Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thoughts on Compassion for Others, Life, and Self

I desire to be compassionate. But I find myself so often feeling feelings of judgment and dislike for certain people, and its often the very people for whose experiences and pains I ought to have the most compassion. A thought that has changed the way I approach compassion recently was written by Joseph Campbell in his book "Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation."

I've noticed that I often write about ideas as if they're new and revolutionary when in all actuality they're known by many, many people. The reason I write like this is because they are new and revolutionary to me. Hopefully people who read this and other stuff I write will be able to get something out of it...but the ultimate benefactor of writing these thoughts down is myself.

Campbell wrote that "compassion is that which converts disillusionment into participatory companionship." I want to explore the implication of this explanation on my views on compassion for others, for life itself, and for myself.

The word compassion comes from the Latin "compati," which means "to suffer with." 

I believe that the deepest form of compassion is the willingness to share your being. Mindful awareness and an acceptance of others' pain as your own is the root of a compassionate heart. I love the phrasing Campbell uses. Compassion converts disillusionment into something else. In order for disillusionment to be converted, it must first exist! Campbell premises compassion on the the acknowledgment that each of us will encounter negativity within ourselves towards other people. When someone fails or betrays us, when they utter an unkind word, or when they fail to meet our expectations, we experience disillusionment.

The people I have the most problems with are the ones that do not meet my expectations. When people are impolite, don't follow certain social norms, or exhibit characteristics I dislike in myself, my heart reacts with negativity. I love that Campbell says compassion converts this negativity into "participatory companionship" because companionship is not a feeling! Companionship is the choice to participate in someone's life despite the way you might feel.

This thought is freeing to me. It means that I don't have to be trapped by my emotions. I can choose, despite my emotions, to participate. I can choose freely to give of my being and awareness to people who make me feel frustrated.

I love the thought of compassion for life itself, which is one Campbell discusses frequently. Life can be disillusioning. We begin as children with grand visions of what it will hold for us: adventures, romance, great joys. Slowly, student debt piles up. A lover betrays us. We fail again and again to find that special someone we had always believed would be out there. Marriage is far from bliss. Children shout and scream, and nothing ever seems to go the way we want it to.

These frustrations are also based on expectations. We have certain things we want back from life. I'm willing to work as long as life guarantees me some degree of success. I'm wiling to be happy as long as life meets my basic requirements. But something interesting happens when we embrace the "radical idea" I wrote about last week. We slowly drop our expectations on life.

I lose my job? Sacred. I find $100 on the ground? Sacred. I loose $10000? Sacred. Someone betrays me? Sacred. And so on and so on. Agreeing to accept everything as a kind mentor relieves us of the expectations we've built up over time and allows us to develop compassion towards our living.

Ultimately, compassion towards life is a willingness to suffer along with life. It's a willingness to turn our disillusionment into a form of companionship where we walk side by side with what is rather than with our visions of what we expect our lives to be.

And the same freeing realizations about compassion towards people apply in compassion towards life. Compassion isn't a feeling. If life brings us feelings of anger, frustration, or failure, we can choose to embrace these feelings. We can make the choice to continue to suffer alongside our imperfect life.

Joseph Campbell wrote that "What evokes our the imperfection of the human being." When I practice mindful living and see my own weaknesses clearly, other people's imperfections cease to become burdens or frustrations, but rather become my common ground with them. Love is evoked when sameness is recognized. By stepping fully into the reality of my weakness, my hearts is opened to compassionate living.

In order to fully accept my own weakness, I need a third type of compassion: compassion for myself. Self-compassion is a very strange concept because it relies on the paradox at the core of selfhood: that I am both a subject and an object. I am the self that can somehow transcend itself. I can feel hatred for my own being. Likewise, I can practice compassion for my own being.

When I feel pain inside of myself, often my response is to cut it off. Despair comes knocking, and I quickly lock the door. More than the feelings themselves, it's often my anxiety over my anxieties or sadness over my sadnesses, that bring the most acute suffering. The self, however, can practice compassion towards itself.

I am not my feelings; those come and go. I am the awareness that is aware of my feelings. If you attach yourself to your feelings, then when you feel ways you wish you wouldn't, you associate those with some flaw inside yourself that you want to reject or get rid of. This creates self-hatred. When we practice mindful non-attachment to our feelings, however, we see that our awareness is separate from the feelings themselves. This is what enables us to embrace them! 

The more I practice mindfulness, the more convinced I am that the explanations I give for my feelings are not always true. Often when I feel sadness or pain, my mind's first reaction is to concoct an elaborate story giving all the reasons for its presence. Usually the story involves some sort of flaw. Practicing mindfulness, I'm aware of this mental process and I see the feeling for what it is: a feeling that just needs to be felt.

And so when feelings come, I try to respond to them compassionately by being there with them. I try to treat my fears, insecurities, and sorrows like crying children that just need to be held. I bow to them and embrace them and welcome them into my heart. This sort of compassion for self is, I think, the root of compassion for others and for life itself. If we never practice being compassionate to ourselves who we're with constantly, how can we practice it with beings who live completely outside of our minds?

We may be disillusioned by what we find within, but we can use that disillusionment to drop expectations and convert by the means of compassion into a participatory companionship with ourselves. How often do you simply sit and be with yourself and watch your mind and give it attention? I've found this is one of the most healing processes I've ever experienced.

The interesting thing about all of this--about compassion for others, life, and self, is that its core is the ability to suffer. The more compassion we have, the greater our ability to suffer! This teaches something important, I think, and that is that opposites create each other. It is not simply that we must know bitter to know the sweet--it is most literally that the deepest of joys are constructed from the deepest of pains. The joys of loving-kindness are multiplied as our ability to suffer increases. 

And perhaps it's not the ability suffer, exactly, that increases, but rather the mind's equanimity. 

When mind reacts to suffering and joy with equal jubilation, it cannot really be said that the mind itself is suffering anymore. It is only observing and embracing suffering. Maybe this is what it means to be free from suffering--not that the suffering vanishes, but that you are free to embrace it.

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