Ian is pastor of Christ Community Church
There is a wonderful practice called the Compassion Exercise.
Consider this series of situations. After attempting to place yourself in the shoes of the person and situation, repeat the compassion phrase. Each situation gets gradually closer to home.
A 12 year old Iraqi boy named Ali Abbas, recently lost his entire family and both his arms when a rocket hit their home. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Ali has known deep sadness and fear. ”
Maria is a 15 year old girl who lives in Honduras and works 12 hours a day without any overtime pay, and no access to drinking water. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans. She does so unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”
Consider a politician with whom you have very different views. Say to yourself, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”
Consider a friend, family member or a colleague that you find yourself in conflict with or maybe have been in conflict with in the past. With that person in mind, say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in their life.”
Finally, focus on the person closest to you, and with your focus on that person, say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in their life.”
Compassion and Religion
One of the central symbols of the Christian tradition is the cross. When we move beyond the notion that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath at our sins and begin to see the symbol of Jesus as a human being holding in his body the suffering of the world, then we get closer to the essence of the origins of our Christian tradition. Just as Jesus was a human being holding in a bodily way the suffering of the world, so you have our own Christ consciousness, and in a sense you hold the pain of the world.
Compassion is a central theme in all of the world religions, including the Christian tradition. In Buddhism the mythical personification of compassion is called Kanzeon. Kanzeon literally means, “Hearing the cries of the world.” Kanzeon had the ability to manifest with different faces and in different ways to meet the needs of the time, always with the face and hands of compassion. It is said that Kanzeon had 11 faces to see and hear the pain of the world, 1000 arms to hold the suffering of the world. That’s what compassion is. It means to feel the suffering of another and to want it to end.
Compassion and the Meaning of Life
There is a Hasidic story that captures the essence of compassion.
One morning a group of students asked Reb Yerachmiel, “What is the point of human life? Why are we here?” The Rebbe replied, “If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?” The students debated this for a while and then the Rebbe replied, “Here is my understanding. Without an ear to register the vibrations of the falling tree no sound is produced. Sound is not a thing but a transaction between things. For there to be sound, there must be a falling tree and an ear to hear. Why are we here? We are the other half of the transaction. We are here to hear.” “But other beings hear!” a student said. “And dogs can hear sounds humans can’t hear. Are dogs more important than us?” “True,” Reb Yerachmiel said, “dogs can hear what we cannot. But we can hear what even dogs cannot. We can hear the cry of a broken heart. We can hear the outrage of injustice. We can hear the whisper of empathy. We can hear the silence of death. You are here to listen not only to what everyone else can hear, but also to that which only you can hear.”
Why are you here? You are here to know God. You are here to know God, and through your knowing, to transform the world with justice and compassion.
Compassion and the Axial Sages
Karen Armstrong wrote a ground breaking book called The Great Transformation. It explains how each of the world religions- Judaism/Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Greek philosophy, each emerged out of the Axial Age. The Axial Age was a time when the focus was moving away from ritual and correct belief, and far more to compassion, and acting justly towards each other.
Jesus was an axial sage. He put very little emphasis on what people believe. He presented no systematic theology. Most of his emphasis was on the way people act towards each other and how compassionate we are. That’s no surprise when you read Karen Armstrong’s book, because you see that the centuries leading up to the life of Jesus and those who wrote about the life of Jesus were deeply influenced by the axial sages.
The central theme for the axial sages was direct experience of God and ethical behavior in the midst of suffering. Ritual was deemphasized. Doctrine was secondary. Compassion was primary.
What are the many faces of compassion that each of us can express? Like Kanzeon’s 11 different faces, what are your different faces of compassion?
Compassion as Charity or Empowerment?
There is a difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. I began learning that lesson when I was 19. I was in my first week of a job working for a downtown church on the streets in Sydney. One of the first people that I met was a 15 year-old girl. She came to me asking for money. So I sat down with her and began to hear some of her story. Through her sobs I was able to make out the tragedy that was this girl’s life. At the end of a long conversation I felt so her pain so deeply, that I just had to do something. So I took her to a local hotel and I paid for her to stay the night. I arranged with her to meet the next morning, and we would sit down and talk about what job she could get and how her whole life could come together.
I had such a great plan in mind, and was so excited that I couldn’t sleep that night. I went first thing the next morning to the hotel and was shocked that she wasn’t there. She checked out before the night had even begun, taking the money with her. About three days later I saw her on the street, and we were passing each other, and she looked me in the eyes as she walked past without stopping as if to say, “You just learned a big lesson didn’t you?”
I learned something very important through that situation. It could be described with the term “Idiot Compassion”, or naïve compassion. I hadn’t worked out why I needed to help, or what my intention was. The compassion I offered was more like charity than empowerment. Charity is when I do something TO someone; empowerment is when I help someone to help themselves. There is a place for both. There is a place for helping even when we don’t have our motives completely checked. I’d rather see someone helped than not, but how much more profound if we can help people help themselves, and to do it out of a deep inner mindfulness?
Waking Up to Compassion
There is a wonderful analogy of this point. If you are having a dream in which there are 1000 people starving, there are two ways that you can stop their suffering. The first is that in your dream you can feed them. The second is that you can wake up. The minute that you wake up, their suffering ends. We have to surely do both. We have to wake up, understand ourselves, and what motivates us, and we have to feed 1000 people. We have to do both and somehow find that right balance of the two things: Practical action and personal awareness. Finding the balance is what it’s all about.
As you consider your own life, consider your faces of compassion. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and comforting, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can simply sit with someone, or it can take someone’s hand and walk with them, or anywhere on that spectrum.
Compassion can be neat and clear, and compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. As Marianne Williamson said, when you live in tune with the God within, “Your presence automatically liberates others.” Compassion is about being with someone through the trials of life, even when there is nothing to be said and nothing to be done.
The ultimate mark of progressive theology is not doctrine, but compassion.
Compassion is deep within and it exists in abundance. Wake up to it. With your many faces and many arms of compassion, reach out and be that compassion to those around you. In so doing, you fulfill the axial principle, you fulfill the call of Jesus and you manifest the presence of God for the world.