Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Heart of the Matter


The times I’ve gotten in the most trouble in my life, the times I’ve been the most victimized, upset, confused or oppressed are those times when I have lost sight of compassion.

I’ve been having conversations about compassion lately with friends, looking at it from various angles and it's sparked some thought. For instance, why is compassion so hard sometimes? We’ve been told a lot of things about why it’s hard:

“Nice people get hurt.”

“You’ll get taken advantage of.”

“People will just take and take from you if you let them, and not give anything back.”

“People will never learn if you let them get away with it.”

“You have to keep people in line.”

You can probably think of a dozen more examples. The strange truth is, that the more compassion you have, the less possible it is to hurt you or take advantage of you. If you get hurt by showing compassion, then it is not really compassion – it is something else. But bear with me because I am redefining compassion here.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines compassion as:

“A suffering with another; painful sympathy; a sensation of sorrow excited by the distress or misfortunes of another; pity; commiseration. Compassion is a mixed passion, compounded of love and sorrow; at least some portion of love generally attends the pain or regret, or is excited by it. Extreme distress of an enemy even changes enmity into at least temporary affection.”

Though it can be really nice to be understood so deeply when one is experiencing suffering and to know that someone else cares, this type of compassion can sometimes end up making two people feel bad, instead of just one.

We all know of stories of effective demonstration of compassion that have touched us – something that was done, not just felt. A recent YouTube video has been circulating about a dog that risked its life to pull another dog off a freeway after it was hit by a car. Some might argue the dog was operating from some animal instinct that had nothing to do with sorrow or love, but I don’t think that anyone would argue that the act itself could be described as compassionate in its results (per the video, the rescued dog lived).

We could redefine compassion as an action word – a conscious decision and resultant action that creates effective, positive change for both giver and receiver alike. Though feelings of compassion often inspire such actions, it can also work the other way around. A decision to act compassionately can give rise to any number of positive feelings from everyone involved.

Compassion could be described as responsibility – the willingness to take responsibility for what the other person does as well as what you do. It could also be described as knowledge. If you’re willing to experience anything – because you understand why it is happening and you take responsibility for your choices that led up to that, there is nothing in this universe that can harm you.

To the degree you are truly able to face something, you can be compassionate about it. It is a viewpoint and a decision – a discipline and practice that one can get better at. We all know people who are just “naturally” compassionate, and we tend to admire those people a lot for being able to do that, but the only difference between them and anybody else is that somehow, they made the decision to be compassionate at some point. Sometimes it was a conscious decision, more often it was not. They were given reasons to be that way that made sense to them, while people who find it difficult to show compassion were given reasons they shouldn’t be, like those listed above.

We’ve all been betrayed and screwed over, in some fashion or another. In many cases, we can look at those incidents and recognize some point where we knew better, where we could have turned the tide and avoided being a victim. Sometimes it’s really hard to see it - sometimes it’s really, really hard, especially when one is stuck in the middle of the hurt. But that point is there, where one had a choice to become the adverse effect, or not. That point does not necessarily have anything to do with whether one chooses an emotional feeling of compassion or decides instead to harden their heart. It can have something to do with right action, right speech, and correct assessment of the situation so that one is not taken by surprise. Compassion is not necessarily a feeling, though feelings can certainly go along with it. It is a viewpoint and a decision, a discipline and a practice.

Compassion is a natural state of being. We teach ourselves to hide and suppress compassion, because we have been blindsided and tricked. It is not because we showed compassion that we were blindsided though. That is the big lie. It is because we did not look at what was in front of us that we were injured. We were careless. Our prediction of what might happen was inadequate. And because we did not fully see the shortcomings of the person, their capability to be imperfect, and therefore became upset when it manifested, we were not showing true compassion. Do you see how it is not compassion that hurts us, but the opposite?

Real compassion makes a being strong and powerful, not weak. If you are practicing true compassion, you cannot be victimized. Bullets, hate, treachery, none of it can touch you. This fact goes beyond physical universe appearances into the metaphysical. It is not something that is necessarily real unless you have experienced it for yourself. Try it, and see if it works for you! But keep in mind that it is a gradient thing, there are many levels of compassion, as there are levels of awareness.

We can all think of examples of highly compassionate people who have been cut down because of it – Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. But were they really hurt, in the larger scheme of things? Their legacy lives on far more powerfully than those that attacked them, who are remembered only because of the greatness of the men they tried to harm. There is a strength of soul that comes from being compassionate that makes life far more rich and beautiful than living in fear or defense against potential harm. That quality may very well be more valuable than anything one may be protecting by suppressing a compassionate viewpoint.

I am far from being able to be compassionate at all times – I consider myself a baby on the subject. But I’ve experienced enough of it from multiple angles to know that it is truly one of the most powerful weapons and healing antidotes that exist.

There have been many beautiful things expressed about compassion throughout the ages. Here is one of my favorite essays on the subject, a classic written by L. Ron Hubbard, who, by all evidence, is a man who practiced what he preached quite thoroughly - "What is Greatness?":

A community is a great place to practice effective compassion, and how much stronger is a community that practices such things?...


No comments: