Monday, October 23rd 2017

All I want for 2011 is a compassionate brain

Karen Armstrong announces a “Charter for Compassion“. David Rickey, a pastoral counselor, Episcopal priest and Soul’s Code dude, invites us to sign up — and do our own inner work

DAVID RICKEY — Perhaps especially in this holiday season, we hear a lot about compassion, usually when we are being asked to contribute to a worthy charity.  And so, “compassion” and “charity” can mingle into a concept of reaching out to those less fortunate than ourselves.  It even gets associated with “mercy” and “pity”, and all these words can tend to have an air of looking down on others, and giving us an attitude of superiority.  The word “compassion” comes from the Latin com and passius meaning to suffer with another, or to sympathize. We say, “I know just what you’re feeling”, meaning, “I have felt the same. I know what it is like.” But usually, when we exhibit compassion we aren’t really “suffering” with the other but are trying to relieve the suffering of another, or more often, unfortunately, relieve our own discomfort at seeing someone else  suffer.

Teachings from The Buddha

The Buddha said:

“Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.”

But perhaps we might find this easier if we understood compassion in a more positive sense. Rather than suffering with others, wanting others to feel as good as we do. We have the expression, “before you judge another, walk for a while in his shoes.” When I think of that, a corollary comes to mind. “If you like how it feels walking in your shoes, consider buying an identical pair for someone else.”

The Golden Rule has no spiritual borders

rockwel1All great spiritual traditions have some form of what we call “The Golden Rule”. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or do not treat others as you would not want to be treated. Another, more direct statement, is the principle of Ahimsa in Sanskrit, or not doing any harm to any creature.

All of these expressions have one thing in common, the recognition of our relationship with all other living things and our responsibility (ability to respond) for the welfare of others. We are all related, interconnected. Our actions and choices affect others and their actions and reactions to our choices affect us.

When we realize this, it makes perfect sense to treat all beings well. But we don’t. Our ego-mind sees distinctions and doesn’t easily “get” the connection. It is an evolutionary thing. From birth we each think we are the center of the universe. And indeed, that gets reinforced as all our needs are met for us. We are ego-centric.

As we grow up and begin to realize that our family and community takes care of us to an extent, but also expects some caring in return, we usually move to what is called an “ethno-centric” mind and our behavior may shift accordingly. We are to become “world-centric.”

In this increasingly globalized world, we are being challenged to realize how our actions affect the whole world -- financially, climatically, even gastronomically. (Read Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma“) We are to become “world-centric”. But this takes effort.

Reprogamming the reptilian brain

The ego-mind still holds remnants of the sense that it is at the center of everything. That’s not our fault, exactly. It’s just the way our brain works -- the left side processes information that way, and the reptilian brain or amygdala reacts to the world first. That’s its job.

meditation2The keys to developing compassion, then, require reprogramming the brain, literally. And there are two primary ways to do this. The first is meditation. By actively learning to quiet the mind’s chatter (primarily the ego-left-sided generated “noise” in our head) we have access to the other (right, more holistic) side of our brain. This is work.

But it is work worth doing, especially if you want to help create a better world around you. A somewhat shorter route is to first become aware of your thinking -- learning to observe the chatter from another place of awareness. Then as you become aware of the reactions and judgments that flow from the ego- or ethno-centric chatter, you can realize that there is a tiny gap between the thought and the resulting action.

You can notice the thought before the action happens. Then you can insert your will into that gap and decide whether you really want to react that way, go down that road.

And you can, with practice, stop the reaction and think about a better response. There is even some nice payoffs with this practice. First you realize that you have more control over yourself -- you don’t get so bothered by things. And second, you’ll find that people start responding more nicely to you in return -- you haven’t triggered a reaction in them (even if they may be less enlightened than you -- though, remember, smugness will go before your fall!).

Change is coming to the world. . .with or without us

compassionheartWe are clearly at a crossroad in our evolutionary journey on this planet. The planet itself is beginning to smack us upside the head, trying to encourage our growth towards “world-centric” thinking and behavior. As we watch the Climate Change Conference and the Health Care Debate, to name only two of the most pressing problems, we can see the need for compassion and for changing of our mind’s very wiring to think more holistically about the problems that confront us. It is very frustrating, even depressing.

But we must remember Ghandi’s teaching:

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.

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6 Comments on “All I want for 2011 is a compassionate brain”

  1. I like the idea of being more aware of my thinking. With practice, I'm starting to make this a reality for myself. Instead of having a "knee jerk" reaction to those who might BE jerks (LOL) I'm thinking more about how to respond to stressors in my life.

