By Margaret-Anne Enders —
Compassion was our November theme for the Women’s Spirituality Circle. It is a core value in each of the world religions and has had sticking power as a virtue throughout the ages. Despite its longevity, compassion is one of those enigmatic words: hard to define, hard to understand, and even harder to practice.
Compassion and kindness are often used in the same breath, leading us to believe that they might be interchangeable; but, there are important differences. Kindness is about being friendly, gentle, and generous towards other people. Compassion is about joining with others in their experience and sincerely desiring an end to whatever suffering they may be experiencing. The difference is subtle. Whereas kindness is about positive attitudes and actions towards others—an outward flow from the self to another—compassion invites us into a deeper relationship. The word comes from Latin and means “to suffer together with” and to feel what others are feeling. This implies an inward flow as well, a taking-in of another’s pain. This is what I often found tricky. How could I know what another feels, even through careful listening and trying my best to understand? If I felt that person’s pain, wouldn’t it overwhelm me as well?
It is through Buddhist teachings that I have begun to glimpse how to have compassion on that deeper level. The key is that one has to be able to touch those areas of oneself first. That is where the understanding and the joining comes from. For those difficult emotions that lend themselves to suffering, such as sadness, grief, and fear, this is a scary process. We don’t often willingly go to those places in ourselves. However, it is in that journey to the places of pain in ourselves that we can access the place of compassion for others.
Just as it seems that might be difficult enough, there’s another part added. Compassion is not to be limited to those we love, those we understand, those we agree with. We are to be compassionate to all—our enemies, those who irritate us, those whose political views do not mesh with our own. That’s a tall order, almost a Mission Impossible, but if we choose to accept it, the fruits of compassion will provide immeasurable reward.
There is a global movement afoot that encourages us all to embrace the practice of compassion. It started in 2008 with a dream of world religions scholar, researcher, and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong. Most of us have heard of the Golden Rule, from the Christian tradition: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Through Armstrong’s research into various world religions, she kept encountering this principle of compassion, this call to deep feeling and connection. Observing a world in turmoil, her idea was that if we could gather our strength and energy around the principle of compassion, regardless of religious divisions, then we could create a more peaceful and loving world.
Armstrong worked together with leaders of many faith traditions to develop a statement of principles called the Charter for Compassion. The text of the charter is moving and inspiring. It invites people of all religions, nationalities, and belief systems (as well as those who might say they have no belief system) to join together, to act with kindness, to treat others as we would like to be treated, and to strive to eliminate suffering for all people.
Through the Charter for Compassion, we are invited to “put ourselves in the shoes of another,” and really to put ourselves in the shoes of all others, near or far, alike or different. There is no formula for what will be easy and what will not. I think of my family members. Although I love them more than I love anyone else, when things are not going my way and I’m irritated or angry at them, it is very difficult to have compassion, and to see the situation as they see it.
Sometimes distance makes it easier. At first glance, it seems easy to have compassion for those on the other side of the world who are affected by Ebola or by the atrocities committed by ISIS. However, distance does not always bring compassion and certainly not clarity. Distance can result in a huge sense of disconnection and even apathy. Why is it that we in the West were not so concerned about Ebola until it showed up in Texas? And if we are to be compassionate to all, how does it look to be compassionate to the members of ISIS? What does that mean? How do we have compassion for both victims and perpetrators at the same time?
If compassion is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering, perhaps this is a clue. Those that commit violence are undoubtedly suffering, and compassion can be offered without condoning the violence. This is the tough road of compassion, but it is the challenge that is at the heart of every religion, and is the key to a more peaceful and harmonious world, on both global and local scales.
In her work with the Multicultural Program at CMHA, as well as in her life as a parent, partner, faithful seeker, left-leaning Christian, paddler, and gardener, Margaret-Anne Enders is thrilled to catch glimpses of the Divine in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. To find out more about the Women’s Spirituality Circle, call her at (250)305-4426 or visit
www.womenspiritualitycircle.wordpress.com or on Facebook at Women’s Spirituality Circle in Williams Lake.
Williams Lake has a fledgling Charter for Compassion group which consists of several members of the Women’s Spirituality Circle, as well as women and men from other sectors of the community. The Williams Lake Charter for Compassion Group will be will be setting up reading clubs to study Karen Armstrong’s book, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. Call Sharon at (778) 412-2999 if you would like more information on the Charter for Compassion group in Williams Lake or on the study groups.