Your quarterly inspiration - May 2020
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- What is it?
- Why is it so hard sometimes?
- Compassion can be learned.
"If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion."
–His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
Message from Editor
At this time of great peril and distress for the world, the leaders of Sage-ing’s Coordinating Circle and I have decided that this Compassion issue of
first published in August 2019, is more responsive to our readership’s needs than the scheduled issue on Open Communication would be. We will save that important topic for another time.
Compassion is good for body, mind, and soul both when we experience it and when we practice it; in fact, it’s a core mechanism of human survival. But compassion can also be costly: people suffer and die all over the world while we watch, often feeling helpless. It hurts to feel others’ pain, of which there is so much at this time in Earth’s history.
In this issue of
we explore several facets of compassion, guided frequently by the seminal work of Sir Paul Gilbert, British neuroscientist and evolutionary psychologist, author of
The Compassionate Mind
and other books, and founder of Compassion-Focused Therapy.
Sage-ing International’s Coordinating Circle has created a superb new set of resources for spiritual eldering during this crisis, including a resource-rich series of “Love Letters” to Sage-ing’s membership. You can find all of these beautiful resources through
Sage-ing International’s home page.
Thank you to Sage-ing leaders who, a year ago, submitted ideas and resources for this
issue: Gustavo Boog, in Portugal; Grace Smith, in New Zealand; and Don Adams, Elizabeth Bell, Minx Boren, Marilyn Loy Every, Judith Helburn, Nancy Gray Hemstock, Jerome Kerner, and Jeanne Marsh, in the U.S. This issue would be far less rich without your contributions!
Quoting Coordinating Circle co-lead Marilyn Loy-Every: Be well. Be safe. Be love.
--Theresa Reid, Editor
Message from Co-Chairs
As the COVID-19 virus makes its way around the globe, it becomes clear that the virus has become a profound teacher in the midst of this storm. An expansion of our human capacity to impart compassion—for self and for others—reflects back to us one of many abiding lessons.
As we recognize more deeply our interrelatedness and need for one another, a poignant realization is that of our individual and collective ability to impart compassion in a hurting world is truly a gift we can give.
Compassion is one of the qualities of
Sages in Service
that we, at Sage-ing International, strongly advocate:
Compassion - With a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it, we serve from a deep passion that includes caring and understanding, reciprocity and forgiveness.
This quality is essential to our personal healing, to those with whom we connect, and for the ultimate healing of Earth.
Acceptance of our interdependence is the bedrock of all practices of compassion. Matthew Fox states that a “spirituality of compassion” for the future promises personal, social, and global healing (
A Spirituality Named Compassion
). This is true for all living things. Compassion is genuinely an attribute of “spiritual eldering” that is essential as we move toward this great opportunity for transformation in creating a new world.
We send our warmest regards to you—around the globe,
Marilyn Loy Every, Co-Chair
Jerome Kerner, Co-Chair
WHAT IS COMPASSION?
It’s defined by a desire to help
The widely accepted definition of compassion is that it’s feeling another’s pain, paired with a determination to act to alleviate it. Here’s how Sir Paul Gilbert states it: compassion is "a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it." One of the world’s great scholars of religion,
, reminds us, that compassion is the core principle of every major world religion, that the
of compassion (as opposed to mere doctrinal belief) is what brings us into the presence of the divine.
All major religious and spiritual traditions have known for millennia that compassion is good for us. That knowledge is now being borne out by biomedical science.
It’s good for us
Very exciting and relatively recent research by Dacher Keltner and colleagues at Berkeley’s
Greater Good Science Center
; by James R. Doty and colleagues at Stanford’s
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
; by Sir Paul Gilbert and colleagues at the
Compassionate Mind Foundation
, and other scientists at universities around the world, demonstrates that both the practice and the experience of compassion have striking positive benefits, including lower blood pressure, greater sense of calm well-being, greater happiness, greater sense of connection with and kindness toward others, less fear, heightened immune response, and more.
