[2/28/22] Mind-Body Monday: Compassion

Today we will be focusing on healing our Mind and body through compassion.

I will begin with a quote from the Dalai Lama XIV, from his book The Art of Happiness: “If we want others to be happy, practice compassion. If we want to be happy, practice compassion”

What can I write about compassion that hasn’t already been written and expounded upon by all the great spiritualists of our time. Perhaps, it begins inside. It begins with forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gateway drug of compassion. Once we get high on forgiveness it is the most natural thing in the world to have it lead to compassion. Compassion for self, first, and then for others. We hold ourselves and each other to such unremitting standards, such perfectionist expectations, that it is hard to be compassionate to each other. It is hard to look at another’s plight and feel empathy, and that is essential for compassion. Empathy is often misunderstood. People compare it with the “golden rule: do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” But that is not true empathy. Seeing another as we see ourselves leaves space for our internal judgement. Our personal decision about whether or not they deserve our empathy or compassion. Perhaps we say to ourselves, “I wouldn’t have done that, so I wouldn’t have been in their situation,” empathy done. Compassion unnecessary. They are foolish, unwise, foolhardy, selfish, or just plain stupid. If they would’ve been smarter, then they wouldn’t be in the position they are in today. I certainly wouldn’t have, (we say) thus they do not deserve my compassion. This mindset is easy to come by. In religion we believe, that the righteous do not suffer, it is only the sinners that do. This (often subliminal) thought process is not unusual at all.

We tend to judge ourselves and others harshly when we can see how it affects our choices and decisions. It is the hallmark of our Western society. It begins with the core belief that, “if we work hard enough, we can succeed,” and it covers up the underlying belief that those that aren’t successful haven’t really tried, or have been lazy or unwilling to work hard.  It is the creation of something called, Social Darwinism or survival of the fittest, and it’s name is best described through a psychological effect called, “Belief in a Just World.” 

      “Belief in a Just World,” is in my opinion, one of the worst mindsets/religious dogmas and/or thought processes that infect our society. It is the birthplace of man’s inhumanity to man. It is the unconscious belief that, (most simply put), bad things happen to bad people. Ergo, if someone is in a bad position or had something bad happen to them, then they must have done something to deserve it. It is the hallmark of victim blaming. It is why we ask what she was wearing when she was raped. It is why we say “get a job” to a homeless person. It is even why we can emotionally write-off atrocities in other countries by perceiving them as somehow “less civilized” and therefore more likely deserving of their plight. The “Just World Belief” tells our minds that if someone is living on the street we can automatically assume (without mental contradiction) that they are unworthy of our assistance. We can place them in a category of “other” or “not our problem”. We tell ourselves stories about how they must have done something bad in this life or a past life, like having “bad kharma”. They are alcoholics or drug addicts or worse. We can separate them from us and those that we love. We can refuse to help because it is “not our fault or problem” they are in the place they are today. Surely, it is their own. This is what we tell ourselves when a woman is raped. She shouldn’t have... “insert here”  and she wouldn’t have... “outcome there”. Or if a man is shot, beaten or robbed in the inner cities. They must have been... doing something illegal... not looking out... not paying attention... in the wrong place, etc. We can even expand this belief out to tragedies like world hunger. They shouldn’t be having children...they should move...protest their government...not be so lazy, stupid, or even subject to a condition based on their own ethnicity or religion.

          So Why? Why do we say these things to ourselves? Why is it so easy to victim-blame? Why do we hold the “Belief in a Just World?” Because, we feel it keeps us safe. If we hold to the belief that bad things only happen to bad people, then we will be safe if we remain “good”, whatever that means. Or smarter, or have more foresight, not be so foolhardy, or greedy or selfish or ...you name it. We can look at ourselves and our loved ones and believe that “we all” will be safe. We will not be harmed like those others who were unwise, or bad people, and who undoubtedly got what they deserved. “Sure, it’s sad”, we say while we shake our heads. “But...?” and we shrug “what can we do when people make bad choices.” If we are wise enough, then  we will be safe from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. We and those we love will not be a statistic.

Do you see how insidious this is. How necessary this erroneous belief is, to keep us from the horror of truly realizing the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Because ee, by and large, cannot consciously rest in a state of unknowing. We can’t go on without believing we have some control over this game of life. And when all else fails and a horrible thing happens to a good person, despite our beliefs to the contrary. What do we do? What do we say? We still cannot allow for mere chance or simply bad luck. We give another the blame or power to decide our fates, and we say, “it was God’s will.” We believe this irrefutably because to think otherwise would again leave us open to chaos. It would leave us subject to the possibility of that which we most fear, which is life without any control over our fate whatsoever. This is unacceptable. Just like the fact we cannot consciously continue living while holding in our awareness the simultaneous knowing of our own impending demise. This causes “cognitive dissonance:” the mental discomfort that occurs when we have inconsistent or contradictory thoughts, beliefs, values or attitudes at the same time. For instance, the existential awareness of life and of our own mortality. So, what do we do?  We push down and away, the knowledge of our impending death, in order to continue on planning, creating, experiencing and enjoying our lives while we have them. 

