... with you on your journey
What Is Compassion
A profound series of essays on the real nature of compassion.
We examine the meaning of Compassion and find that
The need for a complete understanding of compassion arises out of the following facts. People are mostly very indifferent to the plight of animals. But some are not. What is the difference between these two classes of people. It is that the indifferent people lack compassion for animals and the others have compassion for animals. Animal exploitation will persist until the balance shifts and compassion comes to predominate.
It is surprising that animal activists believe that those who are indifferent can be coerced to be compassionate. Coercive tactics, including legislative lobbying, advertising, demonstrating and even illegal rescues, are common. Yet the most effective method of all is little mentioned and given little consideration. That most effective of tactics is the change in the person herself. Activists do not seem to realize that the contrast that they demonstrate by their lives compared with the lives of the indifferent ones, that this living contrast is the greatest of all stimulants to change in others. The greatest activism is the act of living the truth and being compassion personified. Coercive and violent actions do not enhance the powerful statement already made by the living evidence of compassion manifested.
In order solve the problem of animal vivisection, abuse and exploitation we cannot rely on legislative action. All legislation can do is specify restrictions on specific behavior. But if there is a will to be indifferent the indifference will be manifest anyway, whether illegally or by way of expressions not dealt with by legislation. We cannot rely on advertising and manipulative persuasion. Advertising and persuasion again address specific conditions and situations without changing the fundamental conditions that make indifference possible. We must truly understand the nature and meaning of compassion itself in order to understand the most effective means of enlarging the class of people who have compassion for animals, and compassion in general. It is disingenuous to believe we pursue a more compassionate society while we are at the same time unconcerned with what compassion is, how it has come to be so little appreciated and what conditions are necessary for its wider distribution. If we are compassionate but we do not know how we got to be compassionate, what hope have we of facilitating the change in others?
Here we begin a systematic investigation of the meaning of Compassion. There is only one prerequisite for this journey. It is contained in the answer to the question, "Does anything matter, or is it all just so much senseless, meaningless chaos?" If your answer is anything other than a resounding, "Yes, something does matter," then this conversation is not for you and don't know how I can help you. In that case I can only wish you a speedy recovery from your illness. Otherwise, if something does matter to you then come with me.
Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, let's get started. We proceed slowly and start close to home. A dictionary definition of Compassion is as good a place to start as any. Compassion is defined as, "The deep awareness of and sympathy for the suffering of others.." This is the common, prevalent understanding of Compassion. It gives us 3 important concepts to work with: awareness, sympathy and suffering. Let's see how well this definition holds up in real-life situations.
Consider the life and work of Mother Theresa. We will choose this life because there is general agreement that she lived a compassionate life so it is a good example against which to judge the usefulness of our definition. According to our definition to know whether Mother Theresa was, in fact, compassionate one must be able to determine if she was 1) aware of anothers suffering and 2) sympathetic toward that suffering. This reveals a problem, doesn't it. After all, no one can actually know what another person is thinking or feeling. So we cannot independently determine whether she was actually aware and sympathetic, no matter how reasonable it would seem to be to believe that she was. One cannot know this, it can only be a an article of faith that one believes it to be true. Now look at the other side of the issue. What if there were some advanced technology that allowed one person to see into another's thoughts and this technology were applied to Mother Theresa. What if this machine told us without question that she was never aware or sympathetic to the suffering. Suppose (quite ridiculously, but just for the sake of argument) that the machine told us that her whole life and work were based upon a slavish desire to obey her Catholic Pope and he told her she must do these things. Further, the machine told us that she actually despised what she was doing and who she was helping. If you knew this is what she was thinking would you respect her Compassion less. Would she turn in your mind from being a compassionate person to being an uncompassionate one?
Finally, put yourself in the place of someone who was the recipient of her Compassion. Would it matter to you whether or not she was actually aware of and sympathetic toward your suffering, so long as her actions had the effect of being compassionate toward you and relieving your suffering. I suspect that even if some machine could prove that she did not have this awareness and sympathy you would want to believe that she did because her actions were compassionate.
We need as many Mother Theresas as we can get. It is immaterial what their mental state or motivations are, it is their actions and the consequences of those actions that are important. For the purposes of evolving a compassionate society it makes no difference whether people volunteer to be compassionate or whether they must be paid to be compassionate. To measure the worth of someone's Compassion based upon our opinion of their mental state is a harmful distraction from the work of increasing the overall prevalence of compassionate action.
