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 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.

Compassion is not a feeling.

Blog 6: Compassion is not a feeling

Compassion is not a feeling, yet we may have feelings and emotions while in the midst of its awareness. I find that the tender/kind aspect of compassion does create warm feelings inside me but that is not its motivation.  Yes, compassion is a motivation not a feeling[1].  It is a manifestation of the divine spark within us. Feelings too often are egocentric rather than a joining with and manifesting the divine spark in our daily lives. This is why compassion can be a way of life, a way of being in our daily lives.  It becomes the manifestation of all we do.

Even saying that, I know that we get distracted from this motivation.  In western culture we are very focused on the individual.  Our first response to everything tends to be, “what impact will this have on me and mine?” We are conditioned into this from a very early age.  When compassion is our motivation it asks more of us. It asks us to be aware of our competing motivations and to have the courage to choose compassion even in difficult circumstances.  Jesus tells us to “Love our enemies,”[2]  and to “Love our neighbor as ourselves,”[3] yet this is very different from the dominant values and motivations in our culture and as humans it seems to be weaned out of us.

Yet, every religion has some language that encourages the follower to love their neighbor.  Since it is such a dominant theme it must be possible for us to live compassionately.  In order to set out on the Path of Compassion, one must first be aware and conscious of how often we are not compassionate; not as a way to judge ourselves or create shame, but to see the opportunities when we can choose a compassionate response.  If you’ve ever wanted, like me, to be “non-judgmental” isn’t it amazing how it seems like all we do is judge! Yet, this is the silver lining of the cloud, to have the gift of sight so that one can see a way forward.  Even to consider that there is a different response, a response of compassion, in any situation is a step on the path.

This week let us pause and consider our motivations.  Is it an egocentric motivation or is another option available to us? And in this step, practice compassion for all our wayward ways knowing that God writes straight with crooked lines.[4]

 

 

[1] Gilbert, P.  and Choden (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, p. 59.

[2] Luke 6:27

[3] Mark 12:31

[4] Attributed as an old Portuguese saying; I first became aware of this through a talk given by James Finley, Ph.D.

The Courage to be Compassionate

Blog 4: Courage

Many people have difficulty with compassion because they think that to be compassionate you have to be powerless and become a “doormat.”  This is far from the truth although for me it is the most difficult aspect of compassion.  As I previously mentioned, Steve Gilligan described compassion as tender, fierce, and mischievous, and when I studied fierce compassion, I found that for me a better descriptor was courage.

In an effort to not practice “idiot compassion” (please see Blog 3: Wisdom), one needs to be able to be fierce like a mother protecting her child.  We often see this in the wild, where tiger and lion moms will sacrifice and fight to the death to protect their cubs.  Human moms express their fierceness somewhat differently but we can still observe a mother’s reaction to anything that potentially threatens her child.

There are other examples when courage is necessary to compassion.  When we see wrongdoing in the world, and take action to create change, this requires the courage of compassion.  You have perhaps encountered someone who is quite strident in their social justice words and it has the effect of discounting their efforts.  We don’t need to be aggressive and mean to change the world, such as using forms of violence to create peace and justice. We do need to seek, from our Core Self/Christ Consciousness, what Love is calling us to do in the situation.  It is only when we pause and seek to see from Christ’s eyes that we can select the best path of action.  Even personally, it will require setting ego boundaries to find the capacity to pause and awaken to Christ consciousness because we automatically respond with retribution rather than restorative justice.  This is the “fight or flight” response of our basic brain structure.

Pema Chodron recounts in her audio series “Noble Heart”[1]  a story that a student shared with her.  The short version is that this person had a roommate who was addicted to drugs.  Out of tender compassion, although he did not support his behavior, he did not interfere and accepted him as he was. One day he came home to find his roommate nearly dead on the floor and he became so angry at the roommate he screamed at him to stop doing this to himself and take care of himself. He then left the apartment. He expected upon his return that his roommate would be very angry with him and/or moved out. Instead he found a roommate who was grateful that he had cared enough about him to get angry and the roommate stopped using drugs.

Paul Gilbert, Ph.D. wrote in 2015, “When people hear the word compassion, they tend to think of kindness. But scientific study has found the core of compassion to be courage.”[2] He continues, “The point is that kind people don’t always have the courage to behave compassionately.”  For some people, it takes courage just to acknowledge suffering, let alone act to alleviate it.  Compassion requires something out of us and it takes courage to open ourselves to suffering and use the three facets of compassion, tenderness, courage, and wisdom, to act from our Core Self.

 

 

 

[1] Chdron, P. (1998) “Noble Heart.” Boulder, CO.: Sounds True.

[2] Gilbert, P. (2015) “Compassion Universally Misunderstood” in Huffington Post-UK. Aug. 25, 2015, retrieved on June 12, 2018.

