Blog Post 15: Returning to Contemplative Compassion

It has been more than 1 year since my last post.  Life became too busy with moving houses and the serious illness of a relative. I didn’t have the time or the inspiration to keep up a weekly post.  I plan to return to the regular writing of this blog.

One thing that has inspired me to return is a book and retreat I attended on “Boundless Compassion.” The book, Boundless Compassion authored by Joyce Rupp, is the book that captures my understanding of Contemplative Compassion.  She captures the many aspects of compassion from both a Christ-consciousness perspective as well as an interfaith perspective.  The book’s focus is on “compassion as a way of life, an inner posture of mind and heart, one meant to infuse our whole being[1].”  The format is daily readings around a weekly theme. I plan to explore the teachings in future blogs.

Today I came across a reading on compassion that gave me some insight into why living a compassionate life is so vital to me. The book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax, includes a chapter on “Compassion at the Edge.[2]” She writes a section called “the 3 faces of compassion,” which include Referential Compassion, Wise Compassion, and Universal Compassion.[3] Briefly, Referential Compassion is for those we share close connections; Wise Compassion is a moral imperative because ignoring suffering can have serious consequences self, other, and society.  Universal Compassion is “compassion without an object.”[4]

Universal Compassion, aka True Compassion, is compassion that we join with rather than what our ego may generate.  This is when our egoic operating system steps aside and we are awakened to Infinite Love and Compassion which in a theistic tradition would be called God or Christ-consciousness.  This is what I call contemplative compassion.  The example Joan Halifax describes is falling and breaking her leg, then connecting compassionately to the medic who cared for her.  In the midst of intense pain she became aware of his suffering “which came out of nowhere.”[5] She inquired and learned that his wife was dying from breast cancer.  She writes, “…in the midst of my own critical state I had opened into an experience of universal compassion…The upwelling of boundless concern and love for another had dissolved my sense of self, and with that my pain had melted away.”[6]

I recognized in this an aspect of my own experience. Compassion for another frees me from consciousness of my own pain and suffering. I have chronic nerve pain and an additional problem of that is becoming too self-referential.  Earl in my pain journey I seemed to be only focused on my pain and alleviating it.  I also felt like no one else understands “my” pain. I was so caught up in my constructed self[7] that it often closed me off to Infinite Love and Compassion. The way through pain and suffering for me was to awaken to compassion.

Prior to the chronic nerve pain, I was interested in compassion as a way of life, but living with the new incapacities meant that I had to learn another way of daily living. Self-compassion was not the way forward for me; it was joining in compassion for another that eased my pain.  As an aside, I’ve only found self-compassion helpful when I can extend it to all others who are in pain. Joan writes, “As the illusion of the small self falls away, we remember who we really are.”[8] She quotes David Whyte who recounts a conversation that he had with Brother David Stendl-Rast,[9] when they dialogued about the swan as a metaphor. “He (the swan) does it by moving towards the elemental water where he belongs. It is simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence.”  The elemental water is infinite compassion. He continues, “You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life and it will transform everything.”[10]

The practical way that I eased into the water was to volunteer at our local zoo. I was fortunate to be able to care for the animals by assisting zookeepers. It was discovering the reality of all sentient beings and joining in compassion with them that I initially found a way through pain and suffering.  The focus on caring and compassion for others rescued me from the egoic operating system’s emphasis on “my” pain and the self-referential focus.  The path has been to return to awareness of Infinite Compassion and joining with that when I am overwhelmed by the demands of the constructed self.

 

[1] Rupp, J. (2018) Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life. Notre Dame, IN.: Soring Books, p. 4.
[2] Halifax, J. (2018) Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, p. 205-249.
[3] Ibid, p. 217ff.
[4] Ibid. p. 217.
[5] Ibid, p. 219.
[6] Ibid.
[7] See Blog post 14 for more on the constructed self.
[8] Ibid, p. 221.
[9] Ibid, p. 175.

[10] Ibid.

Blog Post #14: Compassion and Self

You may remember when I started this blog months ago I mentioned that compassion is not resourced from our ego but our true self/core self, one with God.  I have worked with these concepts for many years, first exposed to it in the work of Thomas Merton[1].  Later in Merton’s Palace of Nowhere[2] Jim Finley provides more insights into this seeming dichotomy.  For years I’ve sought a language that does not include the concepts of true and false because of the pejorative connotations of “false” self.  Then we throw ego into the mix and where does that fit in the conceptual schema?

