Why compassion is the best response to the wrongs we see in ourselves and the world.

By  E.F Nicholson 

Like many people, I reserve my harshest of judgments of all that I despise in the world; greed, inequality, narcissism, violence, the indifference of the people who seem to embody those qualities most, from the political and corporate class that shapes much of the social and economic woes so many billions have to deal with.

On par with “those” bastions of the 1% is my judgment and condemnation for all I don’t like about myself. It seems over the course of the day, I can vacillate between feeling upset, outraged and saddened by the state of affairs in the world and then switch to feeling frustrated, disenchanted and overwhelmed to the extent and degree of my own dysfunctionalities and failings.

 "Madonna Laboris" : depicts one of the apocryphal gospels, in which St. Peter draws God to the high walls of heaven, to reveal Mary dropping a luminous thread over the edge to the souls outside, in order to sneak them in. Peter asks God what is to be done. God says to Peter: "Let it be."

“Madonna Laboris” : by Nicholas Roerich depicts one of the apocryphal gospels, in which St. Peter draws God to the high walls of heaven, to reveal Mary dropping a luminous thread over the edge to the souls outside, in order to sneak them in. Peter asks God what is to be done. God says to Peter: “Let it be.”

At the heart of both positions, with myself and the world, is a feeling of victimhood and powerlessness. Regarding the world’s problems, I often feel impotent in making a difference. With myself, I often feel arrested and stuck regarding the problems I am trying to contend with.

As much as I would like to, I can’t pretend my own problems and world problems don’t exist. They sadly and obviously do. The world is heading towards irreversible global warming tipping points that will cause the possible extinction of humanity. All the while, we continue to purchase, consume, work and play as if nothing is going on. Half the world’s population lives in abject poverty, whilst the other remains hypnotised by the religion of materialism, distraction and social media narcissism. Then with myself, like many people, I potter away to address my own wounds, unconscious behaviours and undo the self-sabotage I find myself caught up in. Often, where I am verses where I wish to be is a much larger gap than I feel happy with.

So think it’s very easy to dislike, feel outraged and angry at the “haves” and their caviller and callous attitude to the have nots. Disliking dislikeable people is a pretty easy and straight forward thing to do. In the same way, if I am lazy, selfish and unable to get to where I think I should be, then that too is easy to dislike and I direct a degree of my angst towards it.

Yet remaining angry at the world or oneself isn’t a required feeling to take action and respond to what’s out there and what’s in here. Outrage and indignation are one response to the complex problems of our human family and multifarious internal relationship with ourselves. The more I examine the core of my own internal war with myself, the violence, shame and ire I direct towards myself and its essential futility, the more a nurturing of compassion as a conscious response to all wars, internal and external, seems the best choice.

As it seems, we are given some margin of choice in how we respond to life. Yet a “response” in of itself doesn’t always have an effect. To shut off and say ‘I don’t care’ is a response of ambivalence. To fight, kick and scream is response of anger and exasperation. To numb ourselves against any feeling at all is response to take flight in the haven of perpetual escape. Yet it seems arriving at compassion as our compass point is the last, not the first place we start. It seems in stripping away our vanity of trying to change the world or our selfishness or not caring either way, life reveals compassion as a view point for how we can choose to interact, engage and relate to others and ourselves. This isn’t compassion on a mediation mat, tucked far away in some mountain retreat. This is compassion as conscious choice to live from our hearts and lead from our hearts to guide how we understand others and ourselves.

In a Buddhist context, Daisaku Ikeda describes it this way.  

Buddhist compassion could be succinctly described then as the desire to relieve suffering and to give joy. Compassion is often thought of as akin to pity, but whereas pity may be condescending, compassion springs from a sense of the equality and interconnectedness of life. Compassion is rooted in respect for the inherent dignity of life—our own and others’—and a desire to see that dignity triumph.”

Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion and the manifestation of the compassion of all Buddhas. Tibetans call him Chenrezig, meaning "to look with a merciful eye"

Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion and the manifestation of the compassion of all Buddhas. Tibetans call him Chenrezig, meaning “to look with a merciful eye”

That, at heart, everyone, no matter how heinous, horrible and vile their behaviour is, is worthy of compassion. Although it still irks me to write this, Tony Blair, a man I truly loathe as I think he epitomises  the self-serving sociopathy that makes the world so unliveable for many, is also worthy of my compassion. As all the fear, shame and anxiety, ugliness and selfishness I hold in myself is also worthy of that kind compassionate love. As Pema Chödrön writes

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

There is a “rightness” to feeling compassion. As if in that state of non-judgmental understanding of others’ pain and wish for their betterment, we tap into that bigger and better part of ourselves. Compassion invites us to live out a larger life, as we allow it to live through us. It is really easy to judge and the fact I judge Henry Kissinger as a despicable war criminal is no better than a judgment of Kim Kardashian as being stupid. Judgments are judgments. Everyone in the frame work of their own mind views their judgments as right, justified or worthy. Yet our judgment and condemnation of things we find offensive is just an unthinking default reaction that doesn’t require a lot of awareness or thoughtfulness. Maybe this is what Jesus was pointing to in the Gospels when He said, “Love thy enemy” to suggest we go against the grain of our ego’s reactionary habit. It’s easy to have compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, those we love and care for. Yet compassion for that which we fear, despise, condemn or hate is another thing all together. It takes vigilance and a ceaseless need to keep reorientating one’s thoughts, feelings and perspectives. Compassion for every living being means we must cease viewing the world and others in separate in camps of either hostile, indifferent or on our side. Rather, we are in the same boat; the vile, the villains, the virtuous and the valorous. Just people fumbling through life, making a go of what they have, with what they know. This doesn’t excuse, justify or condone horrible acts or heinous people; it defuses the anger, hurt and struggle and replaces it with a deeper understanding of our shared humanity and commonality.

I know when I meditate, pray and foster a feeling of compassion towards myself and others, it gives me peace and hope. As I consciously commit myself to being more loving, less critical and more accepting of where the world is and where I am myself, it leaves me with a feeling of enough. If I can just get better at that, as a husband, father, son, brother, friend, etc. then that is an achievement worthy of mastery. It’s simple and it’s doable. Being more compassionate easily out ranks any of the other things we were told we should care about, be it status, money, success, recognition, leaving a legacy or whatever external parameter we would normally judge ourselves against.  

So to view myself and others with loving understanding and unconditional kindness on a day to day basis, on personal level, works counter to my ego, selfishness and desire to have everything my way. On a collective level, it goes against the capitalism, patriarchy, social injustice and materialism. If there is such a thing as divinity, then compassion is the eyes with which it views our world. If there isn’t, then compassion is just a more moral and evolved way of looking at self and others.

Either way, it’s an unlosable position. As compassionate people just make the world a better place, they make humanity richer and more beautiful and it’s something we all have an innate capacity to draw from. When nothing else works, when we feel we have no place left to turn, to make sense of our complex selves or injustice world, compassion offers us refuge. It offers us a home and place to belong, it offers hope. So today I will endeavour to choose compassion and try keep it that simple. 

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  Howard Zimm