    Thanks to this site for helping my evolution. Those around me would thank you too, if they only knew why I'm acting more calm lately.

  2. I loved it. It is something that we all should work hard at. We should try to stop looking down on others and begin to show compassion. We should put ourselves in their shoes and begin to imagine how they feel.

  3. I thought it good that Father Rickey raised the question whether our "compassionate" persona often arises to "relieve our own discomfort at seeing someone else suffer". He goes on to say that "recognition of our relationship with all other living things and our responsibility" is what drives our Ahimsa -- the doing of no harm (which includes inaction).

    This is fine, but I'd take it a bit further. True compassion is realization that the suffering we respond to as seen in others *is* our own, just as empathy with another who is joyful also is our own. The fears and desires of ego scream it is not so, but we are one.

  4. I agree with most of the content of the article but would like to add:

    Changes are possible only with those that are ready for change. Compassion is related to a level of consciousness (See the books of David R Hawkins: Power vers Force etc.) i.e. people in fear or hate are far away from a frame of mind/heart that is needed to make that change.

    All that is happening in this world is perfect, as it is part of the uplifting power which drives us to higher consciousness. We are Eternal Beings but we have confused our body, our knowledge and our experience with who we really are; It is all content or the map of reality.

    Many people are able to follow their heart and destiny and have become Light-workers, some in the view of the public but many in silence. Their minds nevertheless are aiding in the lift/shift to higher consciousness moving to greater compassion and love.

    There are also many who's ego-minds are getting pretty scared as they too feel the power, but they are resisting the change and looking for ways to keep the ego-mind alive in it's power struggle. They are the ones that believe they have to change others and change the world.

    The only change possible is that we change our self to our SELF.

    Love and Light

  5. When I allow myself to contemplate the suffering of others, it either reminds me of something similar that I had experienced, or I imagine the pain of what the experience would be like if it happened to me. However, this is not compassion; it is sympathy touched with pity, it is negative and doesn’t help me or the people suffering.

    I came across a deeply moving article on the web which included a powerful distinction between sympathy and compassion:

    “Although sympathy is a form of caring, it implies pity. We express concern and ask what we can do, yet are grateful their problems are not ours. This perpetuates the fear that we couldn’t bear the same situation, and keeps us wanting to avoid the truth of their experience. While it is natural to feel sympathy when someone is hurting, there is little sense of what to offer as meaningful support.”

    “Compassion springs from the profound sense of being human and acknowledging the truth of another’s experience without pity or fear. Compassion frees us to be courageous and loving, even while sitting with someone who is suffering. When we accept we are not immune from the same fate, we become more skillful and available. Compassion offers a bridge of trust and potential for honesty.”

    The article goes on to give very practical suggestions on how to be grounded in compassion and acceptance. Below are just four ideas that stood out for me:

    • Use breath to increase your compassion and reduce stress
    • Be empty of expectation
    • Listen without offering solutions
    • Expect to feel upset at times

    Yes, we can definitely reprogram our minds to be more compassionate firstly by being aware of our human tendency to sympathy and then to “sit with our fears, acknowledge how helpless we feel, and let our compassionate heart show us how to give love.”

  6. I agree wholeheartedly that our brains can be reprogrammed to be more compassionate. In Stephen Cope's book The Wisdom of Yoga, he talks about this very directly in a section called Practice the Opposite. Rather than resisting negative mind-states like greed, hatred or delusion, we give juice to their opposites and those negative traits naturally die away.

    Recent brain research bears this out too. Our brains are far more elastic than we imagine and we do become whatever we practice. It's difficult to experience both hatred and love at the same time. Every negative trait has an opposite that can be intentionally cultivated, Cope says.

    In the Christian faith, we're transformed by the renewing of our mind, praying for our enemies and dwelling on what is good, pure, excellent etc. In the Buddist tradition, there's a meditation called a metta meditation. It is practiced by focusing on a series of repeated phrases: May you feel protected and safe; may you feel contented and pleased; may your body support you with strength; may your life unfold smoothly and with ease. These phrases are aimed first toward self, next toward a benefactor, followed by a neutral person, and finally toward a difficult person in our life or an enemy.

    This is a powerful form of meditation that has the effect of changing our mind state AND our behaviors. Cope says this is like sneaking around behind our conditioned patterns rather than confronting them head on. And because we are retraining, not resisting, they work. It's our resistance to negative mind states that helps them grow even larger.

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