Episode 94: Vaccines and Compassion

Watch our whole conversation here.

How does the Buddhist view on compassion help us think about COVID vaccine controversies? What do the Dalai Lama and the Pope have to say about vaccination? Without arguing for any one position, host Scott Snibbe and Producer Tara Anderson talk about how to stay loving and connected to people we disagree with, how to avoid “compassion fatigue,” and how to (not) convince somebody to see things our way. Scott and Tara also share personal stories about growing up in an anti-vax household and deciding whether to vaccinate their young children.

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[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Today, we’re doing something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time, which is get our talented producer, Tara Anderson, in front of the microphone to have a conversation together.

And for our first conversation, we’ve chosen the slightly radioactive topic of vaccines: vaccines and compassion. Now, whatever your opinion on this issue, I hope that you’ll stay with us for this conversation because we’re not trying to convince you one way or another, but discuss how to apply compassion around a serious and contentious issue.

Tara is joining us from Kentucky, where she lives and works with her husband and two kids—in a red state, I believe. I’m joining you from California, a blue state. So, first of all, Hi Tara. 

Vaccines and Compassion

[00:00:45] Tara Anderson: Hi Scott! This is a new step for both of us to try a little conversation around something that’s potentially very tricky. COVID vaccines in particular. We’re saying vaccines, but this is really around the COVID vaccine. So first of all, I think we should say that both you and I are vaccinated.

[00:01:06] Scott Snibbe: That’s right. We survived.

[00:01:08] Tara Anderson: We chose to get vaccinated. We both have kids and we’re going to talk about how we’re making the decision whether to vaccinate our children. Just this week as we’re recording, the CDC has recommended COVID vaccines for kids ages five to 11, and both you and I have kids in that age group. I have a kid that’s a little older and she is already vaccinated as well.

And so is my husband who is a hospital-based physician. So just for listeners to know where we personally stand on that issue, I think it’s important to say. But we’re not trying to convince anybody. This is not about making you think the way that we do.

We want to talk about the ideas around compassion that can well up around this kind of personal decision that also has very public ramifications.

[00:02:01] Scott Snibbe: I should also mention that I grew up in an anti-vaccine household which I’ll tell some stories about later in the episode. And I also want to talk a little bit about how I felt about that growing up, for people making a decision either way. The other thing is that I also had some of the more uncommon side effects when I got vaccinated that were a little bit more severe. So I’ll talk about those too and how I might’ve changed or not changed my decision, if I’d known that was going to happen.

[00:02:24] Tara Anderson: So with all of that said and before we spout off with our own opinions too much, we took a look at what some other wise people, wiser than us, had to say about vaccination.

Pop Francis says vaccination is an act of love

How about the Pope? Let’s start with the Pope. People listen to the Pope.

Pope Francis waving

[00:02:41] Scott Snibbe: I was talking to my wife about this episode and she pointed me to this video that The Pope recorded in August. I actually wish we could play it, but it’s all in Spanish. So I’ll have to just, unfortunately, be the voice of the Pope. He said something that I found very touching.

He said, “Vaccination is an act of love.” And I have more of the quote here. He said, “Being vaccinated with vaccines authorized by the competent authorities is an act of love and contributing to ensure the majority of people are vaccinated is an act of love. Love for oneself. Love for one’s family and friends. Love for all people.” 

He said that in Rome, August 18. He also talked about politics. The thing about this current Pope is that he’s not afraid of wading into political issues. And he also said, I quite liked this, that,

“Love is also social and political.” He also said that, “Individual, small gestures of personal charity add up, overflowing into something universal that’s capable of transforming and improving societies.”

I should also say that he did mention God as well. That’s a place Buddhists and Christians differ a little bit, but he said, “Thanks to God and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from COVID-19. They grant us the hope of ending the pandemic, but only if they’re available to all and if we work together.”

[00:04:07] Tara Anderson: Yeah, this is such a tricky thing because in order for the vaccines to really work on a societal level, we all need to participate. So it’s an individual decision that has far reaching ramifications. And I know that’s why this is so tricky for so many of us. It’s not just a personal decision about whether you choose to eat meat or not, or what kind of pants you like to wear or whatever.

It’s a decision that has wide reaching implications, but also asks us all to put our own bodies on the line. Someone with influence, like the Pope, saying that love is social and political. That’s a really powerful statement. If Christians want to emulate Jesus Christ, then social and political love, that’s a good way to do it.

[00:05:03] Scott Snibbe: What would Jesus do? Would Jesus get vaccinated? 

[00:05:06] Tara Anderson: Would Jesus get vaccinated?

[00:05:07] Scott Snibbe: We know that the Dalai Lama got vaccinated. He rolled up his sleeve and he was one of the first people to get vaccinated in India. He had pictures taken of it. The Dalai Lama, he actually didn’t speak at length or quite as eloquently.

Dalai Lama getting his COVID vaccine and showing appreciation and compassion for frontline healthcare workers

He was quite blunt about this issue. I think to him, maybe it was a little more obvious and he just said, “Getting vaccinated is very helpful and very good.” and “People need to be vaccinated to prevent some serious problems.”