What is wisdom in the context of contemplative compassion?

As I wrote in a previous post, I describe compassion as tender, courageous, and wise.  Tender compassion seems so commonly understood that I will save it for a later post.  What is most often misunderstood about compassion is the necessity for wisdom.  Yet it is not a wisdom born from egocentricity but from awareness of reality.  Wisdom allows us to see beyond the surface appearance of things and grasp what is most helpful.

Many people think of compassion as just being nice all the time.  This is why one cannot be compassionate without wisdom.  We need to move beyond niceness to what is really important and helpful to another person. The core self one with God can see the most effective response which is both wise and loving.  It’s not “idiot compassion” [1]  which is defined as avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over you, taking action in order to “look good,” or fear of taking action because of what others might think.

Philosopher Ken Wilber says, “Real compassion includes wisdom and so it makes judgments of care and concern; it says some things are good, and some things are bad, and I will choose to act only on those things that are informed by wisdom and care….What most people mean by ‘compassion’ is please be nice to my ego.”[2]

Many great spiritual teachers have used the wisdom of compassion when asked questions from well-meaning students or the self-righteous. Often their response is paradoxical or metaphorical. This can stop the “brain freeze” of suffering in that it breaks habitual thought patterns and assumptions. This can be seen in Jesus’ telling Nicodemus that he must be born again.  This compassionate response confused Nicodemus and in the ensuing dialogue Jesus moved him from confusion to spiritual wisdom.  The Buddhist practice of koan study evokes wisdom such as the cow passing through the latticed window and all but the tail passes through.  Why doesn’t the tail pass through?

When compassionate thinking is fused with compassionate feeling we move towards the position of wisdom.  Wisdom emerges because we have deep insight into the nature of things.”[3]

“Compassion without wisdom can be misdirected and misguided. Wisdom allows us to see what the world is and how it works; compassion allows us to act appropriately on that knowledge.”[4]

Wisdom as a facet of compassion is an extensive topic and this is only meant to be an introduction to the concept.  It is a key aspect and necessary to understanding contemplative compassion.

 

[1] Idiot Compassion is a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche.

[2] Wilber, K. (1999). One taste: The journals of Ken Wilber. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., page 93.

[3] Gilbert, P. (2007) “Using Compassion to Change our MindsAppendix 7 in Psychotherapy and Counselling for Depression. London: Sage Publications.

[4] Miller, J.P. (2016) Julian and the Buddha, Common points along the way.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, page 172.

What is Compassion and What is Suffering?

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I feel it is important to define what we mean by compassion.

Most definitions of compassion include some notion of suffering, i.e. compassion is to “suffer with” another. It seems to me then, that we first need to define suffering.  In certain Western cultures, we tend to think of suffering as a really big incident or something of huge import.  So people who are starving in the Third World, persons whose loved one dies unexpectedly, or some loss of life or home in a flood, fire, earthquake, or hurricane; these are the people who suffer.

But what about daily life for us?  Don’t we suffer and need compassion?  I think we need a broader definition of suffering to extend compassion in our daily lives.  Buddhists use the term. “dukkha” which describes “…anything on a scale from small annoyances to serious diseases…anything that fosters a separate sense of self and suppresses our natural tendency to be one with the Ultimate.”[1]  Yes, there are degrees of suffering but “it occurs because life involves change and decay, loss, disappointment and impermanence.”[2]  Simply put dukkha means “suffering, unsatisfactoriness, frustration, and disappointment.”[3]  This description of suffering/dukkha explains suffering in the context of contemplative compassion for me.

I will leave you with 2 of my favorite descriptions of compassion:

Jim Finley, Ph.D. mystic, author, and psychologist, defines compassion this way, “Compassion is that love that recognizes and goes forth to identify with the preciousness of all that is lost and broken within ourselves and others.”[4]

Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., creator of Compassion-Focused Therapy, defines it this way, “being sensitive to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to prevent and relieve it.”[5] Paul Gilbert’s thinking “is based on an “evolutionary neuroscience approach.”[6]  This is helpful for our purposes in that he describes behavior which requires a number of different competencies and attributes which can be developed and practiced in relationship to others. Although it is focused predominantly on the ego-self, there is much there for the contemplative compassion seeker.

Finally, a definition of suffering/dukkha is essential to how I define compassion, that is, compassion is tender, courageous, and wise. We will explore tender, courageous, and wise in next week’s blog.

 

[1] Miller, J.P. (2016) Julian and the Buddha, Common points along the way.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, page 126

[2] IBID

[3] Miller, J.P.  p. 234

[4] Finley, J. (2004) Christian Meditation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, Harper-Collins Publishers, p.279.

[5] Gilbert, P. and Choden (2014) Mindful Compassion. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., p. 1.

[6] Gilbert, P. (2009) The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., p. 193.