Thursday, January 13, 2011

Learning Compassion

Ah, how painful and shocking the reports from Arizona have been and how we rejoiced yesterday with the news that Gabrielle Giffords has opened her eyes and squeezed her husband's hand. Unfortunately, the deep grief known by the families and friends of those who died will not lessen any time soon, but also, unfortunately, such events will happen again. We experience violence over and over again and wonder publicly and privately what we can do. Yes, we should express our desire for a change in the gun purchasing laws and we should hold our politicians and media professionals accountable for what is said and written, but I know I have deeper inner work to do; the work of developing a broader, more encompassing, more accessible compassionate heart.

The other morning while I was working out at Curves, the topic of worry was discussed. One woman knows she is a Big Time worrier and another said she is at the other end of the worry scale. She stated that she is able to accept people and situations as they are. I congratulated her, but she wondered if she lacks empathy. She is not often judgmental, but on the other hand she says she lacks compassion.

I try to be aware of when I am in a judging mode--and we hear a lot of that when there is a human tragedy that upsets and startles us. Why didn't someone...? Shouldn't they have...? How could this have happened? My hope, instead, is to decrease the amount of top of the head judging I do so often, and my assumption has been that if I can just be less judgmental I will automatically be more compassionate. I haven't thought enough about how to activate the compassion I know is in my heart; how to cultivate compassion as my standard operating procedure. I do believe, however, that by eliminating the prison of judgmental thoughts, we make more room for compassion, but it is then up to each of us to develop the skill of being compassionate.

Here's what Joyce Rupp in Open the Door, A Journey to the True Self offered me during one of my morning meditation times this week:

The further we enter our authentic self, the greater the contribution of our presence in the world. Within the confines of our inner sanctuary, fuller love arises and keener awareness grows of how intimately connected we are to all that exists. We become a nonjudgmental, listening, caring presence. Rather than engendering fear or animosity in us the vast diversity of people with whom we engage enlarges our compassion and broadens our enthusiasm for the complex and mysterious nature of humanity.

She further encourages me to "anoint the world with your love." My prayer is that we all become students of compassion, extending it especially when it is hardest to give.

Artwork by Jan L. Richardson


  1. Nancy, thank you for the thought-provoking entry on your blog. I know from my own life that the exercise of compassion can be an elusive goal, and also that the experience of compassion can create real benefit, both for the compassionate person and the recipient of compassion. So many people rarely understand that compassion is an integral part of moral development. I applaud your prayer that we all become students of compassion, extending it especially when is hardest to give.

    In reading your blog, I wondered about the many among us who, when they enter fully into their authentic selves, find that hate arises rather than love, and that separation grows rather than connection. (I exclude the mentally ill in this context.) I wonder if, in our national atmosphere of deeply divided beliefs, we can rise to the challenge of personal restraint necessary to conduct civil discourse, to disagree with others without castigating them. We have seen this happen on a national level in recent years with the abortion issue. People remain passionate in their positions, yet the debate has evolved and violent speech and action are rarely tolerated. As a nation, we have agreed to disagree in a civil manner about this issue.

    It is my hope that as well as extending love and compassion to others, we will hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct to exercise restraint while expressing our social and political views. For me, that means finding compassion in my heart for Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, expressing my disagreement about their actions in a respectful manner, while also holding them to a higher standard of conduct. Compassion does not mean acceptance of what we abhor, but the exercise of compassion can be a powerful force in furthering the true effectiveness of national character.

    Our national history is filled with violence and discord, the worst being the Civil War. We have healed ourselves time and time again. Now in our atmosphere of 24/7 cable TV, talk radio, and viral Internet, I join your hope that each of us may strengthen our level of compassion to help us heal our collective self.

  2. I believe that we are all born with compassion (and many other wonderful, positive qualities) but we unlearn it as we absorb the different energies and messages around us. It's hard to reactivate this compassion as adults, but it can be done. I think the key is to also be compassionate with ourselves as we realize our judgements. We can first acknowledge we make the judgement, and our can then use our compassion to move beyond it and really see other person or other cause for the root commonalities, minus the emotional baggage or intensity. It's definitely not easy, though, is it?

  3. nancy,

    i've come to realize that much of the judgment and assignment of blame is really a mask for the fear that is awakened in people when they come face to face with the chaos of violence. i almost imagine it as the fear waking up and noticing how naked (read- utterly vulnerable) it feels in the wake of trauma and then donning the mask in order to feel safe. these feelings powerlessness are behind the human desire for control (if 'i just' or if 'only they would stop' the 'fill-in-the-blank' then something like this will never touch me).
    i've watched the same name-calling happen in the last week in response to 2 tragedies in our own communities. in one, an elderly couple got lost and confused while driving home and were found days later dead from exposure. in the other, 4 teenagers were killed at once in an exceptionally violent car accident. in both instances, after the initial shock of the trauma wore off, the masks of blame-making and fault-finding came out of the closet.

    we hope to escape our pain with our judgments.

    it is much easier for me to find the heart of compassion for the wounded and the wounders, but it helps me to find compassion for those who stand on the outside judging when i peek beneath the mask at the fear.

    i remember when my own world of black and white collapsed into a shade of grey so many years ago, in the midst of my own healing from trauma, of my own heart breaking open to receive Love. in some ways i lamented this new world in which God was the circle whose center was everywhere, because i no longer had that old sense of certainty that told me on which 'side' to stand. for a time, i felt paralyzed by and ineffective in this knowing all as Love and all as Loved.... loving all is not so easy and acceptance can feel wishy washy and dispassionate.
    lately i have realized that the movement is not to one side or the other, but downward...below, within, and deep... into the heart of compassion. it is the only place to stand.

    all is well,

    ps. i was so glad to see your blogspot in the oasis emailing today. i'd tried to contact you after having read your offering in the gratitude e-book but didn't know how to reach you. i so appreciated that writing. it was rich with resonance for me. thank you.