So, clearly, our dictionary definition is not as useful as we had hoped. Next time we will look at the torturer's view to approach the question from the other direction.
Being at the most uncompassionate extreme, the torturer gives us important clues as to the nature of compassion and the validity of our definition. We are working from the definition, "Compassion is the deep awareness of and sympathy for the suffering of others.. Certainly a torturer is aware of the suffering of others. Such awareness is necessary to doing his job. Could a torturer have sympathy for the one he tortures. Possibly. There is a great deal of historical evidence to show that people can be forced to torture others, people who would otherwise not participate in torture. Suppose there is a situation in which an otherwise normal, nonviolent person is being terrorized and beaten. Then his tormentor says they will stop beating him if he will beat someone else, say a stranger. Under these conditions people have been induced to become reluctant torturers. In this case the need for self preservation could be powerful enough to overcome any sympathy he may have. The sympathy may persist but the choice is made to protect oneself in spite of it.
Then, of course, there may be people who are aware and sympathetic but do nothing. Do you think. This kind of sympathetically aware inaction is obviously of little value and cannot be a useful example of Compassion.
Our dictionary definition of Compassion appears to leave a great deal wanting. Consideration of an ideal compassionate life has led us to the conclusion that awareness and sympathy are not necessary for Compassion. Consideration of the extreme uncompassionate life has lead us to conclude that awareness and sympathy are not sufficient for Compassion. This implies that awareness and sympathy are not essential ingredients in Compassion at all and can be disregarded.
It is worth noting at this point, that awareness and sympathy are hidden, internal states of the psyche with no direct means of independent verification. Whatever they are they are unique to the individual in which they reside. Of the three concepts our definition gave us these are the two that have these characteristics and it is these two that do not hold up under scrutiny and prove to be irrelevant to understanding Compassion. The third concept, however, the suffering, is an external condition verifiable by all. We will elaborate on this point in detail shortly, but for now it should be observed that it is the only concept from the definition that we have not had reason to question and which remains potentially valuable. This relationship between the hidden, individualistic versus shown, observable quality on the one hand and the usefulness of the quality on the other hand will be one we will see repeatedly and it is an important relationship in the understanding of Compassion.
So, at this point, we are led to abandon our dictionary definition of Compassion. But it has given us a foundation from which we can build a better understanding based upon what we have learned here. Suffering remains central to understanding Compassion. Before we can again attack the question of, "What is Compassion?" directly we need to discuss several other helpful concepts. This will occupy the next several sections.
After all this dry analysis it is worth reminding ourselves why we are doing this. The question is, "Is a compassionate society possible and, if so, what does it look like?. Our analysis so far has helped us to see that awareness and sympathy are not useful in answering these questions and that the concept of suffering may be. Awareness and sympathy are not useful concepts precisely because they are part of a hidden, secret mental state. But there are many other such concepts all of which have the same weakness of being part of our hidden, secret lives, veiled to all but the individual himself. We cannot redefine Compassion in terms of any of them without running into the same problems. So Compassion cannot be, "a desire to relieve suffering," or, "an intention to relieve suffering," or, "the will to relieve suffering," or, "commiseration.. All of these types of definitions postulate some internal, mental state the existence of which cannot be know be any other. A society is necessarily about a sphere of influence shared by a group of people. In so far as our secret, thoughts and mental lives are hidden from others they cannot directly contribute to the society.
Intuitively, a compassionate society can be seen to be a society in which the individuals have a prevailing tendency to choose acts of Compassion over acts of any other kind. This seems clear and reasonable enough. Operationally speaking, I would be entirely content to accept a society that fit this criterion even if I had to also accept any possible cause for this level of Compassion. To my mind, to achieve this level of Compassion throughout society it makes no difference whether the cause for it is that people's, "consciousnesses are raised," or that they are paid to act this way, or that they are brain-washed or that our very biology is altered by gene manipulation -- by any means necessary. Having a clear idea about where we are going, to get there, to know whether a compassionate society is possible, we must understand what Compassion is.
We are left with the concept of suffering to understand Compassion. Is that enough. What if we try the following definition. "Compassion is the act of relieving suffering.. This definition uses only the concepts of act or action and suffering. I like this because I can know when someone else is acting and I can know when suffering is relieved as a consequence. Further it is possible to judge a society as compassionate by observation of the actions and the results of all the individuals there of. Let's explore this idea further. There are several profound conclusions to be drawn from this idea.
