Image by Hamed Saber
This post is about compassion. In the spirit of embracing contradiction I write it as part of a contest. The contest is run by three ‘monks’ (Wade of The Middle Way, Kenton of Zen-Inspired Self Development, and Albert of Urban Monk.Net) They are monks in the sense of dedicating themselves to a spiritual path rather than being part of a particular religious organisation and hierarchy.
Compassion is a big subject. We can feel overwhelmed by it. It can be hard to think about clearly. So I want to come at it kind of sideways.
The Desert Fathers.
In Christian history there is a group known as the Desert Fathers. They emerged after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This meant you no longer had to be prepared to die to be a Christian. This was in one sense a miracle much prayed for. Others were concerned that this would lead to a laxity in Chrisitianity. The Desert Fathers were of this second school. They withdrew from society and went into the Egyptian desert to concentrate solely on their quest for salvation.
I want to pay credit to their desire to not be distracted or lax in their spirituality. I also want to be alive to the ambiguity of their quest. Is letting go of the hold of our society and others on us really helped by changing location, by pursuing a solitary path? If only it were so easy.
The Desert Fathers are in some sense the foundation of the western church’s tradition of monasticism. With its emphasis on the solitary pursuit of god. It was criticised right at the start by a christian from the Eastern church, called Basil. Basil’s question to the Desert Father’s way of doing things (I translate freely) was: How will I learn patience if my brother does not annoy me? Basil and his friends are in some sense the foundation of the eastern church’s tradition of monasticism.
I want to be alive to the ethical ambiguity of the Desert Father’s quest. It seems tinged with a ‘spiritual athleticism’ – a desire to be better than others: to show that we are the true Christians. I’m not saying that each and every one of them wasn’t a far more spiritual and admirable person than me. But I do want some kind of critical distance from this way of doing things. It can be awfully intolerant.
Those of us who value compassion need to beware of the temptation of ‘spiritual athleticism’.
Compassion is the Desert.
In the desert we are devoid of social and personal supports. When we meet another, compassion asks us to abandon our preconceptions (so necessary to living well) and to meet them as they are. Compassion means that we meet the other alone.
When we enter the desert it is tempting to look down on others; those others “back there” in suburbia. To think that they need to see the need for compassion. (This is quite true I think.)
At this moment we have stepped out of compassion and into judgement. In this moment we decide that only certain sorts of people are deserving of compassion. This may be true; but we need to be aware we are doing this and not just allow our prejudices to rule.
If we can meet another without our prejudices intruding we can have a clarity of perception.
Compassion and ruthlessness are not strangers.
We are patient with others; but we have no reason to tolerate the injustice and stupidity which brings suffering. It may be true that if we were all loving then the world be close to utopia (I invite you to join me in finding out); but to think that this will occur just because we want it to be so is utter sentimentality. If we care for another we will not be quick to tolerate the oppression which brings misery. And we will not be foolish enough to believe that they may not play their part in this. We may speak gently but this doesn’t mean that we don’t see how we and others collude in our own oppression.
Compassion embraces truth – it doesn’t allow us the luxury of sentimentality and illusion. We do not have the luxury of pretending that our society is better or worse than it is. Compassion demands that we deal with the practical details of suffering and the nitty gritty of what creates suffering.
Compassion brings an urgency to the quest to end suffering. As in the oriental martial arts we are concerned with most effect for least effort.
Compassion and intimacy
When we can meet another without relying on categories and prejudices we find that we are similar and different.
In an intimate relationship we can draw closer by appreciating our differences not eliminating them. (In a romantic relationship we treasure our beloveds uniqueness.) This is the difference between a lifegiving community and death creating regimentation.
The Desert May Bloom
If we can meet another as they are and respond from the core of who we are; we usually find this to be deeply nourishing. We find that our desert of compassion can flow with streams of living water. That the desert may bloom.
How’s your compassion?
- Who is the person you dislike most?
What is it that you dislike? Can you articulate what it is, or is it still unconscious?
Would it be possible for you to feel compassion for them? What would it take for you to be able to do this?
- Who are the people you find it easy to have compassion for? Are they similar or different to you? In what ways?