It’s a survival mechanism
Indeed, compassion has been shown to be essential to our survival; groups of people (and other animals) who are able to care for each other and work together to solve problems are far better equipped for survival than are groups of uncaring or aggressive individuals. As Dacher Keltner explains in his book,
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
(NY: Norton, 2009) and
in this engaging lecture
, the capacity for compassion is deeply embedded in our genes and DNA because our survival depends on it. The idea that Darwin’s main takeaway is “survival of the fittest” is, Keltner argues, a popular misunderstanding: Darwin’s major demonstration, in fact, is “survival of the kindest.”
Precisely because individuals showing compassion are at risk of exploitation by unscrupulous others, nature has made kindness and compassion, in Kelnter’s words, “hyper” contagious and “hyper” viral: besides having physical and emotional benefits for me, my kindness and compassion toward you make you
and other people you encounter
much more likely to be kind and compassionate yourselves. Kindness and compassion pay themselves forward assertively because they’re so important to our survival.
SO WHY IS COMPASSION HARD SOMETIMES?
Compassion is hard because it hurts to feel others’ pain
The difficulty is right there in the definition of compassion: feeling with, and wanting to help. Just the first part, feeling others’ pain, has a clear cost: we hurt. Wanting to help by changing the conditions causing the other’s pain can increase our pain if those conditions are intransigent. As we’ve seen, we promote healing simply by sharing the others’ pain and communicating our caring; but being thwarted in our desire to significantly alter the source of the other’s pain can be deeply wounding.
--In professional settings.
People who work regularly with individuals in great physical or emotional pain sometimes develop what’s known as “compassion fatigue,” or secondary traumatic stress. Symptoms include chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, de-personalization (feeling estranged from oneself or numb), irritability, feelings of self-contempt, difficulty sleeping, and more.
--In daily life.
We don’t have to be in the helping professions to experience compassion fatigue, however. Dictionary.com defines this state as “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals”; the definition should include not just resistance to charitable appeals but to appeals for compassionate attention and concern.
The 24/7 news cycle and ubiquitous social media flood us with hostile messages and searing images of tragedy, visited by humans or nature upon humans and nature. We can’t track it all and stay sane, and we can’t look away from it all without a cost – however subtle, and however numb to it we’ve become – to our sense of humanity.
As I write, most Americans are experiencing severe secondary trauma as we watch children being ripped from the arms of their parents and caged in filth in the U.S. It is extremely hard to tolerate sharing the emotions of those parents and children, and excruciating to feel powerless to stop the abuse. We are all, right now, getting a vivid lesson in the cost of compassion.
Sir Paul Gilbert speaks to the pain involved in compassion: “When people hear the word compassion, they tend to think of kindness. But scientific study has found the core of compassion to be courage. The courage to be compassionate lies in the willingness to see into the nature and causes of suffering—be that in ourselves, in others and the human condition. The challenge is to acquire the wisdom we need to address the causes of suffering in ourselves and others. Compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. It is difficult and powerful, infectious and influential. It is a universally recognized motivation with the ability to change the world.”
Compassion is powerful indeed; but nothing about changing the world is easy.
Compassion is hard because we might have learned resistance to compassion
Compassion is difficult for many people because families can damage children’s trust of compassionate engagement. If a child’s innate yearning for love and connection is punished or thwarted, the prospect of compassion — even in a formal therapeutic relationship — is frightening: compassionate gestures re-ignite both profound longing for human connection, and fear and shame about early abandonment and chronic loneliness.
This thwarting can come from the society, not just family units: if children see repeated modeling of non-compassionate behavior, or are themselves treated badly by the culture – with poor schools, inadequate food, impoverished and violent neighborhoods, devaluation or dismissal of them as humans – this too can squelch the ability to trust the expression of compassion.
Compassion is hard because we’re wired for competition and tribalism
As hopeful as it is to learn that compassion is a hyper-viral survival mechanism, it’s a fact that we’re also evolutionarily wired for tribalism and competition, and hatred is viral too. In this interesting rumination on compassion,
, a Sage-ing leader in Portugal, writes about how much easier it is to feel compassion for members of our own tribe than for the out group.