First, viewing Compassion in this way implies that a person can be neither compassionate nor uncompassionate, only an act can be compassionate if it is an act of Compassion. Any attempt to identify a person as compassionate or not must refer back to the acts of that person some of which may be compassionate and others not, and any attempt to place relative value on the history of those acts must necessarily be arbitrary and biased. Further, pursuing such arbitrary value systems does not contribute to the identification of a compassionate society since it is a society in which there is a "prevailing trend to choose acts of Compassion", not one in which "people are compassionate". This realization also has certain spiritual overtones in that we become the moment-to-moment implement for something beyond our individual selves that is Compassion, acting through us. We do not own Compassion; Compassion uses us to act.
Before discussing the other implications of Compassion as the act of relieving suffering, we must now make a detailed examination of the concept of suffering, next time.
In its most elemental sense, suffering is what a living organism experiences when deprived of the conditions most optimal for its health and survival. So, for instance, when we are deprived of water we suffer thirst. When we are deprived of food we suffer hunger. When we are deprived of rest we suffer exhaustion. This is absolutely all that suffering is.
Living things rely upon homeostatic mechanisms to maintain an equilibrium in which conditions are sufficiently stable for their metabolic needs. Temperatures must not exceed a certain range or the organism will freeze or die of the heat. Oxygen must be available in sufficient quantities. Nutrients and food must be available when needed. Suffering is an alerting mechanism, a biological signal, that notifies the organism that the current conditions are not providing for it's needs, and those current conditions are threatening its survival.
As a result of that signal that suffering provides the organism can take action to correct the situation. When it suffers from thirst it drinks and the signal is extinguished. When it suffers from hunger then it eats and the suffering stops.
If there were no suffering then the organism would receive no signal when it was becoming dehydrated. So it would not know to drink and the dehydration would increase until it died from lack of water. If you did not suffer from hunger when your body needed to eat you would starve. Without suffering death would be unavoidable. There must be both suffering _and_ the relief from suffering for things to live. It is our very suffering and its relief that gives us continuing life. If we had only suffering without any relief from suffering, life could not be for even a day. So long as there is change life must adjust to that change, and suffering provides life the opportunity to adjust as it must.
Obviously, it can be seen from this that suffering is both inevitable and very necessary. In fact, the very existence of life itself depends upon the experience of suffering, at least from time to time and to one degree or another, in every living thing. One of the most profound and interesting observations to be drawn from this understanding of suffering is that Compassion, as the act of relieving suffering, is also the act of giving or preserving life. Compassion is the act of making the types of adjustments to the changes we experience that enables life to go on. Compassion is, most fundamentally, the tendency towards life and away from death. Without Compassion death would always be the result. Only Compassion stands between us and death.
Do you see the vistas this perspective opens up. Armed with our understanding of Compassion and its component suffering as we have them, the implications are very far reaching and have tremendous ramifications. If a compassionate society is possible we are beginning to see what it must look like.
In the next chapter we will explore more deeply into the many discoveries this view of Compassion affords us.
We have said that Compassion is the act of relieving suffering. Is Compassion real or is it just some fantasy, part of our beliefs. Is there any existence and substance to Compassion or is it just another figment of our imaginations. Let me frame the question in this way to make it perfectly clear. If man were not here would there be Compassion. During the time of the dinosaurs, before man's arrival on this Earth, was there Compassion in the world -- anywhere, in any form?
The common usage of the word compassion refers to our internal, personal feelings about someone or a situation to which we are sympathetic. However, this is a very narrow view that misses the rest of the world. If Compassion is no more than an idea in our head without substance, like fairies and leprechauns, what hope could we possibly have of ever seeing a compassionate society. That would be equivalent to dreaming about a society integrated with fairies and leprechauns. There is a strong, intuitive sense that there is real Compassion, beyond the imaginings of our minds, that is part of our real, substantial world. Let's see if we can identify this real Compassion, that Compassion that exists outside of ourselves.
Man functions within two distinct spheres of experience, one hidden within himself and the other outside and independent of any one person. To get a sense of these two speheres, consider the following questions:
The first sphere of experience is one of shared experiences. I know your experience of eating by my eating -- we both eat and thus have the experience of eating. I know your experience of breathing by my breathing. We are born, we eat, sleep, breath and die. We all share the essential qualities of these experiences. These shared experiences are entwined with our bodies and there connections with the outside world.
