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.

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.