[00:05:35] Tara Anderson: There you go. 

[00:05:36] Scott Snibbe: Pretty clear and direct. He didn’t talk that much about compassion. Maybe it’s just the obviousness to him of how important it was to do this.

[00:05:44] Tara Anderson: Exactly. And I’ve heard a number of other spiritual leaders say something similar, that it’s just the right thing to do that it is not only helping yourself, but helping others. And for some people, I wonder if that that argument about helping others really is very effective?

I’m not sure. I think we’ve seen various messages in public health here in the US. If you don’t care about protecting your community, at least please protect yourself because that may be what speaks to some people.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Blaming never helps

[00:06:17] Scott Snibbe: I think this starts to turn on this issue of how we communicate and how we get along with people who made the opposite choice. And we’re going to talk about that in a lot more detail, but there’s a beautiful quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that we mentioned in an earlier episode about understanding other people.

And I want to bring that up because again, we don’t want this to be divisive. And I think this quote is a kind of peace balm, it’s from a book called Peace Is Every Step, to help understand how to talk to people who have the opposite opinion, whatever side of this opinion you’re on.

So what Thich Nhat Hanh said is that blaming never helps. That was the title. It was just a two paragraph essay that he put in his book, and he said,

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it’s not doing well. It may need fertilizer or more water or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” 

If somebody else does something that you don’t like, that’s our first thing in our society is blame the other person, that they’re wrong, they’re stupid. But here’s how he says we should treat the other people around us. He says, you treat them like lettuce, like, are you going to yell at a lettuce for wilting or for not getting vaccinated?

[00:07:27] Tara Anderson: I’m going to need to put this like on a post-it on my wall. You never blame the lettuce. That’s good life advice. I love that.

[00:07:34] Scott Snibbe: But then he gets more, into the practical, without the metaphor he says, 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all. Nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments: no blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love and the situation will change.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh

And so hopefully that’s the angle that we can talk about how we deal with differing opinions, as we go through this episode which is more through understanding. We have a few stories, so we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist teacher and engaged Buddhism leader
Thich Nhat Hanh

[00:08:09] Tara Anderson: Yeah, exactly. And just those few lines that you shared, blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and arguments. That really stops my mind. Because I have been trying to persuade a couple of people who I love very much and would love to feel comfortable spending time with.

But I know that all of my reason and my arguments, it’s not going to do it. And in at least one case with a family member, I have made the decision to preserve the relationship more than to try to convince this person to get vaccinated. And at the same time, I have to set my own boundaries for my own safety and my own security.

Now it says, if you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change. That doesn’t mean the person that you want to get vaccinated will get vaccinated, right?

The situation will change in other ways, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to get your desired outcome. And I think a lot of what I have been working with personally on getting through this, as one of the tonglen slogans reminds me, “Abandon all hope of fruition.” You do what you do and you can’t be attached to the results.

I think that quote can be a little tricky where you’re like, okay, if I just understand them, then they’ll do what I want. That’s not it either.

[00:09:42] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s not another path to manipulation.

I think we have a bunch of different stories to talk about “convincing people” and some of our personal decisions, but let’s talk a little bit more about authorities here. So what do doctors have to say about getting vaccinated? 

Fear and authority

[00:09:58] Tara Anderson: Overwhelmingly, doctors advise it. Doctors are in favor of it. Doctors like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has a long history in infectious disease and public health leadership says, go do it. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t trust him and other authorities for their own reasons.

But I’m married to a doctor. I know a lot of doctors, they are all in favor of vaccination and for what it’s worth, they’re all in favor of vaccinating their kids as soon as possible as well.

[00:10:27] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. So that’s no surprise. Of course you can find, on the internet, you can find the odd doctor and nurse who don’t get vaccinated. And they have their reasons. But yeah, you’re talking about parents. I was reading today, the vaccine just became available for kids today.

So as we edit this episode, we’ll probably get our kids vaccinated. But I saw, I think something about a third of parents were not planning to get their young kids, the kids under 11, vaccinated yet. So that’s a much bigger contingent.

[00:10:54] Tara Anderson: Again, I think the idea of compassion plays into this, not only for your own children, but for the people around you.

[00:11:00] Scott Snibbe: Yeah.

[00:11:01] Tara Anderson: Because while children don’t seem to get as sick themselves, they can certainly still be a vector for disease. And that is something to consider in making your decision.

[00:11:09] Scott Snibbe: I think that’s a conversation each of us has probably had with friends sometimes, especially younger friends. I do know some people who haven’t gotten vaccinated and they said I’m not at risk and don’t really need to do it.

And then I said, in my non-understanding mode, I said, “You may kill somebody’s grandma!” Which probably isn’t in line with what Thich Nhat Hanh recommends.

[00:11:33] Tara Anderson: It’s tricky. 

