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 10: Welcoming Practice

Blog 10: Welcoming Practice

I have found a practice that I started paying attention to this summer.  It is called “Welcoming Practice” and you can find more information on it in Cynthia Bourgeault’s books, Contemplative Outreach’s website, an online course of the same title, and many more resources when you google it.  It is a way to pay attention on purpose and realign oneself in oneness with the God of Infinite Love and Compassion. Let me tell you about my personal experience practicing it this summer.

Obviously since I am new to this prayer practice I am no expert and know I have a beginner’s mind.  But I can share with you this approach and you may consider using it as a compassion practice.  There are 3 Steps and beginning is the key.   Perhaps you notice that you are a little frustrated or irritated; often these feelings increase particularly if we try to resist them.  If you’re reading this blog you are probably interested in enhancing compassion toward yourself and others and becoming irritated and frustrated just isn’t helpful on a contemplative compassion life path.

Step One is to Focus: to feel and become aware of what you are experiencing in your body.  In our example of irritation, I notice that I become tight and constricted.  I may even tighten my jaw and my breathing can change. Or it could be low blood sugar and I am hungry.  What is important is to notice what is going on in the body before my mind steps in to evaluate and often criticize or justify my irritation.  This may happen and it’s important to stay with what the body is experiencing rather than getting caught up in the mind’s storyline.

Step Two is to Welcome, that is, to welcome what you are experiencing, not to welcome the driver who just cut you off in traffic. It is an unconditional acceptance of “the reality of this situation…It is always the sensation you are accepting…and never the external situation itself.”[1]  Cynthia suggests that we “name the sensation lightly-‘Welcome, fear,’ ‘Welcome, pain,’ and so forth-rather than merely saying Welcome…”[2] Contemplative Outreach does suggest saying “Welcome, welcome, welcome.”[3] I have used both approaches and both are helpful.  I use “Welcome, welcome, welcome” to get me focused on Step 2, and then I can be specific with what I am welcoming.  This welcoming restores inner wholeness.[4]

Step Three is Letting Go.  It is not designed to fix things but rather to open ourselves and let go of repressing or reacting to what we are experiencing. It allows us the opportunity to reconnect with the Core Self one with God and then have the wisdom to act with compassion.  Letting go of the storyline we construct around daily occurrences which allows us to see clearly.  Cynthia writes, “The most important point I can make about this step is not to get to it too quickly…only when you sense that the energy bound up in the upset is beginning to wane on its own.”[5] It is a letting go of our expectations and need for control.

Cynthia Bourgeault writes about Welcoming Practice, “in fact, it is one, if not the strongest and potentially life-changing in the repertory of Christian spiritual practices.”[6]

 

[1] Bourgeault, C. (2016) The Heart of Centering Prayer.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala Press, p.91.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Contemplative Outreach (2014) “Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go.”

[4] Bourgeault, p. 92.

[5] Bourgeault, C. (2008) The Wisdom Jesus. Boston: Shambhala Press, p. 179-180.

[6] Bourgeault (2016), p.90.

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.