If you had told me many years ago that compassion would become a central part of my religious life, I might not have believed you. This was not a concept strongly present in any of the traditions that provided a foundation for my spiritual life; nor was it really central to any of the traditions I found myself exploring as my spiritual life unfolded.
I came to compassion like many other people do – as a direct result of profound personal suffering. This is perhaps the first thing to understand about compassion; it’s not a concept that others can tell you is valuable. You have to come to this realization on your own, through direct experience of the constellate emotions that reveal its boundary.
My spiritual life has been endlessly rich and possessed of intense, profound value. It has also been the source of a degree of suffering I didn’t imagine myself capable of enduring. Experiencing those heartbreaking depths was arguably necessary for growth but the months and years of saturated distress broke me. I very gradually came to understand – really understand – that I wasn’t alone in this suffering. What I was feeling wasn’t actually unique. It was personal, but it wasn’t unique to me. Everyone on earth, all sensate beings incarnate or not, also suffered with a pain and distress as deep and immediate as my own. The causes of their suffering might be known or unknown to me, might appear to me to be greater or lesser in effect than the causes of my own experience, but these things weren’t actually that important. What was important in that moment was the realization that I was not alone. Neither, for that matter, was anyone else.
This realization has unfolded to include many nuances and further realizations. For instance, my empathy and compassion are not dependent on my intellectual understanding of another’s distress; nor should they be. Knowing that my own distress and any resultant traumas are real is enough; after all, I am not alone in these experiences. Valuating the relative impact of another person’s experience of distress and suffering is also unimportant. These subjective experiences are difficult (or impossible) to objectively measure. No tick on a number line should determine how much I care. Though I am limited in material resources and in terms of personal resilience, and though I’m also limited by whether or not another person needs, desires, or even wants action motivated by compassion, none of these things diminish the reality we all experience.
I am not very literate in the subject of compassion and nor have I studied its philosophies very deeply. I’ve relied on my personal experiences and my observations to teach me what I need to know though eventually I need to delve a little deeper into the subject because I can’t always come up with answers on my own. There are questions I have that I might someday be able to figure out but masters and teachers and guides exist for a reason.
Though I strongly believe in the value of compassion and have found it to be of great practical use, I do still struggle with it. There are many circumstances when it seems like it simply doesn’t make any difference or that my mental and emotional energy would be better spent by getting angry or going on the offensive. Sometimes I feel like “having compassion” is used as a mask for bland platitudes and meaningless sentiment. Sometimes being told that someone has compassion for me is cruel. “Do you?” I feel like asking, “Do you really suffer with me in this matter? Or are you simply trying to tell me that you pity me, that you feel sorry for me, that you believe I deserve to feel anguish because of the choices I’ve made?” Compassion is not a simple subject and its expressions are immense and complex.
I find myself wary and weary of the rhetoric of violence. This is only one possible frame for categorical tensions, whether these tensions exist between the groups people align themselves with or between other axes of alignment. This might be strange coming from someone with a Heathen bent. I did after all spend a number of years trying to fit into that community, I worship Gods who come from that context, and it is the tradition (rather broadly speaking) that taught me my spirit work. It’s also a tradition rather known for celebrating the trappings of violent conflict. Though I understand that these things are frequently celebrated in a historical context – modern Heathens celebrate the bravery and valor of our personal and collective ancestors – perhaps other parts of this tradition’s historic heritage are also worthy of celebration. It’s possible to be known as a tradition of explorers, artists, farmers, and yes, even householders. These are things best served by diplomacy, negotiation, and conflict resolution.
Arriving at a point where I value and celebrate compassion by no means indicates that I’m “good” at it. I’m not. I’m repeatedly forced to confront the trauma I’ve endured reflected back in the experiences of others. I respond by withdrawing and internalizing my pain. I hold this value close to my heart and will still choose actions that lack its mediating influence. I’m still mean, I still choose the lower road, I still take actions that I’d counsel others not to take. I still step into the sphere of others’ emotional lives and feel offense on their behalf; this leads me to dislike and mistrust others when I have no personal reason for doing so and the result is the loss of a compassionate stance.
I am heartened that I have endless opportunities to practice compassion in all its manifold expressions. This, like many other things in my life, is a sadhana, a spiritual practice undertaken for the refinement of the self in this and other worlds. Sadhana pares down the bullshit through discipline and reveals its strength with repeated application. Compassion is a powerful force and it drives an evolution that is reshaping me to the very core.