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 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.

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.