Blog Post 16: Paths Beyond Ego

Blog Post 16: Paths Beyond Ego

This is an important key to understanding compassion as a way of life.  Although our ego is involved in daily living, the Source of compassion is infinite and beyond ego.  We cannot bypass the Source and expect to live compassionately, it is beyond the ability of our finite ego to accomplish.  And even if the ego could accomplish this it would just make it more egocentric, which is not a characteristic of compassion.

In Boundless Compassion[1] and in the retreats of the same title, Joyce Rupp fills a void that some other teachers of compassion overlook or don’t acknowledge.  To realize that we are one with and created in the image of Infinite Love and Compassion, that is, it is our essential nature (aka, True Self) is the foundation and reality of living compassionately. To quote Thomas Merton, “…for it beats in our very blood whether we want it to or not.”[2] Joyce speaks from this foundation, The Source of Infinite Compassion.

At the same time she focuses on daily living a compassionate life. Is this not who we are called to be?  To follow and live as Christ in the world; in the practical, daily life.  In the tradition of Merton, Joyce provides wisdom from theistic and non-theistic resources as a basis for a compassionate life. After all, Tibetan Buddhism has studied ways to practically implement compassion in daily life for over a thousand years.

In the Introduction to Week 1 of Boundless Compassion, Joyce writes “Compassion is a way of life-an inner posture of how to be with suffering, both our own and others, and a desire to move that attitude into action. Compassion involves an ‘inside-out’ movement. A radical change unfolds in us when compassion becomes a way of life, a transformation as far-reaching as an acorn growing into a tree,…or a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly.”[3]  In this way we see that “compassion the primary agent of transformation”[4] as Jim Finley states.

In Blog 2, “What is Compassion and What is Suffering?” I described compassion as tenderness, courage, and wisdom (TCW). Joyce provides the basis for TCW and also identifies the “movement of compassion–awareness, attitude, and action—and the four essential aspects of nonjudgment, nonviolence, forgiveness ,and mindfulness”[5] in multiple aspects of daily life.  These aspects create the necessary training to habituate the transformation to a compassionate life of tenderness, courage, and wisdom.

Boundless Compassion is eminently practical since there are daily practices and prayers around each weekly theme of compassionate living. “Compassion is a photosynthesis of the heart…We cannot hurry this transformation, but we can give ourselves to it as fully as possible, knowing that it entails a continual recommitment.”[6]  My future blog posts will highlight these themes and encourage us all to live a compassionate way of life in the midst of today’s world.

 

[1] Rupp, J. (2018) Boundless Compassion: Creating a Way of Life. Notre Dame, IN.: Sorin Books. [2] Merton, T. (1961) New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Publishing, p. 297.  [3] Rupp, p.12. [4] Finley, James said on many retreats and found in Christian Mediation (2004) San Francisco, CA and New York: HarperSanFrancisco. [5] Rupp, p. 12. [6] Rupp, p. 14.

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 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.