a compassionate life.

24 Aug

A Compassionate Life, by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, August 21, 2011.

A Compassionate Life

There is a story about Rabbi Hillel that author and theologian Karen Armstrong tells whenever she gets a chance.

The infidels were making fun of the Jewish Rabbis. One infidel went up to Rabbi Hillel and said “If you can explain to me the Torah (the sacred works of Judaism) while standing on one foot, I will convert to Judaism.”

Now the infidel knew that the rabbis had written hundreds, even thousands of pages of explanation on the Torah, so the infidel thought this would be a good joke.

But Rabbi Hillel was kind, and wise. He stood on one foot and said “Do not do to others as you would not have done to yourself. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary – is explanation. Go and learn it.”

The infidel was amazed and astounded. “When can I come back?” he asked.

Practicing compassion is UNIVERSAL
Do not do unto other as you would not have done to yourself. Or, stated in the positive: Treat others as you want to be treated. This is the “Golden Rule” and it is found in some capacity to be an essential component to all other worlds religions as well.

Karen Armstrong points out that the Chinese sage Confucius, who lived in the 6th and 5th centuries before the current era, when asked “which of his teachings his disciples could practice ‘all day and every day,’ [he] replied: ‘…Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ This, he said, was the thread that ran right through the spiritual method he called the Way.”i

Fast forward to the story told about Rabbi Hillel, who lived just before the time of Jesus, about how the Golden Rule pulls the Torah together. And Jesus, who, as we heard this morning in the Moment for All Ages, taught his followers to love their neighbors as themselves in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, even Humanism all contain some form of the Golden Rule, either explicilty, or implicit in their teachings. It is in the Code of Hammurabi, was declared by ancient Greeks such as Epicurus, Socrates and Plato, and was even in the laws of Ancient Egypt.

The Golden Rule is universal – it is the primary moral force in human civilization, the one thing that, if we can agree on nothing else, we agree on this: That we should not treat other people in a manner that we would not want to be treated.

And this, as it turns out, is where compassion is found. It is found in treating others as we want to be treated.

Compassion is not pity. It is not feeling sorry for another person. Going to its roots, Armstrong points out that

“’compassion’ means ‘to endure [something] with another person,’ to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view. That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.”iii

Practicing compassion FEELS GOOD
Compassion is universal, found in all the worlds theologies. AND, it feels good! The Dali Lama teaches: if we want want others to be happy, we should practice compassion. If we want to be happy….we should practice compassion.

In fact, we as human beings are, it turns out, hardwired for compassion. These large brains of ours evolved both the ability to be cruel, and the ability to be compassionate. An entire section of our brain is tuned for altruism, and when we activate that part of our brain, we feel good! Our bodies are flooded with hormones like oxytocin, which induce a feeling in us of well-being. A feeling of well-being, from being compassionate to others.

Armstrong points out that “Our brains have evolved to be caring and to need care—to such an extent that they are impaired if this nurture is lacking.”iv We become impaired when caring is withheld – we know that, we have seen studies about what happens when infants are not given the love and care they need. AND we have also evolved the need to give care.

Practicing compassion is NECESSARY
Compassion is universal, it feels good, and it is absolutely necessary in today’s world. Unfortunately, as Armstrong observes, people today “would rather be right than compassionate.”v

And this has consequences. We more easily turn people who we think are different than us into “other” or “Them” or “those people.”

When we enter into the old, reptilian part of our brain that is entirely focused on what “neuroscientists have called the “Four Fs”: feeding, fighting, fleeing” and, well, lets just say “reproduction.”vi When we enter into this part of our brain, we lose access to the creative parts of our brain that can brainstorm new ideas, form new connections, find patterns, make meaning. We lose a good part of what, I believe, makes us human!

With the country and, indeed, the world, in such dire straits right now – with the hatred and fighting and politicizing everywhere we turn, the world desperately needs us to get out our reptilian brain and engage some of our higher functions. We are not getting anywhere by attacking each other, by closing down the process, by turning every damn things we disagree with into a conflict between US and THEM. It is not working – we have got to get out of our primal brains and begin to practice compassion, because the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and care for the interdependent web of existence of which we AND EVERYONE ELSE is a part, is the only thing that is going to save it! This is why one of our principles calls us to seek justice, equity, and compassion in our relations with one another.

Practicing compassion is HARD
Compassion is universal, it feels good, it is absolutely necessary. And it is HARD. Contemporary poet and artist, Brian Andreas writes: “Anyone can slay a dragon …but try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.”

I will confess, I scoffed at this at first. Yeah, yeah, I think I am pretty compassionate. And then I watched my actions one day. I saw how I thought very uncompassionate thoughts to my children as I was trying to get them ready for school. I watched my reaction when reading the latest news on the craziness in Washington and the very uncompassionate thoughts I had for some of our politicians. I sat in a PTA meeting and watched myself get frustrated as I was trying to get an idea across that others were struggling to understand. And I saw how I berated myself in roller derby practice when I was not meeting my own ridiculously high expectations.