[00:11:34] Scott Snibbe: There was something funny happened because, my family went to get our flu shots about three weeks ago. We were some of the first people in to get that here, where we live.

And it was so funny because I was talking to the two ladies administering it and I said, “You guys are like first in line for everything, huh? You already got your shots.” And they said, “No,” both of them, it was funny. Both of them said, “Oh, we hate getting shots. Like we’re putting it off.” “You give 200 shots a day and you didn’t get your flu vaccine?” They’re like, “No, I don’t like it.”

And, I think that’s actually a good heart-expanding story because even the people giving the shots have their own fears and their own reasons either for not doing it or for putting it off.

Some people are really afraid of shots. 

[00:12:15] Tara Anderson: Fear of needles is a real thing. And I know that has been a barrier for some people and with the COVID vaccine, some people feel really lousy for a day or two and not everyone has a life that is set up where they can be sick and feel bad for a day or two and not miss work and that kind of thing.

So that’s another impediment to the shot. And that’s on a systemic level.

[00:12:41] Scott Snibbe: Why don’t we go into this hard topic of convincing people and talk about this not from an epidemiological perspective, but from a Buddhist perspective. Something really powerful about Buddhism that really impressed me about it is that evangelism is discouraged.

It’s so discouraged that even the Dalai Lama, almost every time I’ve seen him give a public talk, he actually says, Don’t become a Buddhist. He says, Keep your own religion, whatever religion you’re in is probably the right one for you, what you were raised with. Which of course is quite attractive to certain anti-authoritarian type people who are very attracted by that kind of message. I think with that message of non-evangelism in Buddhism, it filters down to everything else in terms of trying to convince people of anything. 

[00:13:26] Tara Anderson: Yes, you brought up an idea when we were preparing for this, this idea that you don’t have to win. Who was it that said this to us? 

The value of “losing”

[00:13:35] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it was Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. There are many other teachers who say this and write this. Pema Chodron writes a lot about the value of losing and what you do when awful things happen, or just things you don’t want to happen. This is a basic form of suffering. 

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche lama, artist, Tibetan Buddhism in front of purple Flowers
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

There’s a long list of types of suffering in Buddhism. And one of them is not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want. It’s nice to have them enumerated because then what happens? You’re like, Okay, it’s totally natural in the universe to not get what you want. 

And I want various people to get vaccinated. We have a family friend, actually, one of my daughter’s schoolmates’ mothers is really scared of getting vaccinated.

We have our fears too, because our kids played together all the time and we’ve set up some stronger rules, you know, like just play outside. I think acknowledging that the relationship is more important than winning in this case.

Like, to just work around that, to find ways that we’re comfortable with a little more risk and certain rules because the relationship between our kids is important. The relationship with her is important. And I think it’s really nice how we’ve navigated that as a family, there’s respect there.

We even talk about the issue together, remain respectful. Keeping that love, love is so important. You can feel that. See, I lose it all the time. When I have it, it’s so nice. And it seems so easy. But then as soon as I’m critical or blaming—anything that builds that wall between myself and others, including Oh, they should really get vaccinated. Then all these delusions start coming up of being really angry and judgmental.

And so that’s a funny thing, even from a selfish perspective, you want to be loving. Because it feels a lot better.

[00:15:08] Tara Anderson: It feels better. It does. I absolutely understand that. I’ve had very similar reactions. Especially in the region where I live, you know, a lot of people aren’t wearing masks regularly in public. I had an experience recently where I went to the grocery store and I had such a bad attitude about everyone I saw without a mask on.

And I came out of the grocery store really mad. And I thought, Wait a minute, this is not good for me. This is not good for me to be furious at strangers. This is not healthy for me. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their lives. I can disapprove of this choice they’ve made. But I was stunned at the amount of anger that I had and how I was blaming these strangers that I don’t even know. I was like, Okay, I need sit and look at this for a minute. First of all, is this good for me?

[00:16:03] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:16:04] Tara Anderson: No, it is not. So trying to remember that I can’t control everyone. I can do what I need to do to keep my boundaries safe. So in the grocery store, that means that I wear a mask and I try to keep my distance from other people, but to let go of that anger means a much more pleasant trip to the grocery store.

[00:16:26] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

I want to get back to the losing thing. You brought up the losing thing, and I tell you, I actually got really encouraged. I went and hung out with my aunt and uncle who I hadn’t seen for years down in LA, we were talking about people that don’t get vaccinated. And my aunt said, Oh yeah, I convinced my cousin to get vaccinated. How did you do that? Just how did you do that? I have friends that I’m not able to convince them. And she said, Oh, I offered to drive her to get the shot and take her to lunch after.

And I said, Oh, that’s so nice. That’s so sweet. but I really liked how she didn’t make any argument at all. She just said, I’ll help you out. And it worked.

It’s that cause and effect. They actually make a joke of it in Buddhism. They say if a person hits you with a stick, do you get mad at the stick? But they say getting mad at the person is just as foolish because there’s a huge line of cause and effect behind their actions too. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work to stop getting hit. But there’s no real reason to get angry because there’s a lot of reasons behind why that happened, even if you don’t understand them. 

