Blog Site

Friday, May 15, 2009

Thoughts on Compassion

Criminal in China long ago, not allowed to
feed himself, must rely on the compassion
of others. (CC) Okinawa Soba,
What is compassion and what are its benefits? How can we learn to be more compassionate? Let's take a look at some ideas on these questions and how they can improve our lives.

Last Sunday I visited the Huntsville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where I had been invited to speak. The topic I chose was compassion. I like to speak and write on compassion because I think many Humanists tend to overlook it, often distracted by arguments about god/s, science, reason, superstition, dogma, and pseudo-science, and a lot of other things that may be compatible with Humanism - even a part of it in some cases - but not quite Humanism directly. Humanism is, first and foremost, about compassion. It's very name is meant to be juxtaposed with other 'isms', saying: our concern is for our fellow human being. All other ideas and principles spring from that root foundation.

But rather than talk about 'isms', I'd prefer to talk about compassion itself, and what role it should have in all of our lives. My talk was a modified form of the talk I gave to the Houston Church of Freethought some time ago, and summarized in an essay at The Humanist Contemplative. In it, some key points about compassion are:

  • Compassion makes logical and survival sense
  • Compassion is an integral part of our nature as social animals
  • Compassion is not a 'sacrifice' or a 'charity' to others - it is a benefit to its user
  • It is essential that sometimes Compassion be shown when it is not deserved
  • The greatest gains we stand to make are when we show compassion to enemies

I have recently spent a couple of years actively trying to condition myself to be more compassionate in character. I often fail at this, and slip many times, but I think the effort has helped me, and added a lot of happiness to my life. At one point, however, I found that I had made myself more vulnerable to emotional pain. It was in a Dharma talk at the Jade Buddha Temple here in Houston where I learned what the problem was. Compassion must be balanced with wisdom, and by wisdom I mean specifically the wisdom of non-attachment. Combining compassion and non-attachment is one of the most difficult subjects I've approached, but that's something I will cover in the future.

For now, here are some practices and ideas I think should be helpful in improving our ability to be compassionate...

1) Do not fill your time and your mind with vitriol
Vitriol and hateful thinking is insidious, as tempting as candy, and as addictive as a narcotic. It’s so easy to slip into without realizing it, but no sensible position or action ever requires it. Even if violence were the logical alternative, it can be done without hatefulness. That hatefulness may seem to be our ally when it comes time to perform certain actions or present certain positions, but it lingers around long after it has worn out its welcome. It shapes our habits and our character, and that hatefulness will breed. Not even counting its effects on our external world, it will make us bitter and negatively affect our contentment internally. When you notice yourself thinking hatefully, try to imagine how tragic it is that our enemies weren’t more enlightened, how unfortunate it is that they didn’t turn out to be loving happy people themselves.

2) Avoid media that ‘poisons the soul’
Films with generally bad people in them aren’t a problem. All good stories need bad guys. But some forms of media, especially the likes of talk shows and some reality television, relish in meanness toward others and the suffering of others. Even many radio talk programs can do this. I used to listen to many of them out of curiosity for the topics, but some contained such vitriol that I found myself affected by it and it seemed to be shaping my attitudes. Since leaving vitriolic programming behind, I have found myself much happier.

3) Smile more
It may sound fake and make you feel hypocritical smiling when you don’t really feel that way. But soon you’ll discover that that it’s not just smiles that follow emotional state, but emotional state can follow smiling too. You’ll get some nice responses from time to time, but mostly you'll be surprised at the inner effects.

4) Learn how to moderate your words without sacrificing the integrity of your position or your content
This is an important one for those who think of compassion as some form of appeasement. As mentioned, no position or action ever requires extraneous meanness, insults, or phrasing. Anything substantive that can be said, can be communicated just as well by taking care to word things in a compassionate way. In fact, this will often help those words be more effective because they won’t cause the reader to bring up ‘defensive shields’ and stop listening. Some people are going to be offended no matter what, simply based on the content. But why miss out on the opportunity to get through to those who might not by throwing in extraneous vitriol? Remember too, that these words affect your habits and your character, which will affect your own long term happiness.

5) Be mindful of your own internal emotional responses and states
There are all sorts of stoic philosophies and meditative practices for interjecting your conscious awareness between outside stimulus and passionate response, but even just the attempt to watch ourselves can be helpful. It may seem odd to advise controlling your emotions in order to be more compassionate. This is because, usually, a lack of compassion is due to emotionalism rather than the opposite. This is another indicator that compassion is not merely a feeling, but has a rational component.

6) Remember the source of the benefits of compassion
Remember that most of the benefits of compassion don’t change based on the behavior of the other person. Compassion is about who you are – not about who they are. It’s a matter of asking ourselves, “what kind of person do I want to be?” and enjoying the fruits thereof.

7) Become the advocate for your enemy
First, learn to tell the difference between a person with genuine malicious intent and a person with whom you simply have a misunderstanding, even if they may have done wrong things. For the former, do what you must to protect the innocent (including yourself) and don’t let hatred consume you in the process. But for the latter, consider what motivates them and try to help them in a careful way, to become a better person. Disarm their fears and challenge their preconceptions with kindness

No comments:

Post a Comment