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.

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