[00:17:28] Tara Anderson: I think another lesson to take from this is it’s not all about me, right? Every person unmasked in the grocery store is not trying to hurt me. I may be the center of my world, but I’m not the center of everyone else’s world. And that’s another good lesson too, to remember 

[00:17:46] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:17:46] Tara Anderson: That I don’t have to take it personally.

[00:17:47] Scott Snibbe: Again, yeah, that’s the Buddhist perspective, right? To acknowledge there’s basically one thing we can control in the universe. And that is just how we react to things.

Listening to anger

[00:17:57] Tara Anderson: And I think learning to look at your own strong reactions as a signal, that’s something you can dig more deeply into that has been really helpful for me. Anger has a quality of single pointedness and, really focus on what is not right in a situation. That can be very useful, right?

If we can transmute our anger from something that just blinds us and makes our head on fire to, it’s more like a finger pointing at an injustice or something that’s not right, then we can start to work with whatever is making us angry. Rather than just literally being blinded by anger.

[00:18:48] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I think talking about that power of anger is really powerful. It is seen as incredibly harmful from a Buddhist perspective. Tara Brach talks really well about this because she says anger is telling you something important.

Tara Brach, Buddhist meditation teach smiling headshot
Tara Brach

[00:19:01] Tara Anderson: Absolutely.

[00:19:01] Scott Snibbe: And the first thing you want to do is listen to that. It’s not something to deny, like the spiritual bypass, Oh, everything’s in the nature of mind. No, you’re angry for a reason. And of course, if you can let some of the pain of anger dissipate, then you can try to find why am I angry? 

There’s some logical reason, some real deep need that underlies anger. I think some of it’s just a pure need for safety, of wanting to feel safe.

[00:19:28] Tara Anderson: Let’s talk a little bit about the decision of vaccinating our children, because that’s a different thing.

Again, you can do what you feel is right for yourself. And then, as a parent or a guardian, you’re in charge of another person and making choices that you think are in their best interests. First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that everyone is trying to make the best decision for their child. I really do believe that. No parent wants their child to get sick and die. No parent wants their child to suffer. And no parent wants their child to be the cause of someone else’s illness and death. And I think it’s important too, to remember that even if our decisions look different and I may have an argument with the decision that someone else makes, I really do believe that everyone’s just trying to make the best decision for their own child. 

And this is applicable to your own personal situation, Scott, with how you were raised, right?

Growing up in an anti-vax household

[00:20:27] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, totally. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. I come from a Jewish background. My parents converted to Christian Science. A lot of people don’t know what Christian Science is. It’s not Scientology. A lot of people confuse it with that. It is a religion where you don’t go to the doctor, you don’t get vaccinated. You don’t drink, you don’t take any kind of mind or body altering substances. And you rely on prayer to heal you from any illness. For the most part, there’s some latitude as an individual follower, but that’s the general principle of the religion is that you don’t go to doctors, you don’t get vaccinated.

So I was definitely an anti-vax household. I had no vaccines when I was a child. Neither did my brother and sister. Luckily, we didn’t get that sick when we were kids. But I want to talk a little bit about how I felt about that. Because as a kid I was proud, actually. We had this special form that gave us a legitimate religious exemption. Today, I think a lot of people are trying to pretend like they have a religious exemption, but they got their religion yesterday.

[00:21:23] Tara Anderson: This was a sincerely held belief on behalf of your parents.

[00:21:27] Scott Snibbe: Yes. From birth, we were raised Christian scientists. That was our religious value. I went to Sunday School where we talked about it. When I got sick, we’d pray. And I got better too. I got better after praying. So I believed in it. 

When I got to be 18, 19 and got into college. I went to Brown University, where the atmosphere was quite anti-religious. I felt like I had to hide that I was a Christian Scientist. I would sneak off to Sunday School on Sunday because I just loved spirituality. I loved talking about the ideas of religion, things like Buddhism talks about, like infinity, like how the mind relates to matter, and so on. 

But I have to say, I got really mad. I got pneumonia and that’s what got me starting to go to the doctor. Actually, it was my professor who said Whoa, you have pneumonia, you have to go to the doctor. I’m like, Okay, I’ll try that.

[00:22:12] Tara Anderson: Yeah. I mean that, that’s a big switch from how you were raised, but I guess a lot of us in college try new things.

[00:22:19] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that was my wild college years—going to the doctor!

But yeah, I went to the doctor and, he gave me some antibiotics.

So those were the first drugs that I took. And they really worked. Like, Whoa, this is good. And then after I recovered from pneumonia, I thought, Okay, now it’s time for me to get some health insurance, get immunized.

But I’ll tell you something. I was really mad at my parents. I was really angry at them for raising me that way because I felt like it was irresponsible, for myself and my brother and sister, but even more for other people. When I was a kid, I used to actually sit and imagine what are the people next door doing right now?

