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 workDAVID 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
All 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.
The 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
We 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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