Sir Paul Gilbert explains the evolutionary relationship between the pro-social virtues of compassion, kindness, and mutual support, on the one hand, and ferocious tribalism on the other. (There’s a third system in our evolved brains as well, jockeying for position, needing to be balanced: the pleasure of winning, of accumulation, of having more things.) Tribalism, after all, is good for the tribe, and is an expression of our profound need for belonging.
In his introduction to
The Compassionate Mind,
Dr. Gilbert writes: “Being compassionate is not a soft option or just ‘being nice’ but can be very difficult, because it means standing up to some of our own desires and refusing to act on some of our lusts or fears. It can also mean recognizing that our intense desire for belonging and connectedness, to be one of a tribe and defend our own interests, can be the source of intense cruelty and atrocity. The tough issue in compassionate behavior is addressing our own inner tendency towards cruelty. Compassion for ourselves can be important when we see that our capacity for cruelty arises because our brains are designed for self-protection and genetic advancement. This isn’t our fault.”
Dr. Gilbert argues that being aware of
and compassionate about
this ugly side of ourselves, and deciding that we
want to be
compassionate humans in a compassionate culture, helps us take control and reject our own tribalism.
This principled discipline for compassion is difficult even in supportive environments; tragically several world leaders are actively encouraging tribalism and cruelty for their own narrow gain. In this context, the commitment to act for compassion is both urgent and far more difficult than it should be.
--The challenge of loving, non-violent social action
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was an exemplar for acting with compassion in the most trying circumstances when he called on civil rights protesters to express not just nonviolence but love toward their persecutors. King’s call for this most radical expression of compassion is rooted in Christian theology and in Buddhist teachings from centuries earlier. Joanna Macy, founder of the
Work that Reconnects
, writes with Chris Johnstone in
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy
(NY: New World Library, 2012) about the
Shambhala Warrior Prophesy
, at least twelve centuries old, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In it, the Shambhala Warrior confronts the warring barbarian powers at the end of the world with only two weapons: compassion, which fuels his will to help, and insight into the radical interdependence of all things: “When you have that,” Macy and Johnstone relate, “then you know that this is not a battle between the good guys and the bad guys. You know that the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart. And you know that we are so interwoven in the web of life that even our smallest acts have repercussions that ripple through the whole web, beyond our capacity to see.”
One could spend a lifetime debating the benefits of such enlightened, almost transcendent compassion, and a lifetime of discipline attempting to achieve it.
COMPASSION CAN BE LEARNED
In these times so needful of compassion, it’s heartening to know that compassion can be learned.
Self-compassion comes first
Thank you to Sage-ing leaders Nancy Gray Hemstock, Jerome Kerner, and Jeanne Marsh, respectively, for sharing these resources encouraging self-compassion:
~May there be kindness in your gaze as you look within. --John O’Donohue
~“Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” – Parker Palmer,
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
(NY: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
~Through the simple practice of seeing our own goodness, we undo the deeply rooted habits of blame and self-hate that keep us feeling isolated and unworthy. The contemporary Indian master Bapuji lovingly reminds us to cherish our goodness:
My beloved child,
Break your heart no longer.
Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.
You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality.
The time has come, your time
to live, to celebrate and to see the goodness that you are…
Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obstruct you.
If one comes, even in the name of “Truth,” forgive it for its unknowing
Do not fight.
And breathe – into the goodness that you are.
Permission, even encouragement, to be self-compassionate is vital; happily, resources abound to support our effort to become truly self-compassionate.
- Jerome Kerner and Elizabeth Bell both recommend the Self-Acceptance Project, a free resource from Sounds True recordings, consisting of insightful interviews with dozens of writers and teachers about the importance of self-acceptance and paths to achieving and maintaining it. Jerome highlights the simple, powerful practice of placing one’s hand over one’s heart, feeling in one’s own self-generated warmth, a tactile reminder that one is not a consuming automaton, but a being created in the image of the divine.
- Sir Paul Gilbert’s books and website for the Compassionate Mind Foundation are excellent resources for developing both self-compassion and compassion toward others.
- Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer are two of the best-known self-compassion experts in the U.S., having written the excellentMindful Self-Compassion Workbook (NY: Guilford, 2018) and established self-compassion.org, packed with articles, videos, and guided meditations and other resources. Drs. Neff and Germer also train therapists and lay people to teach self-compassion in communities.