And then from the people next door to the whole town. Later, I realized these are actually a kind of Buddhist meditation, but I used to try to expand my mind to think about what everyone else was doing at the moment. 

What about the other people we endangered?

So I think as a parent, deciding not to vaccinate your kids it’s worth thinking how they’re going to feel when they get older. Of course we massively indoctrinate our kids with our own beliefs. I do the same thing—I meditate with my daughter, and I teach her my values on compassion and she is very excited to get vaccinated. She wants to get vaccinated today. 

But. I understand that, actually, my parents were trying to protect me in their way, from our religion’s perspective, the problems in your mind, it’s not in your body when you get sick. So if you get vaccinated, if you accept medical care, you actually don’t solve the underlying problem.

What you really need to do is to pray and to change your reality, which is not the way Buddhism, sees it, by the way, Buddhism says go to doctors, take care of yourself. Although Buddhism does have a lot to say about the role of the mind in reality.

So I think that’s what I wanted to just share from my own perspective is just that I was really angry having grown up in an anti-vax household. I’m not saying anyone else has to feel this way. But I was, and I felt it was selfish. I felt like it just wasn’t taking into account the health of others.

Vaccines and Children

[00:24:13] Tara Anderson: It’s definitely worth considering. And again, with young children, knowing that most of them don’t get seriously ill from COVID, but we’ve always been concerned with making sure that our elders who are more vulnerable aren’t affected. So that’s a great reason, in my opinion, to vaccinate my seven-year-old who may or may not get really ill.

But I want to make sure that he doesn’t accidentally spread it to his grandparents who are in their seventies and more vulnerable. So it is a personal decision that everyone has to make. And, in some ways it feels more weighted than making the decision for yourself because they’re little people and you’re responsible for their care.

The choice that I’m making is to get my seven-year-old vaccinated as soon as possible. He is not looking forward to getting a shot. But I promised ice cream or something afterwards, so ice cream might help.

[00:25:14] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. You know, my daughter hates shots. She hates the vaccinations, but she’s really excited about this one.

I wanted to go back to this idea of self and other, the way that we think about freedom in the United States. This is a big group project. In some ways it’s the first time the whole world came together to solve a problem. It’s like the things you read in science fiction novels, where it always seems so unrealistic. Like the whole world came together and they put their resources behind it. And we made a vaccine that normally takes 50 years to roll out and it only took nine months.

It’s actually completely amazing and a joyful thing to think about. The world did succeed in this great group project. But then it’s faltering a little bit in the last mile here. We’re so spoiled too, because we dominated obtaining a vast plurality of the vaccination doses in the United States with all our wealth. We have a massive surplus of vaccines and yet still, where we’re not completely succeeding in this group project. Like we’ve become worse at group projects in the US now with more and more of the emphasis on the individual, which is part of our whole culture.

So the thing that I like about Buddhism is how, from your own perspective, the way to treat yourself is, How can I benefit others? Through your body, speech and mind. That’s ideally the way you make your decisions in your life, and this is actually Mahayana Buddhism, this Buddhism that focuses on compassion, love.

When I make decisions, hypothetically, I’m not saying I really do this all the time. But I do think about it. I just don’t always succeed or I make sometimes self-serving decisions. But how can I benefit others through my body, speech and mind? That’s what you think about, at least.

But then when you think about others, you don’t think, What do I need to make them do so that they will benefit others? It’s just like Thich Nhat Hanh said, it’s compassion, understanding, even just giving people what they want, what they ask for, even if you don’t agree with it, just giving people what they ask for.

And I really like that value in Buddhism. It helps to understand other people.

But I want to emphasize something because I think a lot of times people will think, Oh, I’m being compassionate by taking care of my daughter or something like that. But in the Buddhist view the nuclear family isn’t that different from yourself.

It’s not necessarily altruism. Of course, your child is another person, but that child is very strongly identified with yourself, your partner your children and so on. So doing something you think is right for your child or only your family isn’t necessarily a great virtue from the Buddhist perspective, it depends on your motivation, because then the wall can come up really hard around your family.

And then nobody else really matters that much. And that’s where your logic can fail because it can make complete sense for your nuclear family not to get vaccinated but then, like we’re saying, you might kill someone’s grandma, you might kill your own grandma. 

Compassion and Interdependence

[00:28:00] Tara Anderson: If you want to be out in the world with other people, then that’s where it has to be considered. And I found a quote earlier today from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who’s been a huge influence in my life. Most of my experience with any kind of formal study in Buddhism has been in the Shambala tradition. And this quote about compassion really spoke to me.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Buddhist teacher in a suit and tie
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

This is from his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is a tremendous book that has been so helpful to me. He says,

“Compassion is spacious and very generous. When a person develops real compassion, he is uncertain whether he is being generous to others or to himself, because compassion is environmental generosity without direction, without for me and without for them.”

And that phrase, environmental generosity really hit me. It’s not about taking sides. It’s not about, Is this good for me? It’s not about, Is this good for you? When you really are feeling and learning to develop compassion, that’s where I think the boundaries between self and other start to dissolve. Because you don’t see yourself as separate, everyone is interdependent and interconnected. 

