Spirituality and the Exercise of Compassion

Written by on May 1, 2012 in On Healing, On Spirituality

From the moment I left the polygamous culture I have been on a quest to find a valuable resource for spiritual development. What I discovered is that there are resources everywhere including all religions. I have always thought of myself as religious until I left religion and then I realized that spirituality is just a different term for religious. A term that folks who are not affiliated with any particular religious organization use that essentially means the same thing. Words are funny things though. We use them for labels and then we attach the words/labels to people, behaviors, organizations etc.

I would not call myself a religious person simply because it would be misleading to so many people that I would be constantly trying to explain myself, but in truth, I am a religious person but I use the term spiritual because it communicates the truth better. Spirituality then in my own definition is the belief in all things spiritual; the existence of a higher being or power/God, a belief in the afterlife, in the unseen, in intuition, prayer, (each according to his own) and the importance of values such as unconditional love, forgiveness, kindness, service, etc.

The concept that sums up my thoughts on the matter is stated in this popular quote:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Spirituality is a blanket term for any and all spiritual traditions both religious and non-religious if I can be so contradictory.  I personally value and respect all religions. I also value and respect all spiritual traditions including, shamanism, Toltec wisdom, Buddhism, Taoism, mysticism, and many other traditions for self examination and self improvement. One truth that I think is missing or misunderstood in many religions is compassion.

One spiritual master that has helped me in my quest for greater understanding of compassion has been Pema Chodron.

Pema Chodron has written several wonderful books but my favorite is called The Places that Scare You.

In her book Pema teaches you how to approach the frightening feelings and thoughts that most of us push away, run from or repress. She does so with wisdom, compassion and boldness. Her explanations of Buddhism are not difficult to grasp and are not necessary to understand to benefit from the wellspring of wisdom found in the Buddhist traditions. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from her book.

The Places that Scare You: Compassion is more emotionally challenging than loving-kindness because it involves the willingness to feel pain. To arouse compassion imagine beings in torment, an animal about to be slaughtered or a person awaiting execution. Imagine the image of a mother with no arms as a raging river sweeps her child away. To contact the suffering of another being fully and directly is as painful as being in that woman’s shoes. When we practice generating compassion we can expect to experience our fear of pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion, to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.

I love the idea of moving toward the things that make us uncomfortable because that allows us the value of developing compassion and empathy in ourselves. I have found many people feel virtuous when avoiding a real examination of the ugly truths such as criminal stories on the local news or tragic events from history like the holocaust but when it comes to real developed empathy and wisdom in the face of  personal tragedy I would rather deal with someone who is not afraid of my pain and can move toward it with kindness and validation. This is one of the greatest values I see in this practice.

For example: A couple loses their sixteen month old baby girl to SIDS. It devastates the whole family. The natural reaction from most of us is to stay a comfortable distance from the couples suffering but stay near enough to let them know we care. I have done that very thing. What I have realized in hindsight is that real empathy is the most supportive role you can play when helping someone walk through a painful experience.

When my brother and his wife lost their son at four years old I resisted the old pattern of backing away but staying within arms length. I talked to the boy’s mother and asked how it felt to lose a child. I let her cry without trying to make her feel better. I really wanted to understand her pain, even feel her pain in some way. I moved toward my own feelings of discomfort.

Pema Chodron’s book, The Places that Scare You gives the reader a tangible means of practicing deep and demanding forms of compassion that have the potential to change lives.

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