It’s been a tough year for those committed to living compassionately.
People refuse to wear masks, thus endangering the lives of our more vulnerable from Covid. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his net worth in a single day, while his company paid just a little over 1% in taxes in 2019, despite the United States 21% federal tax rate on corporations (1). An estimated 19 to 23 million individuals are at high risk of being evicted from their homes by the end of September, hitting Black and Latinx rents the hardest (2). We have a corporatized healthcare system unable and ill-equipped to provide basic healthcare and fostering increasing inequities (3). And we have a policing system rife with systemic and structural racism.
In spite of all the anger and yes—hate—we can train in compassion. We train in order to RELEARN to relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us from a place of understanding and compassion rather than from excessive judgment. Full disclosure: I can more easily extend compassion and well-being toward the sheep. It’s the leaders who perpetuate social and ecological injustices for greed, selfishness, and political gain who I have trouble with.
SEE BEHIND: THE INTENTION TO BE OPEN TO THE FIELD OF LOVE
For this I turn to the teachings of Andrew Dreitcer, Associate Professor of Spirituality, Director of Spiritual Formation, and Co-Director of the Center for Engaged Compassion. I attended his workshop at the 2016 International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, hosted by the Mind & Life Institute (4 and 5).
Using a thousand-year-old Christian early morning practice, he led us in a process of INTENTION to be open; i.e., when we are not capable of compassion, but we truly desire to be available to the presence of love, for ourselves and others.
First centering ourselves, he asked us to seek within us one word that could focus us on the intention to be open.
That word—our mantra—was then the focus of our meditation for the next 20 minutes, the idea being that throughout the day when anger or fury arose and compassion for our fellow human beings was nowhere to be found, we could return to this word with the intent to extend compassion.
I find this process very hopeful—and helpful. Instead of throwing myself on the rocks for my lack of compassion, I can at least stay in this space of intent, knowing it is an ancient monastic tradition where it just might lead me into a “connection with an eternal, loving presence,” as Andrew called it.
SEE BEHIND: COMPASSION VS. EMPATHY
At that same conference, Geshe Thupten JInpa of McGill University spoke on “Understanding the Psychology Behind Compassion Meditation.”
Compassion is a natural sense of concern that arises within us when confronted with another’s suffering and then feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.
It’s comprised of three parts: first there’s the understanding that someone IS suffering; second, we feel an emotional connection; and third, we are motivated to see the suffering relieved. And this third piece of “doing” includes the prayerful act of practicing lovingkindness toward another, of wishing the other well by connecting spiritually to our common humanity.
A significant difference between empathy and compassion is that third step: empathy takes us to the place where we enter emotionally into someone else’s suffering; we focus on the problem and the experience of it. If we stay in this emotional swirl, we can easily shift into “empathy burnout”.
We manifest compassion, however, when motivated to relieve that suffering; it takes on an ethical quality—a way of being.
A solution to the personal distress of empathy burnout is to shift empathy to compassion. Empathy can take a form of “feeling for” vs. the “feeling with” of compassion.
On the word lovingkindness, meditation author and teacher Sharon Salzberg says that while the word includes “a deep acknowledgement of connection [with someone], it doesn’t mean you like them or approve of them; it doesn’t demand action; it doesn’t mean being sweet, with only a sugary ‘yes’” to that which contradicts who we are.
“Compassion,” she continued, “rests on the shared understanding that we are all quite vulnerable. In life there is nothing we can hold on to” as permanent, all is always changing.
Whatever your experience is, sit mindfully with it experience nonjudgmentally, asking your higher self what you can do to mitigate the suffering around us. You may just sit there and breathe, expressing goodwill toward that person. You may find yourself walking away. You may find yourself at a demonstration, facing exposure to teargas.
I encourage you to see behind: to see behind someone else’s comments and actions—and your own. Train in shifting that energy within you from excessive judgment to compassion and lovingkindness.
Notes & Sources:
- https://www.fastcompany.com/90536152/calculate-how-many-seconds-it-takes-jeff-bezos-to-earn-your-annual-salary; https://www.salon.com/2020/07/24/as-laid-off-workers-face-a-financial-cliff-amazons-jeff-bezos-grows-13-billion-richer-in-one-day_partner/
- ISCS “brings together scientists, scholars, artists and contemplatives to explore distinct though overlapping fields of research and scholarship, using a multidisciplinary, integrative approach to advance our understanding of the human mind.” This blog includes thoughts from a previous blog I wrote in 2017.
- The mission of the Mind & Life Institute is to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions. https://www.mindandlife.org/mission
About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working, and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her spiritual connection at People House and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.