A lot of this discussion has been, what’s good for me is also good for others, or I’m getting vaccinated because it’s good for me and it’s good for my community or good for my family. And in some ways, maybe we’re not even focusing on the right things there. When you really develop compassion, I think it’s about dissolving the boundaries and the identification with me and mine, and you and yours.

[00:29:49] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. It’s certainly something I think our great teachers talk about. They say there’s two wings of the bird in the compassion-oriented Buddhism they call it Bodhicitta, or altruistic love and compassion and emptiness, which you’re talking about, interdependence.

And so many teachers talk about how those two wrap around, that when you start to see the interdependence of reality—like right now, we’re not speaking any words we made up, we’re actually not even sharing ideas we made up ourselves. And a lot of our stories are things other than we saw other people do, and it goes on and on. One of the first things I ever read Thich Nhat Hahn said that stuck with me. He said,

“You are only made of non-you elements.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh

So this whole thing you say is you—both body and mind—it’s completely dependent with others. In the moment it seems separate. Our body seems separate, our mind seem separate, but we’re in continual exchange and it starts to get a little new age, but like the earth it’s one giant organism, or certainly all of humanity. It’s more like we’re one giant organism. And does one of your cells decide to rebel and, not take in the antibodies? You just do whatever’s right for the collective good, kind of naturally. But of course it’s not yours and my place to say what that is. That’s the other thing. Compassion isn’t something to force other people.

[00:31:08] Tara Anderson: Yes. Be compassionate now!

So even though we all have lots of information about how the vaccine is likely to affect us. And we know that most people tolerate it pretty well. Aside from, a day or two are feeling lousy. We still know that this is not without risk and side effects can be a little more severe. And so we ask ourselves, would it still be worth the risk to maybe save someone else’s life?

And you, Scott, had your own experience with side-effects that were more than a sore arm and fatigue for a day or two. 

You want to talk about that a little bit?

Uncommon vaccine side effects and alternative medicine

[00:31:47] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. So this is this is actually really interesting because some people are worried about some of the more extreme side effects of the vaccine, which are admittedly pretty rare. But I had some of them and it was only with my second shot. I got the Moderna vaccine, which turns out, statistically gives you the best protection now.

But I had several side effects that just didn’t go away. They were side effects a lot of people have, but they didn’t go away for me. So I had huge fatigue, which was actually for me, like the worst, because I really liked to have a lot of energy and do a lot of things. And it just didn’t go away for weeks, like six, seven weeks.

I was dizzy, so dizzy I was falling over, that level of dizziness and it would not go away. I tried all these weird maneuvers the doctor gave me. I had tinnitus, so my ears started ringing and it was very annoying. These symptoms lasted for six, seven weeks and I didn’t know what to do. And then it was funny, because I was talking to my wife about it. I was like, oh my God, is this going to last forever? 

I talked to my doctor and with these kinds of systemic long-term issues, I think we can all acknowledge that Western medicine isn’t that good at addressing them. He offered me some drug to deal with dizziness—one of these drugs where you read the label and it says, “may cause dizziness.” So I didn’t bother with that. 

And so this is actually a good place to talk about how we each do have our own areas that we engage and don’t engage with Western medicine. Like a very common one is antibiotics, right? A lot of us, including myself, try to avoid antibiotics almost completely because they also eliminate some beneficial bacteria inside your body.

So I’ve had my problems with Western medicine. Okay. Not with epidemiology though. Anyway, the side effects I had were really serious. And so my wife said, Oh, remember you went to that Tibetan doctor once? So I went to Tibetan doctor, when I had some other similar problems a few a few years ago. And it worked amazingly. 

[00:33:29] Tara Anderson: And what did that Tibetan doctor advise you? Or what did that person give you?

[00:33:33] Scott Snibbe: The consultation, it’s very beautiful, the way the Tibetan doctor works with you. Because it’s also a spiritual treatment. It’s not for everybody, it’s like Chinese medicine, but it’s very tender. The person will sit and feel your pulse for a long time.

So she gave me various things: herbs at night for sleeping, herbs in the morning for digestion, liver, kidney balance. And she advised on my diet, to avoid sugar, a lot of kind of obvious things you’d think of, but to stay to a very healthy whole foods diet and eat more in the morning and less in the evening.

She also advised some spiritual practices. Like she said I should do a certain type of purification practice very early in the morning where you do all these prostrations. The Dalai Lama does it every morning and it’s also really good exercise.

[00:34:13] Tara Anderson: Do a hundred burpees in the morning and that will make you feel better.

[00:34:15] Scott Snibbe: It is, it’s just like that. So through this combination, the good news is that it worked, it totally worked. It took a few weeks to kick in and it’s been gradual, but it really worked. And I think, Tibetan medicine, I think most people would say it’s pretty far out on the spectrum.