I thought I had settled into a type of at least linguistic comfort when I changed true self to core self as the self created in the image and likeness of God and one with God. Then changing false self to constructed self, defined as that part of us that learns through life experiences. Ego is part of the constructed self and is that part that interfaces with the world and can be either healthy or wounded.

I call this linguistic comfort because there was still a felt sense of not quite right that I couldn’t identify. Recently in my reading I’ve come across the term “Essential Nature.”  It’s probably always been in the spiritual materials I read but it seemed to fit better to describe the part of our being-ness created in the image and likeness of God, Divine Love.  It was using the term “self” that I was uncomfortable with probably due to years of psychological training and influence.

“Essential Nature” emphasizes to me the gift and “given-ness” of who Infinite Love created us to be. The constructed self is all the “add-ons” to our Essential Nature, both conscious and unconscious.  Our ego then as healthy, wounded or redeemed is how we present ourself and function in the world around us. Typically it is what we are conscious of in our thinking/feeling self. It is the interface between the inside us and us in relationship to the people.

Why is this important at all? Until we realize the given-ness of compassion in our Essential Nature, it is difficult to be compassionate.  In the ego, many people judge themselves or fear compassion, both for themselves and others, because of feelings of vulnerability, unworthiness, or that they will be unproductive by letting themselves “off the hook.”

Experientially this means that we focus on removing the obstacles to living with compassion or Christ-consciousness.  We also need to access and extend our awareness of oneness with our Essential Nature.  That is, we need to enhance our awareness and spend time living with compassion, that is, living from the oneness with our Essential Nature.  In my experience, enhancing our awareness will identify the obstacles so that as we become aware we can see the strategies necessary to decrease the influence of the obstacles.

How do we live from oneness with our Essential Nature of love and compassion?  There are many spiritual practices that develop and enhance awareness of this reality including mindfulness, meditation, contemplation, prayer, sacred dance, writing, and art as a few examples. Meditation is “any act habitually entered into with our whole heart as a way of awakening and sustaining a more interior, meditative awareness of the present moment.[3]” In this present moment we are in the midst of Infinite Compassion and our task is to awaken to it and live in it.

 

 

[1] Merton, T. (1972) New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Publishing.

[2] Finley, J. (1978) Merton’s Palace of Nowhere. Notre Dame, IN.: Ave Maria Press.

[3] Finley, J. (2004) Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, p.45.

Blog Post 13: Errors in Compassion

Blog Post 13: Errors in Compassion

Today this sentence caught my attention, “The living reality of transformation…”[1] I was again reminded that “the primary agent of transformation is compassion.”[2] I’ve been struggling to write this post because I felt the need to address my failure(s) in compassion. Recently, I reacted poorly to a comment from a friend; in fact, I think I totally misunderstood it. The word “reacted” is important here since it so easily identifies when I’ve lost sight of the divinity of every human being and our oneness through love.

This time instead of being angry or frustrated with myself/ego, blaming, or trying to forget or justify my behavior (more egocentric activity), I decided to do something different.  (These thought processes hadn’t been all that helpful in the past anyway.)  There are a number of spiritual practices available but they can be used to avoid the real issue.  It seemed essential to me that I learn something through my less than helpful or compassionate response in the situation. I understand that our failures at living with compassion are our teachers, too. And I would also say that there are always opportunities to grow in compassionate living.

Looking deeply into this I could see how underlying all this egocentric drama was fear. When I am afraid, I lose sight of the Love that loves me into this moment.  In this instance, the fear was based in my ego needs, even the need to be a compassionate person!  One of the “micro-fears” was what other people would think of me. It broke the distorted image of who my constructed/false self thinks I am.  This is a key to the freedom we find in transformation, a key to growth.