Then there is the second sphere of experience, which is constituted by our hopes, dreams, desires, worries, ambitions, expectations, and all thoughts and the other individualistic and hidden experiences of our secret mental lives. These experiences have no direct manifestations in the outside world. We may only see their effects indirectly in our actions.
Clearly the shared sphere of experience is where everything of importance happens. If we trivialize the experiences of living -- eating, sleeping, breathing -- it is because we take them for granted, not because they are trivial. Would you trade the experience of writing a novel like Ernest Hemingway for the experience of breathing. First we must breath. Then, once we have that going consistently, we can consider doing other things like writing a novel.
Our shared experiences are connected with our identity as a living being and as a species. A species represents a particular solution to a set of environmental problems. Fish developed gills to solve the problem of extracting oxygen from water for increasing metabolic needs. All fish with gills share the experience of breathing with gills. Our species developed nose, throat and lungs to solve the problem of extracting oxygen from air. We all share the experience of breathing. The qualities and experiences we share could be likened to a signal or communication with the outside world. On the other hand, all of those individualistic experiences hidden within our heads can be likened to background noise. It is similar to listening to the radio on a station that has poor reception. Even though there is background noise in the form of static we still hear the primary signal which is the music being broadcast.
Thinking, too, is a shared experience. But not the specific thoughts. I know that you have thoughts because I have thoughts, just not the same ones. Thinking itself is part of the signal or communication with the outside world. But which thoughts we have in particular at any time is individualistic, unshared background noise. In particular which thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, etc. we experience is just so much background noise. This point can be very difficult for us to grasp fully. We are so entangled with the need to believe our particular thoughts have importance that it is very difficult for us to see that it is really just the experience of thinking itself that has importance and that our special, individual thoughts are just distracting noise. But coming to grips with this reality is essential to understand Compassion.
You see, the question is, "In which sphere of experience does Compassion reside?. Is Compassion part of our hidden, individualistic experiences, different in each person and unsharable. Or is Compassion an essential part of the signal that we are as a species, part of the connections that tie us to the rest of the real world. Does Compassion have a real manifestation. Find your own intuitive answer to this question, and next time we will explore it in greater depth.
What is the truth about Compassion. We have argued that Compassion is an action that relieves suffering. So the truth about Compassion is the truth about suffering and its relief. So then what is suffering?
The truth about Compassion and the truth about suffering have to do with the realities of suffering and its relief. But suffering and its relief only have meaning with respect to a particular being that is the sufferer and who is relieved of that suffering. It is meaningless to talk about suffering in the absence of any sufferer. To suffer there must be one to suffer. The truth about suffering cannot be separated from the truth about the sufferer. To know one we must know the other.
Suppose a space ship lands on a very distant planet and encounters a life form completely unfamiliar to any form of life any of the astronauts have ever seen. Suppose it is so unfamiliar that no one has any idea how it acts, or lives. In this situation Compassion is not possible. The astronauts might pick it up, pour water on it or cover it with dirt. But they cannot know whether in doing these things they have caused suffering, relieved suffering or neither. To know this one must have an understanding grown out of personal experience with suffering and the ability to recognize a similar experience in another. And to be correct in one's judgement about the suffering of another one must see the truth of that other and the nature of its existence.
Truth, the real, existence, reality -- these are all terms for what is. This is simple enough. But to know the truth about a particular thing it is necessary to know all of its relationships. The existence of something is described by how it relates to everything else. This is especially important when it comes to living beings.
Inanimate objects may be used arbitrarily. At one moment a chair may be something to sit upon and the next a work of art or a piece of kindling.
But living things have an intrinsic and unalterable nature specific to themselves. If we are asked what a wolf is, or what is the truth of a wolf, we must answer by describing the relationships the animal holds to its environment. A wolf is a predator that lives and hunts in packs, feeding on caribou, and so on. The system of Nature both defines and is defined by the relationships of its constituent beings.
This brings us to consider a useful and common image called, "The Web of Life.. It can be useful to picture our living world as an infinitely large web. The web consists of strands or connections, which we cannot actually see but we may imagine them to picture the relationships connecting us to others, and them to us.
So imagine an enormous web of silken threads in which at each point where one strand or thread crosses another a living being resides. For each being there are many strands connecting her to many other beings. Each strand that extends from her ends or connects her with someone or something with which she has a special relationship.