I want to acknowledge that I had serious side effects. I couldn’t resolve them normally. I went to some very alternative medicine. So I’m quite sympathetic and compassionate to people regarding your individual decisions you need to make. And I am actually nervous about getting my booster too. Because they say I should get another Moderna. That’s the recommendation because it gives you the best protection and I’ve already had it, but I’m a little nervous.

[00:34:52] Tara Anderson: If it’ll start up those kinds of side effects again.

Something else that, that struck me as you were describing your interactions with this Tibetan doctor, I wonder what many of us would feel if we went to our Western doctor, our family doctor, and they just sat with us for a few minutes and felt our pulse and just gave us that kind of attention and that kind of gentleness, which is not usually a factor in our interactions with our medical industrial system, as we have it now?

I know a lot of doctors would love to be able to provide that kind of gentleness and attention. And they just can’t because of the way the system is set up. 

[00:35:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. Well, it made me feel really loved, I think that’s the thing. Because I felt really alone and scared when I was a kid when I got sick. It was all on you. Like, it wasn’t even my parents praying. It was like, something’s wrong with your mind. That’s how I felt. Something’s wrong with you and your mind and you need to pray and you need to get better. It’s your fault. That was my perspective on Christian Science.

So I felt guilty when I was sick. Like it was all my fault. So now, I generally feel really nice when I see a doctor, but especially for the Tibetan doctor, cause I felt so much love and compassion from her.

That was my experience with alternative medicine. What about you? Your husband’s a doctor. And one of the problems is that all this suffering is hidden, right? Like we hide everything away. Death is also hidden away in our culture.

Like it’s so hard to see a dead person, that’s part of life. We also don’t see the sick people. So tell me about that. Because as you and I talk every week, I’ve seen you often very emotional, kind of on the verge of tears, talking about what your husband is seeing.

Living with a frontline healthcare worker

[00:36:32] Tara Anderson: Yeah. He’s a hospital-based physician at a busy urban hospital here in Kentucky. And, I think that the situation has changed over the months. In the first couple of months of COVID, obviously everybody was scrambling and everybody was just scared. And there were a lot of people who got sick and a lot of people who came into the hospital and it was really hard for him and his coworkers because there was only so much they could do for them.

They were also scared themselves of getting sick. Several of his colleagues got sick or entire families got sick. Everyone recovered, thank goodness. This was definitely something in my mind that it was relatively easy for us to stay home and be isolated as a family, but he had to go into work every day.

We knew that he was around COVID patients and this was before there was a vaccine. It was just very fearful. And I know he felt bad for a lot of his patients. We were elated when he was able to get vaccinated. At least I was. He got vaccinated in December of 2020 towards the end of December, his first shot.

And I remember the relief that I felt that, Okay, he’s got some protection now, since he was first in line as a healthcare worker. And now here we are in the fall of 2021. And over the summer there was a huge surge in our area and it was almost entirely unvaccinated people that were being hospitalized. 

Partially because we’ve done a really good job of getting older folks vaccinated and they’re more vulnerable. The unvaccinated folks who were going in the hospital were younger, more in their fifties and sixties rather than their seventies and eighties. And I don’t want to speak for my husband, but I definitely noticed it was a different situation for him dealing with patients who were very sick and knowing that they had a tool that could have helped them a lot, that I think that changes your feelings a lot as a healthcare provider.

Obviously you always want to do the most you can to help everyone. I’m sure there was a growing feeling of frustration and anger among healthcare workers that they were taking care of people who had made a decision not to use the tool that was available to them.

Compassion fatigue is very real. I think that can get caught up in ideas of ego. That it’s harder to be compassionate when you’re judging someone else’s behavior.

And it’s very reasonable from the perspective of a healthcare worker to say, “Why didn’t you do what you could have done to keep yourself from getting sick?” That is very reasonable. And it makes it harder to be able to extend yourself, I think. So that’s something that I think healthcare workers have definitely been struggling with just from where I sit.

[00:39:45] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And I think probably one of the biggest objects of compassion for all of us, no matter where you are on the spectrum of belief about vaccines and the virus is for all the healthcare workers, right? These people, before there was a vaccine, who were literally putting their lives on the line.

And there were stories of people who died, young people in their twenties, nurses and doctors, because the amount of virus you’re exposed to matters. If you’re exposed to a lot, you’re more likely to get it. And it’s more likely to be really severe. So, talk about compassionate heroes, bodhisattvas, all these healthcare workers who are willing to risk their lives to treat people with COVID when there was no treatment for it. They didn’t know how well any of this protective gear was going to protect them. And they see their colleagues getting really sick, go in an ICU and even die.

[00:40:30] Tara Anderson: It was a very scary time. And I know people who have left healthcare after this experience, and I know people who have decided to go into healthcare after this experience. 

“Compassion-fatigue” – the difference between compassion and empathy

[00:40:40] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned compassion fatigue and I want to talk about that. Because I think when you have Buddhist training, the word compassion is a little bit different than the dictionary definition. And I think, according to my teachers, compassion fatigue is a little bit of a misnomer because really what you would say it is “empathy fatigue.” There’s actually a bunch of scientific studies on this: empathy versus compassion. 