Joyce Rupp writes, “In order for compassion to be more than a distant ideal, we need to be faithful to our daily spiritual practice.”[3] “…mindfulness helps us assess whether our thoughts and feelings are pulling us toward or away from compassion.”[4] When my awareness is distressed by fear or pain, I can use this as a sign that I need to be more mindfully aware.  “We will be more curious about our feelings rather than frightened of them or in denial about them, and most of all [we will learn] how to be kind which lies at the heart of compassion.”[5]

A life lived in fear and not in love/compassion is not a life lived at all.  In fact, it can be a real “hell on earth.” We all need to “get a life,” that is, a life that is lived in the reality of love and compassion.

 

 

[1] Bourgeault, C. (2018) Love is the Answer. What is the Question? Northeast Wisdom’ p. 172.
[2] Finley, J. (2004) Christian Mediation. San Francisco, CA and New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
[3] Rupp, J. (2018) Boundless Compassion. Notre Dame, IN.: Sorin Books, p. 34.
[4] Ibid, p. 35.
[5] Ibid, p. 36.

Blog 12: Why does God allow…?

Many ask, “Why does God allow…hunger, poverty, sickness, disabilities, etc.?” This quote from Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community, awakened a new awareness for me.  He wrote, “There are many hungry people in our world. God is not going to send down some bread from trees, because if somebody is hungry, it’s our problem.  If somebody is sick it’s my problem; it’s your problem.  If somebody is closed up in an institution because he has a disability, it’s my problem.  We have to do something about it…It’s up to you and me, but God will give us strength if we open our hearts to God and ask for that strength.”[1]

What came to my attention was the gift of compassion we have been given.  You may have heard it said that we are God’s hands in the world.  Usually when I hear this I feel guilty because I am not doing enough to help others. What I saw in this Vanier quote is the gift of compassion.  If all is not provided as bread falling from heaven then we have the opportunity to learn compassion by giving compassion.

Haven’t we been awakened to compassion because at least one person was compassionate to us?  And because of that experience we desired to increase compassion in our lives?  This compassionate person delighted in us and gave us the ability to seek and share compassion. Then when we share compassion with another we experience greater compassion.  Usually I experience more compassion when it is flowing through me to another.  It is this oneness with the flow of infinite love and compassion as we extend compassion to another that we truly know and experience compassion.

I invite you to breathe in compassion and while breathing out extend it to one other sentient being, a loved one, a difficult person, a cat, dog, or tiger.

 

 

[1] Vanier, J. (2006). Encountering the Other.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, p. 60-61.

Blog 11: Love steps in…

Blog 11: Love steps in…

A metaphor of compassion from James Finley:

“Here is yet another way of putting it: Our egocentric self sets out with an egocentric understanding of the spiritual path. This egocentric understanding is that of having to jump over a bar set so high that only the most finely tuned spiritual athlete could ever hope to clear it. Our struggles with distractions, sleepiness and indifference bring us to the point of near despair. We begin to fear that our doubts were true concerning our inability to master such a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

Then just as we have become exhausted and spent in our futile efforts to rise above our own limitations the saving event happens. Compassion steps out and places the bar flat on the ground! Approaching the bar, bewildered by the unthinkable simplicity o the task, we trip over it and fall headlong into God, waiting to reveal to us that we are precious in our fragility and strangely whole in the midst of our fragmentation.”

This image utterly changed my understanding of God. I return to it again and again and always it breaks my heart open with love, a love that overtakes me and awakens me to that Infinite Love that loves all sentient beings through and through.

 

 

 

 

 

Finley J. (2004) Christian Meditation. San Francisco: Harper One, p.281-282.

Blog 10: Welcoming Practice

Blog 10: Welcoming Practice

I have found a practice that I started paying attention to this summer.  It is called “Welcoming Practice” and you can find more information on it in Cynthia Bourgeault’s books, Contemplative Outreach’s website, an online course of the same title, and many more resources when you google it.  It is a way to pay attention on purpose and realign oneself in oneness with the God of Infinite Love and Compassion. Let me tell you about my personal experience practicing it this summer.

Obviously since I am new to this prayer practice I am no expert and know I have a beginner’s mind.  But I can share with you this approach and you may consider using it as a compassion practice.  There are 3 Steps and beginning is the key.   Perhaps you notice that you are a little frustrated or irritated; often these feelings increase particularly if we try to resist them.  If you’re reading this blog you are probably interested in enhancing compassion toward yourself and others and becoming irritated and frustrated just isn’t helpful on a contemplative compassion life path.