Who do you depend upon. As children most of us depended upon our parents for nurturing. We may marry and come to depend upon our spouses. We may have children who depend upon us, in turn. And we have many more distant relationships as well. We depend upon the farmer to provide us with food, and the truck driver to deliver the food to our communities, and so on. Even more distant relationship exist. The farmers who grow our food depend upon the soil to grow the plants we eat and they depend upon the weather to provide sufficient rain and sun for a good crop.
Now the truth about you or me or anything is understood by seeing the thing in its place in this Web of Life. The truth of any one being is described by the connections she makes to others, and the connections they make to still others, and on and on, ad infinitum. This Web of Life is a metaphor for all of our relationships, both near and distant.
The truth of a being is understood by seeing the strands to which she connects in this web, her immediate relationships to others, and to which those connect, going as deeply as necessary for the understanding. A perfect understanding of the truth of a being in this web would ideally require complete visualization of all her connections, an impossible task. From where we sit on this web we each can see only to a limited, finite depth along any chain of connections because our intellectual understanding is limited. An infinite intellect would be required to have a total understanding of all relationships. We can understand how someone depends upon her family and friends. But beyond that, going as far as the farmer and his weather and soil, for instance, those relationships are usually too distant to be completely appreciated by our limited abilites. Is this enough to understand how others suffer, how we may act to relieve that suffering and thereby bring Compassion into the world. Yes, of course it is.
It is an extremely beautiful principle of this web that its health and maintenance does not require us to do any more then understand those relationships that we can understand. All that we need to know to function as a member of this web is provided within our grasp. We are guaranteed to have available to us a sufficient depth of understanding to know the truth of all the beings with which we share our region of this web, that is, all the other beings upon whom we depend and who depend upon us. This is because the connections are transitive. Although our personal understanding is local, there is a path along this web from any one place to any other. At each point, as the path crosses by each person, that person contributes their Compassion to those to whom she relates, and thereby Compassion spreads infinitely in all directions, beginning from each person.
And we do have a function in this web. Each being of the web has her own needs for survival -- air, water, shelter, defense from predators, companionship, etc. The connections provide for these needs. In turn she provides for some of the needs to those to whom she connects. The web exists precisely because each member provides for the needs of others and others provide for her. A being is most content when the connections she requires are present and both providing her and receiving from her. Suffering can be seen to be a loss or disruption in these connections. Compassion, being the act of relieving suffering, can be seen to be the restoration of the lost or disrupted connections. An act of Compassion is one that sees that another has broken connections and restores those connections. An act of Compassion is one that sees that another has unmet needs, needs that arise from the true nature of that person, being or thing, and provides for those needs.
To put it another way, we are most content, we suffer least, when our relationships are whole, productive and nuturing. We have intrinsic, inborn needs, characteristic of our nature and species. Our needs are fulfilled through our relationships. Suffering occurs when those relationships are broken or disrupted. Therefore, Compassion is the restoration of broken relationships. An act of Compassion is an act that understands the relationships of another, sees that they are broken and acts to mend the broken relationships. That is the truht about suffering and Compassion.
So an awareness IS required -- an awareness of the connections or relationships. But we said initially that awareness was not required. So what is going on here. We will explore this awareness in the next section.
We began by asking the question, "What is Compassion?. We discovered that personal awareness was not necessary; then we said that suffering is closely tied to our biological needs; next that suffering can be viewed as disruptions in an intricate web of Nature and that Compassion is the restoration of those connections; and, finally, we discovered an awareness that is required by Compassion.
Compassion requires an awareness of the place of an individual in the web, and the connections for that individual. This is unlike the personal awareness we considered originally. Unlike that personal awareness, which was part of someone's hidden, secret life. This awareness belongs in the sphere of shared experiences. It is an awareness of the structure of a web that we all share. I know you have the connections that you have because I have the very same threads. I know that you have needs and relationships that help you to meet those needs, because I, too, have needs and I, too, have relationships that help me to meet my needs. We are individuals embedded in the same context in the larger system struggling to do our parts in service to the Narural web.
This brings us to the answer to our original question, "What is Compassion?. It is exactly this awareness, awareness of our context, relative to the contexts of all our neighbors, within the Natural web. It is care for the health, stability and integrity of the web, restoring broken connections, healing the suffering, giving attention to the shared experiences that ripple and pulsate like surges of energy throughout this web.