And they say that empathy itself is exhausting, that what leads to burnout is just feeling the feelings of other people around you, filling up with them.

And it’s very common for workers in healthcare, hospice and so on. The empathy is exhausting. And another thing you talked about the judgment too, when you start to get mad at people who could have done something small to save themselves a lot of trouble and to save other people a lot of pain.

But compassion is different than empathy. It includes empathy, but empathy is just the first step. You identify with those people’s feelings. You try to imagine what it’s like to be them and how they’re feeling. But then you have the strong wish to help: that’s compassion. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you are able to help. You just have a strong wish to help. 

But that wishing to help, just saying if I could if I would take away the COVID illness from everyone who has it right now, of course. That’s a meditation. And of course you can’t. But it just turns out that thought is so helpful for your mind. it just works. It works right now.

As I’m thinking of it, Oh yeah, if I could, I would definitely do that. And if I could protect, let’s not even say it’s through vaccination, but if I could somehow protect everyone from getting this illness from getting COVID, of course I would. If I could eradicate it from the earth through magic, through just snapping my fingers. Of course I would do that. 

Dr. Rick Hanson talks a lot about this. You want to stick with these good thoughts, whether they’re things that really happened or things that you wish would happen. And it doesn’t mean they are going to happen. It’s not some new age magic, like The Secret and know that if you just think it, they will manifest. No, things will keep going on. People will be sick. 

But by thinking that thought, it’s so expanding to your heart and it’s the antidote to the compassion fatigue. Because when you have those compassionate thoughts, it gives you more energy. 

[00:42:47] Tara Anderson: I really like that. That distinction between empathy and compassion and thinking about compassion fatigue, that maybe that the fatigue comes from coming up against our practical material limits. You can’t fix everything and you can’t save everything, 

[00:43:03] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:43:04] Tara Anderson: To keep that spark in your heart, that’s still your intention, even if you can’t achieve it.

[00:43:09] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. And then also be compassionate to yourself, to realize there are limits. Tara Brach talks a lot about how this is where it all starts. That’s where, actually, all this kind of outward verbal violence and negative feelings and thoughts comes from is just not loving ourselves, sufficiently accepting ourselves. 

So I think that’s such a really good That Thich Nhat Hanh quote about understanding, that all we ever want is understanding. We have to apply that to ourselves. And just accept wherever we are, on this issue. 

It actually brings up one final story, which is how I have a friend he and his partner, boyfriend and girlfriend, they’ve been together for five years. He’s vaccinated and his girlfriend isn’t. And it’s caused a lot practical problems in their life, obviously. 

[00:43:57] Tara Anderson: I don’t know anyone else who’s in that situation. I feel like everyone else I know the partners are on the same page. That could be very tricky. 

[00:44:03] Scott Snibbe: Yes. My friend is a Buddhist, but he’s just naturally compassionate person. I really admire him, and I was very impressed just how gentle he was with the issue because, I mean his partner, she lost her job, first of all. Her job required vaccination. So she lost her job. So now it’s causing real problems in the relationship. Now he’s financially responsible for the whole household. But he’s only applied understanding, he just naturally took that Thich Nhat Hanh view.

He loves his girlfriend. He doesn’t want to break up. And he does not agree with her reasons, but he understands them. He understands and he accepts her reasons for not getting vaccinated and they make their decisions. They can’t see as many people, she can’t work.

But he loves her and they want to stay together. And so he’s accepted that. And I really, I was very impressed with that story. And it’s maybe a nice story to end on. It goes with that losing thread that we talked about, not getting your way.

Look what it does for my friend’s mind, too. Look what it does for our minds as we hear that story. It’s so inspiring, honestly, to me to hear how compassionate and loving he can be and how accepting. I’m not sure I could do that. I don’t know. I don’t think I would be that way with my partner.

[00:45:16] Tara Anderson: I’m just sitting here thinking I would find that incredibly challenging. I don’t think I could do that either. So I don’t want anybody listening to this saying that we think that you can accept any idea that comes your way or if you can’t accept a deep disagreement with your partner you’ve somehow failed.

I think this is senior level stuff we’re talking here that’s really fascinating, but it does show there are different ways to deal with the issue.

[00:45:41] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. So I don’t know, maybe that’s a nice place to end just to remember that Thich Nhat Hanh quote that love is understanding the people around you versus giving them advice or trying to change them.

[00:45:53] Tara Anderson: You can’t be angry at the lettuce.

[00:45:55] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. Don’t get angry at the lettuce. This was really fun having this conversation with you, Tara.

If you’re hearing this now at the end of that episode, then you at least enjoyed it or found it interesting. Feel free to send us feedback on this format how you like it, whether we can improve and I appreciate your listening and I hope we struck the right balance between sharing our opinions and trying to be open-minded and compassionate. 

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe and Tara Anderson
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman

SHARe

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