- In her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (NY: Bantam, 2004), and on her website, Buddhist psychotherapist Tara Brach offers talks and meditations on that help loosen the power of self-aversion which so many humans suffer.
- And specifically for corporate leaders: In all organizations that value bottom-line productivity at the expense of all else – that is, virtually all organizations today – people from the top down are suffering terribly from a lack of compassion. In response, an amazing young woman, Uvinie Lubecki, has founded Leading through Connection, to train corporate leaders in compassionate leadership, beginning with self-compassion. In an interview in Forbes magazine (distributed in the Fetzer Institute newsletter) Lubecki says, “We need a new model of leadership, one that enhances our innate human potential while honoring our human limitations. This will require a paradigm shift. . . . Our generation has grown up with a worldview steeped in striving, individual performance, succeeding at all costs, and that looks like more money, more power, more status. It is a mindset based on fear and scarcity. To shift this mindset to a new way of leading, we need to transform these fears and reconnect to what gives us meaning and purpose. This is where compassion comes in.”
Learning compassion toward and from others
Closely related to self-compassion is the ability to receive compassion from others. This reciprocity – the ability both to give and to receive compassion – is necessary for our own well-being, and to guard against the stance of the constant “giver,” which can be both prideful and exhausting. Gustavo Boog touches on this danger early
in his essay
, imagining giving money to a beggar: “By giving away that money, I may also be buying a small sense of self-superiority:
I have, and this person doesn’t
. Surely it is much easier to give alms than to actually engage with that other person, truly helping her with her suffering, or to grow as a human being. For that to happen, there must be reciprocity in the relationship.”
Needing compassion, we can feel – can
– in a state of vulnerability, which is hard for many of us to tolerate. Don Adams, a retired family psychotherapist and Certified Sage-ing Leader, meditates on accepting compassion
in this essay
. He writes, “I recently had two hip replacement surgeries. For the first time in my adult life, I was rendered helpless and in pain for an extended time. I have typically waved off extra attention when hurt or down. Not this time. My advancing age has finally brought me some wisdom. This time, I allowed my family (including my 17 grandchildren) to smother me with care, attention, sympathy, and friendly distractions. Having been a ‘giver’ all my life, I now chose to be a ‘taker.’ I allowed compassion. I welcomed their attentions, allowing myself comfort, relief, and companionship in my suffering. I experienced a joy of receiving that was richer than the joy of giving. . . . This also created an important opportunity for my grandchildren to learn the wisdom of compassion. They discovered their personal power to bring love and relief to their suffering grandfather. If we allow pain, shame, guilt, pride, outrage, or blaming to rule our choices, we become isolated from one another.
Choosing to give and receive compassion
connects our human souls and awakens us to care of the soul of the universe.”
How wonderful to discover the gift of reciprocal compassion with one’s grandchildren! What a beautiful lesson for them to learn, about the joy of giving to their grandfather in this way.
Judith Helburn, CSL, writes about her daily practice of lovingkindness meditation, or “metta” practice, and includes this definition from Wikipedia: “Mettā or maitrī means benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others. . . . The cultivation of benevolence is a popular form of Buddhist meditation.”
In her delightful reflection
Judith writes about several different ways she uses metta practice, and closes, “These simple practices, perhaps, help me more than others, but I believe that any island of calmness affects the space around. And, even beyond.”
Indeed, research at several universities (see in Resources, below) verifies that regular practice of lovingkindness meditation reliably cultivates compassion,
even in young children
, even toward perceived “bullies,”
positively affects others in one’s surroundings.
In addition to learning from the wisdom of our peers, formal training in compassion is available in person from a number of sources and online:
- The year-long Compassion Course, based on the principles of nonviolent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
Our colleagues Minx Boren and Marilyn Loy Every have written beautiful poems about everyday experiences of compassion. The poem below is by
, America’s new poet laureate.
--by Joy Harjo
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart
, by James R. Doty, MD (NY: Penguin, 2016).
