John Bruna has lived at nearly every economic level and worked in a multitude of occupations in his life. The grandfather of two is a speaker, counselor and director of the Way of Compassion Foundation. Having visited this area in the past, Bruna returned to present "Wisdom of Compassion" Monday at Community Hospice Care, with about 16 people in attendance.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood in southern California, Bruna was one of nine children. His father died, leaving his mother to support the family. Bruna saw violence and substance abuse all around him but managed to be the only male in his family to graduate from high school. When it came time to choose a profession, Bruna said he wanted to be different from family members who were in prison. He wanted something better, but he had learned to be suspicious of people who were nice to him. They usually wanted something.
"I never wanted to hurt people, but kindness is not conducive to a criminal career," he said. "Being raised in that lifestyle ... I used to wonder how normal people lived."
Although Bruna had "this fantasy" to become a priest, the clergyman he spoke to said the young man was not prepared or suited for the priesthood. Bruna's next thought was to move away from the bad influences and make a fresh start somewhere else. Unfortunately, his troubles went with him. He fell into a pattern of alcohol and drug abuse and began a relationship with a woman who had two children and bad habits of her own. She also had come from a disadvantaged family. She became pregnant with Bruna's child, a daughter.
During the recession of the early 1980s, the couple, the children and several other members of her family loaded up a battered truck and a trailer and set out to find employment. Bruna said they ran out of gasoline in Colorado and spent some time in a homeless camp. He found a job there, but he and the woman split up while their girl was still a baby. Bruna lost custody of her and lost touch with her mother.
"I lost my daughter because I wasn't a very good father," he said.
Finally in 1984, Bruna came to the realization he could not blame his bad experiences on other people or circumstances.
One summer day, he stopped consuming alcohol, but he still didn't know how to live. He asked himself, "How do I stop hating myself? How do I look in the mirror and become a decent human being?"
Bruna said he decided to focus on other people and think less about himself and his own needs. He decided to pray for the knowledge of God's will in his life and how to carry it out.
His next job was delivering auto parts. Bruna said he tried to imagine he was working for God. As time went on, he became an auto parts salesman and then manager of the store. He became more comfortable with people and tried to treat everyone with kindness and respect.
The results, he said, were encouraging.
"It transformed my life. I went from a guy who lived under a bridge to a guy managing the auto parts store," Bruna said.
More changes were in store. When someone suggested he would be good working with children, he decided to explore the possibilities. Bruna was given a position in a treatment facility at a hospital. Before long, he was promoted to unit manager before being invited to join its administrative team. He was promoted again to a corporate job in which he "got paid to play golf," but the job was not satisfying to him.
In working with recovering addicts, Bruna had spoken about his grief over the daughter he had lost. During one session, an older man in the group gave him some down-to-earth advice: "Why don't you just be someone worth finding?"
That really struck a chord with Bruna.
"I got a call one day. ... I couldn't believe it," he said.
An agency was calling to ask whether he was the father of a girl, now 8 years old. She had been removed from a home where she had been neglected, so the staff wanted to reconnect her with her biological dad. Bruna said he drove 500 miles to meet his daughter.
"It was the best day of my life," Bruna said.
With that accomplished, Bruna started looking for his next project, a teaching career. He completed training, became certified and found work at an inner city high school.
While his daughter was in college, he organized trips to Europe for groups of his students. At the same time, he was continuing his own journey for inner peace. Becoming acquainted with a Buddhist teacher and neighbor brought him to the next step. Bruna became a student of the man.
"I could tell there was a lot of love there," Bruna said.
He traveled to Gaden Shartse Monastery for more extensive study. For two years, Bruna taught school in his Buddhist garb before going to live at the monastery. He was ordained a Buddhist monk and remained there until about two years ago.
Returning to life as a layperson, he now oversees his foundation and counsels people searching for a more meaningful life. In his talk, he says most people have an internal set of values for guidance, but they often are distracted by worldly possessions and crises.
"Your grandma will tell you happiness is an inside job. ... but where do we look for happiness?" Bruna said.
Wealth, employment, relationships, vacations, education and possessions can bring temporary contentment, but they also can bring stress, anger and sorrow. They are temporary sources of fulfillment, he said.
Bruna said real life is messy: It does not always happen as we imagine, and expectations can undo us.
"Cars break down ... roofs leak ... people hurt one another ... we get sick ... people die. That's the real world," he said.
Bruna said people can respond with frustration and resentment, or they can put it behind them and move on. He said a setback can lead to a new set of priorities. It makes us take stock of what is really important and what is not worth the worry.
He said he believes we must pursue what is important to us and not get caught up in "the delusion of this busy world." He said failure can be the best thing that can happen, and what we anticipate the most can turn out to be the biggest disappointment.
"I have an idea I'll be here tomorrow, but I don't know that," he said. "This could be it."
Making a gratitude list can help us to focus on the blessings we already have, rather than what we are lacking, Bruna said.
He said he has found leading his life with kindness has taken him farther than he ever imagined. Instead of putting up walls, he said we should pay attention to the "real miracles" happening every day.
"This day is never going to come again," Bruna said. "Be here. Be present."