Step One is to Focus: to feel and become aware of what you are experiencing in your body.  In our example of irritation, I notice that I become tight and constricted.  I may even tighten my jaw and my breathing can change. Or it could be low blood sugar and I am hungry.  What is important is to notice what is going on in the body before my mind steps in to evaluate and often criticize or justify my irritation.  This may happen and it’s important to stay with what the body is experiencing rather than getting caught up in the mind’s storyline.

Step Two is to Welcome, that is, to welcome what you are experiencing, not to welcome the driver who just cut you off in traffic. It is an unconditional acceptance of “the reality of this situation…It is always the sensation you are accepting…and never the external situation itself.”[1]  Cynthia suggests that we “name the sensation lightly-‘Welcome, fear,’ ‘Welcome, pain,’ and so forth-rather than merely saying Welcome…”[2] Contemplative Outreach does suggest saying “Welcome, welcome, welcome.”[3] I have used both approaches and both are helpful.  I use “Welcome, welcome, welcome” to get me focused on Step 2, and then I can be specific with what I am welcoming.  This welcoming restores inner wholeness.[4]

Step Three is Letting Go.  It is not designed to fix things but rather to open ourselves and let go of repressing or reacting to what we are experiencing. It allows us the opportunity to reconnect with the Core Self one with God and then have the wisdom to act with compassion.  Letting go of the storyline we construct around daily occurrences which allows us to see clearly.  Cynthia writes, “The most important point I can make about this step is not to get to it too quickly…only when you sense that the energy bound up in the upset is beginning to wane on its own.”[5] It is a letting go of our expectations and need for control.

Cynthia Bourgeault writes about Welcoming Practice, “in fact, it is one, if not the strongest and potentially life-changing in the repertory of Christian spiritual practices.”[6]

 

[1] Bourgeault, C. (2016) The Heart of Centering Prayer.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala Press, p.91.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Contemplative Outreach (2014) “Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go.”

[4] Bourgeault, p. 92.

[5] Bourgeault, C. (2008) The Wisdom Jesus. Boston: Shambhala Press, p. 179-180.

[6] Bourgeault (2016), p.90.

Blog 9: Living the Compassionate Life

In Christianity we discuss compassion but usually in the context of acts of mercy and are discrete actions rather than a way of life. (This is a good thing, too, but not what I am focusing on in this blog.)  I have found a lot of practical guidance in living the life path of compassion from Buddhist and psychological sources.  In particular, I have found one practice that is a good beginning on the contemplative compassion journey.  That is Loving-Kindness (L-K) practice and there are many Buddhist authors and teachers who can lead you in this practice. Pema Chodron calls this Bodhicitta Practice[1].

For our purposes, I thought I’d share my modified L-K practice.  For me it is a prayer.  The language of the practice that I use is:

May you know happiness (compassion, or whatever their need might be)

And the roots of happiness (compassion);

May you be free of suffering

And the roots of suffering;

May you be peaceful and at ease;

May you know love and joy in your heart.

In Buddhist training, the direction is to start with yourself but many Westerners find expressing Loving-Kindness for yourself to be difficult.  So, the best way to begin this practice is by thinking of a person whose suffering you feel strongly and whose happiness is very important to you. This could be someone you know or have known, or someone you’ve seen on the street or read about in the newspaper. If people are too difficult, start with a beloved pet.

To expand your prayer practice to others, a typical progression might be[2]:

  • a beloved friend;
  • a benefactor or mentor;
  • a neutral person, who is someone who we neither like or dislike (like someone you meet while grocery shopping);
  • a difficult person, who is someone with whom we have experienced irritation or conflict;
  • and for all beings everywhere, without exception or distinction.

This can be part of your daily prayer practice and may arise from or lead you into contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer or Christian mediation.  It opens one’s heart to the God of Infinite Love and Compassion.

 

[1] Chodron, P.  (2013)  Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications and “Noble Heart Study Guide” (1995). Boulder, CO: Sounds True, p. 15.

[2] “Loving Kindness Practice.” Downloaded from: http://www.mindfulnet.org/Loving%20Kindness%20Practice.pdf on July 25, 2018.