          So how can we change this? How can we open our hearts and minds to Empathy, and it’s child Compassion? The first thing we must consciously acknowledge is that sometimes there is seemingly no right nor reason to the ebb and flow of positive and negative experiences. That we and those we love are not necessarily in control. That bad things can happen to good people and good things can happen to bad people. That prayer is often not a demonstrable predictor of positive change. While it can feel good in our hearts and minds and even help to create and maintain social relationships, it is not a scientifically proven form of protection or prevention. The best we can hope for is conscious living, the art of manifestation and continued striving for positive change. The outcome of this understanding is that ALL beings are capable of grand and horrible things. Of moments of enlightened grace and terrible depravity. That the capacity for the best of all humanity and the worst of all humanity is within us, and it is up to us to act in accordance with what we perceive to be our greatest and highest good in this lifetime. 

Opening our heart to the knowledge that, everyone we will ever meet is suffering in some way we may never know. That they deserve our kindness and compassion.  As the Dalai Lama XIV also said, “only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.” People deserve both our empathy and attempt to understand their position. For that is what empathy truly is. It is treating others as they would most like to be treated. Without judgement. Without condemnation. Without reservation, and without expectation.

When we are empathetic, we are understanding (to whatever extent we can be) of the circumstances of another person, and its’ ill effects. We are capable of compassionate listening without creating arguments or suggestions in our minds of better choices or decisions. In other words, we stop making arguments for our own safety, and we simply rest our minds in the knowledge that someone is unhappy, and we seek to be present in that state with them without attempting to fix their problems or make them stop sharing their hurt.

As an example, we might imagine that someone we know and care for has lost someone they love. Empathy and Compassion sit quietly beside them, without seeking to end their pain with platitudes like, “they are in a better place,” or “at least they are not suffering.” We do not know that to be true, and we do not know that this will ease the person who needs our compassion. Perhaps they do not believe there is a “better place” or would prefer that their loved one was still by their side, even if there was pain involved. When we make their suffering about what we can do about it, we are diminishing their right to suffer in their own way. 

           Understand of course that we all have said things like this, in our attempt to ease the pain of another person. But true compassion does not require that we fix or fade their pain. As a line from the poem The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, so beautifully speaks: “I want to know if you can sit with pain mine or you own without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.”

              Compassion requires that we simply be and let them simply be in whatever state that they choose. It does not place timelines on their pain. It does not instruct them that “it will get easier” or that “time heals all wounds.” Compassion most certainly does not tell them that they “should be over it by now,” or “I’m surprised you are still so upset.” Compassion does the most uncomfortable thing imaginable when faced with the pain of a loved one. It simply shares space. It provides comfort by presence. It actively listens if the person needs to talk, and/or talks about whatever the person wants to listen to. Compassion can be distraction, by a joint understanding of talking of anything “but” what is bothering the individual. Compassion asks: “would you like to be held?” and responds accordingly. Compassion doesn’t assume. If words of comfort are desired by the person that is hurting, then compassion can say things like, “I’m here for you, and I’m not going anywhere. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to cry and it’s okay not to cry.” It simply is the effort of being completely present for another individual without expectation of our own needs being met. It is simultaneously the hardest thing we will ever do, and the most beautiful and loving. Compassion can be given to our loved ones, and it can be given to strangers. Compassion is caring for another person for no other reason than our shared humanity and deservedness therein, of love and kindness.

The Hindu word Namaste’, which literally means “I bow to you,” in Sanskrit,  has also been translated to: “the divine light in me, honors the divine light in you and together we are one,”. It my opinion, it  is a good synonym for compassion. We are all one. One race, the human race, and we must be careful to not let the blind programming of “Belief in a Just World” affect our thoughts and behavior. If consider all human beings mutually deserving of love and compassion, then we strive to be as compassionate as possible to all that enter our sphere of influence. Does this make sense?

So, then how do we assure that we are applying these principles to ourselves?  Well, we begin by remembering what I said earlier. We are imperfect beings. We are all struggling along doing the best we can with our awareness of our own impending demise. We are all trying to enjoy and flourish in this individual life of ours. It is okay that we are imperfect. It is expected. None of us came into this life carrying the book on all deeds good and proper for this century. We are all affected and influenced by our genes, our upbringing, and our social sphere. In fact our very personalities themselves are a combination of a biopsychosocial model. Our biology and genetic makeup, the psychology of how we were raised, or our learned environment, and the cultural, socioeconomic structure including media and entertainment in our environment. All of this has combined to teach and effect how we perceive the world and how we act within it. It creates a reality tunnel within which we experience our lives.

If you haven’t watched my live on Reality Tunnels, I recommend you do so. But in brief this tunnel of our personalized reality is a combination of everything we are, everything we believe and everything we have been shown to be true about ourselves and the world around us. It helps to provide the incredible diversity between individuals. It is more than just nature and nurture. This biopsychosocial model is why we can look at two individuals raised with the same gender, same sexual preferences, same home environment, same teachers etc., etc., and still find personality differences. Even identical twins are individuals as my nieces can attest to. 

This diversity provides the glorious color of the world. It also provides the heavy conflict when two people find that they vehemently disagree with each other on points of politics and/or religion etc. While this conflict can be infuriating, it helps to understand that this person’s reality tunnel is quite different from ours, and from their view their choices and decisions and preferences are just as valid and “right” as our own. This is compassion!