I don’t think I’ve properly understood what compassion is before this year.
Do you know what it is? And how to practice it?
All the gurus and spiritual teachers from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa either talk about or practice compassion – yet to the intellectual mind it’s just another word or concept that’s open to a lot of misinterpretation.
For example, how do you feel when you watch Children in Need?
Until recently I would typically sit and sob, or leave the room, or conveniently forget that it’s on in the first place so I don’t have to put myself through the self-flagellating guilt and shame that others are suffering sooo damn much and all I can do is pledge a paltry donation. Surely compassion is more than a conscience-salving monetary promise?
And when I encounter people huddled on the street and hear that quiet plea “Got any change love?” my whole system is sent into a momentary crisis, helpless in front of the injustice and the uncertainty over what might be the right and ethical thing to do. Finding a way that feels proper to me is still a work in progress. And giving a sympathetic, conciliatory smile along with a pound coin doesn’t feel proper at all.
One day I heard a thud against the picture window in the kitchen. My heart flipped: I recognised the sound of a bird’s doom. I found the stricken gold-crest quivering on the ground by the window. I almost couldn’t confront the animal’s pain. I almost left it to its fate.
But something within me gave me courage. I remembered that keeping stunned birds warm while they recover will save them. So I gingerly, shakily scooped up the small life and held it. Tears flowed. And then joy as after about ten minutes the little creature shook itself off and flew away.
I admit that I have been woefully ill-equipped to deal with heartbreak and suffering. But maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Because this year, maybe inspired by the gold-crest, I’ve taken a different view. You might say I’ve understood how to turn the question of compassion on its head and I have gained a new, less exhausting perspective.
Seems that ‘compassion’ is not the effort required to put myself in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain, with an added dose of self-berating over my own comparative good fortune.
No. Beating ourselves up and trying to ‘feel for’ those struggling, or try and feel what they’re feeling is actually impossible.
We can’t feel what others feel. We cannot step into another person’s reality and experience. It’s arrogant to think we can. And trying to adopt another’s suffering as our own is phony and ineffective and knackering. It’s what leads to so much virtue-signalling and hypocrisy.
And if we try hard to make ourselves suffer in the face of someone else’s pain all we do is introduce more suffering. It doesn’t help anyone and it totally depletes us, making us less available to the person or creature who needs us.
The neat alternative I’ve learned to this is to “feel with” instead.
This means allowing ourselves to feel whatever is going on within us, without judging or analysing or interpreting; and allowing the emotion or the tension to move through our own system until we become neutral again. When we are calm we can be more resourceful, and we can tap into our own source of wisdom to discover the next right step.
This takes a certain degree of self-knowledge and self-awareness. We need to learn how to feel what we feel and to love ourselves through our own pain. We also need to acknowledge that calm neutrality and wisdom are constantly, albeit very quietly, available to us. We have to quieten our mind to hear it.
Journaling can help with this, but we also need to do some body work to accompany it, and perhaps some meditation. Reflective writing ought to draw on mind, body and spirit as the resources to achieve neutrality, calmness and inner peace. Then the next right step will present itself. And the gold-crest will survive.