Maybe I need to practice a bit more compassion after all.

And this watching, Karen Armstrong says, is one of the first steps. Pay attention to how you do, or do not, respond with compassion in your own life.

I want to spend just a few more minutes talking about steps we can take to practice compassion, because I personally hate sermons that focus entirely on inspirational goals without some practical advice. But I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this, so if you want more information, I highly recommend Armstrong’s new book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. And, or, please come to the study group that I am conducting on the third Sunday of every month – our introductory session was held today, and everyone over age 15 is welcome whether you have read the book or not.

Okay. So, after we have watched ourselves and assess where we really are in terms of being compassionate, what are some other steps that we can take to increase the compassion in our lives?

We can look at the world around us: our families, churches, schools, workplaces, communities, and we can examine with a critical eye what practices, teachings, policies might contribute to a lack of compassion. For instance, did you know that local jails charge the people incarcerated for underwear? And if you don’t have the money, well, you have to go without.

This examining of the world around us can be an interesting step, because we may see that there are practices, teachings, and policies that seem reasonable but are not compassionate. Reason has been used to validate all sorts of dehumanizing policies and actions, like, charging for underwear. As Armstrong points out, as we have seen from horrors such as slavery, reason “can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”vii From both our Unitarian and Universalist fore-bearers, we have inherited reason as a source of wisdom, and this is well, and good, and important. But “If [reason] is not tempered by compassion and empathy, [it] can lead [us] into a moral void.”viii

As we look at the world around us for things that may not be compassionate, let us pay particular care to those things that may appear to be reasonable.

We can also practice compassion for ourselves. This is often where compassion will start – it is hard to have compassion for others if we do not have it for ourselves. What are our good qualities, our talents, our capabilities? Having compassion for ourselves is hard work.

To increase our capacity for compassion, we can also use our own stories to connect us with the suffering of others. Not that we will know how someone else might feel in a situation, but we can use our own stories to begin to imagine it. For example, I had a ganglion cyst on my wrist a number of years ago, and it was this throbbing pain all the time that nothing would deaden. I was short tempered, couldn’t concentrate, had no patience at all and was generally in a grumpy mood all the time. Whenever I meet someone who suffers from chronic pain, I use this experience to imagine what it might be like to suffer from even more pain, all the time. I was lucky – my pain went away when the cyst was removed. Others are not so lucky – what would my life have been like if I had not found relief? We can use our stories to help us imagine how another person might be feeling.

These are just four ways we can begin to increase the compassion in our lives – we can look at how we currently practice compassion; we can look at the world around us and evaluate practices, policies and teachings for how compassionate they are; we can have more compassion for ourselves, and we can use our own experiences to help give us insight, and compassion, for others.

Armstrong reminds us, “Compassion is practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day. A trained body can perform feats that are utterly impossible for an untrained body….By practicing compassion fastidiously, it’s possible to acquire new capabilities in mind and heart, but you must work at it.”ix

We can lead the way
Compassion is universal, it feels good, it is necessary, and it requires practice. And this is where we, not just as individuals, but as Unitarian Universalists come in. I believe that Unitarian Universalists are uniquely poised to practice this important message of compassion in the difficult conflict-filled reality of our times.

We model this every day in our congregation. Not perfectly – because we are human beings are we are not perfect. But we model it all the same. Right here, in this room right now, are people who have different beliefs, different politics, come from different parts of the world, represent different economic and education levels. Our families are not all the same, our backgrounds are not the same, our priorities are not the same.

And yet each week we get together, and we recite in our covenant that Love is the Spirit of this church and SERVICE is its law. This is compassion, this is altruism. Serving one another in love.

And we don’t confine our compassion to those of us in this room, or those of us who call this church home. We strive for compassion in all our human relations. We understand ourselves to be part of the INTERDEPENDENT web of existence, meaning that we are all connected and that what affects one part of the web affects us all as well.

This is what we practice all the time – loving each other, respecting each other, walking with each other in spite of all our differences. This is our message to the world – to model what it means to love the world in all its complexities, and to work to change it through love. Through compassion.

As we more fully enter into this millennium, I hope and pray,and have faith, that historians will look back upon this time in history as a heyday for our faith as UUs, much like we look back to the leaders of our faith during the 1800s. I have faith that historians will look at us as Unitarian Universalists and say “They showed us the way. They showed us that compassion is not easy, but it is possible. Those UUs, they are heroes. They got up each morning and loved the world all over again. They loved us, they gave us hope and modeled the way.” One person at a time, one congregation at at time, one step at a time. We can show the way.

May we engage in the practice of compassion with the goal of increasing compassion in our own lives and in this congregation. And may we become a model for others that such a life is not only possible, but actively makes the world a better place for all. May we be filled with loving kindness. May we be whole.

One Response to “a compassionate life.”

  1. Peggy August 24, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Thank you, Dawn. It was a wonderful reminder of what is truely important. Peg

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