--Reviewed by Theresa Reid
James Doty grew up poor and neglected in the dusty desert town of Lancaster, California, in the 1950s and ‘60s. His father an often violent alcoholic, his mother suicidally depressed, Doty and his two siblings largely raised themselves, with no expectations or familial precedents of career or college. Then one hot summer day in his 11
year, Doty wandered into an odd little magic shop in town and found a particular kind of fairy godmother: the mother of the shop owner, who promised Jim that, if he visited her every day for the six weeks she’d be minding the store, she’d teach him magic that would transform his life. Jim paid her daily visits, and Ruth delivered.
The first half of
Into the Magic Shop
tells the story of those visits and the four powerful magic “tricks” Ruth taught Jim: how to relax his body, how to tame his mind, how to open his heart, and how to clarify his intent. Readers from about third grade up can benefit from the engaging introduction to mindfulness training in these first several chapters. (Doty gives the reader step-by-step instructions in each of these “magical” practices, both in his book and in the
Jim Doty used Ruth’s lessons to great effect: he is now a neurosurgeon, serial entrepreneur, and founder of Stanford University’s
Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE)
. The second half of
Into the Magic Shop
is a combination neuroscience primer and memoir of Doty’s fraught efforts to apply Ruth’s lessons throughout his life.
Much of what Doty imparts has been intuited for millennia, serving as the ground for most wisdom traditions and inspiring great art in all media. But reading about the discoveries in neuroscience that validate these intuitions sparks a different kind of awe. Consider this passage:
What Ruth called the compass of the heart is really a form of communication that exists between the brain and the heart through the vagus nerve. . . . While both the cognitive and emotional systems in the body are intelligent, there are far more neural connections that go from the heart to the brain than the other way around. Both our thoughts and our feelings can be powerful, but a strong emotion can silence a thought, while we can rarely think ourselves out of a strong emotion. . . . The neural net around the heart is an essential part of our thinking and our reasoning
. (p. 230)
Like this lay explanation of the power of the heart through the vagus nerve, much of the information in
Into the Magic Shop
is both emotionally and intellectually powerful, including Ruth’s lessons in what the body knows (everything); that in truth the greatest “magic trick” of all time is the ability to control one’s own attention and intention – and that we can all learn to do so; and that there is no “retirement” in the brain – every experience matters in brain development from birth to death.
Doty writes, “When our brain changes, we change. But an even greater truth is that when our heart changes, everything changes. And that change is not only in how we see the world but in how the world sees us. And in how the world responds to us.” That might sound a little too pat at first: easier said than done. But Doty doesn’t shy from heartbreaking facts, such as that sustained threat—experienced daily by millions of children around the world—creates lasting physical and emotional damage and that 25% of Americans have no one to share a problem with, putting them at greater risk of early death than smoking. Doty’s own emergence from such a conflict-ridden, impoverished home makes him excellent evidence of the power of mindfulness and compassion even for people with extraordinarily difficult lives.
Doty writes, “We are wired to connect with each other. We get sick alone, and we get well together.”
Into the Magic Shop
is more than a fascinating primer on the frontiers of neuroscience; it is a beautiful and persuasive call to the practice of mindful compassion.
Many resources are threaded throughout this newsletter. A few that aren’t:
- Karen Armstrong, the great scholar of religion, founded the Charter for Compassion, which we can all help to spread far and wide (thanks to our New Zealand friend Grace Smith).
- Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (NY: Anchor, 2010).
- Charles R. Figley, Editor, Compassion Fatigue (NY: Routledge, 2013).
- Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (NY: Norton, 2009) and Ed., The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.
- Paul Gilbert and Chodon, Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others (NY: New Harbinger, 2014).
(Thank you to Judith Helburn)
May God bless you and keep you,
May God’s face shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.
May God give you grace not
to sell yourself short.
Grace to risk something big
for something good.
Grace to remember
that the world is now
too dangerous for anything but truth,
and too small for anything but love.
May God take your mind
and speak through it
May God take your lips and
speak through them.
May God take your hands and
work through them.
May God take your heart and set it on fire.
Marilyn Loy Every
Mary Anne Ingenthron
Editor, The COMMUNICATOR
Editor, The BULLETIN
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