder. I explained to him that my own mother had passed away and I knew where he was coming from. He said thank you and he walked off.
There was a fifth thing that happened that was pretty great. Right after I read his statement, all the previous entries on compassion flashed through my head. Sort of like they say your life flashes before your eyes. Literally all the entries that I had read up to that point passed in my head which lead me to act upon what he had written. After that for about half hour there was a tremendous flow of energy. Compassion flowing from head to toe. I witnessed a very tangible, physical feeling of compassion. That was the first time where I could name something like that. In that moment I understood that what I was doing at the corner was beyond me. I became a witness that day. And since then I continue to witness all the things that happen.
To answer your first question, an act of compassion that I had received, someone gave me a very large check out of the blue. And it was unexpected. We finished the Earthbench at the corner and we still needed funding to pay the artist. I sat down with a couple of friends to determine how to go about fundraising close to four thousand dollars.
A couple of months later I am standing at the corner and I am talking to somebody and I notice that another person that I usually talk to is hanging out nearby. And when I’m done with the other person, he asks if I am open to receive a donation. He sits down writes a check and hands it to me. It is five digits. First thing in my head is, “this is the universe at work.” In that moment of receiving that check, I sat in that space of recognition.
Those are the two very memorable moment among hundreds of others that happen at the corner.
I believe compassion to be recognizing essence. When I first started, my concept of compassion was long, academic and very detailed. A friend suggested to keep it simple. Everything at the perceived level of consciousness can be witnessed through its essence. For example, the essence of being human, part of it is that we require food, air, and shelter. Those things are given to us.
Recognizing that in another human being, leads to a compassionate act of offering food, of remember to eat healthy. Those are all compassionate acts. The essence of being human is love. Recognizing that love is essential. We love ourselves which is a compassionate act and we love others which is a compassionate act.