On the vast plains of the Serengeti in Africa the Summer season brings hot, dry weather that depletes the watering holes and rivers leaving a drought. The animals suffer from thirst and spend much time searching for water. Then the seasons change and the Monsoons come and fill up the streams and holes with drenching rain, providing water in great abundance.
Now if instead of the Monsoon rains there were a group of people who formed a bucket brigade and hauled water to the watering holes and filled them to relieve the thirst of the animals, it would be easy for us to recognize that action as compassionate. But the effect of the Monsoon rains is the same, in fact, far more effective. Because we have an awareness of the suffering we can infer that there is, in some sense, an awareness that brings the Monsoons, also. The source of that awareness may not be apparent to us because it lies too far back in the web, nested too deeply in distant connections, for us to see the source directly. Still it is there and the Monsoons are an act of Compassion.
From this it becomes clear that Compassion is an infinite force of Nature whose manifestion is life itself. She who serves this force acts with Compassion and there is no other means but this to act with Compassion.
Next we will look at some practical applications of this understanding.
We have come quite a ways in understanding Compassion. But we have also been dealing largely in the abstract. Let's consider several real-world conditions that pertain to Compassion and see how it applies.
Consider slavery. What is the problem with slavery. Some would say that the problem is a denial of human rights. But the truth is that the problem with slavery is that it is a denial of a person's connections to the web, it is a denial of her natural relationships.
Suppose you were to pay a slave trader a sum of money for a slave that he provided and he were to give you a contract in return transfering ownership of the slave to you. But further suppose that the contract also stipulated that you could in no way command, control or interfere with the normal and legal activities of your slave, nor any of her possessions nor family. Well, in this case there would be no problem with slavery, would there. It is not the possession of another that creates the problem of slavery but the control of that person and the constraints being a slave puts upon her pursuit of her inherent destiny.
When a person is not a slave and she is not otherwise controlled by someone else, then she is able to provide for her connections, those who depend upon her, and be provided for by her connections, those who she depends upon, with the web, as defined by her community and the Natural world in which that community resides. With freedom she has a rich set of options provided to her by a very large nexus of relationships with the individuals in her community and the Natural world.
Slavery causes her to be forced to substitute and be constrained by the small set of connections all of which now end at her master. Slavery is the act breaking the relationships the slave had with the people she depended upon and who depended upon her and substituting a total dependence upon the master. For the slave the master becomes the web and all meaningful contact with the real web is denied. We have an intuitive sense that this is uncompassionate because we know the suffering and misery of slavery even if we have never been slaves. We know this because we share a need for our connectedness, our relationships. Because I know suffering when denied access to my relationships by another, I know that you must suffer the same.
Those who practiced slavery could only do so by denying the truth of those they enslaved. The slave traders were overtly indifferent to the truth of their slaves. But the owners often devised elegant lies to mask the truth they denied. Here is a quote from Thomas Jefferson to illustrate this point:
"Misery is often the parent of the most affecting
touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God
knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the
poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only,
not the imagination."
From Revolution to Reconstruction
Compassion, being an absolutely honest and literal understanding and recognition of the truth of a person, as defined by her connections to the web, her natural relationships, and being a devotion to serve the health and maintenance of those connections, acting to correct them when they are broken, necessarily must absolutely exclude slavery. This is universal.
Imprisonment is suffering for similar reasons. It is punishment and causes suffering, again, because it is a denial of natural relationships -- a denial of the need to move, to work and to commune with others of our communities. Imprisonment is designed to punish specifically by breaking connections.
Thirst is a broken connection to our normal sources of water. Hunger is a loss of our relationship to our normal food sources. Lonliness is an obvious loss of relationships, relationships to our community. Every form of suffering of any real kind can be seen to be a disturbance, loss or denial of some normal relationships that are natural to our true selves -- broken connections in the web.
Next time we will conclude our look at Compassion.
I have set before you life and death, blessings or curses. Oh that you would choose life, that you and your children might live. (Deuteronomy 30:19/20)
Man is different. We are completely unique among all of life. Unlike any other form of life we are not constrained by the web.
For every other life form the connections that it makes to the web are virtually a fixed set of relationships. A fish cannot devise a means to walk and fly. A bird cannot create a mechanism to stay submerged for long periods or to print a novel. Other forms of life have fixed connections upon which they depend and upon which the web relies for stability.
However, man has been freed from these restrictions. He is capable of rearranging his own connections in any way his imagination can conceive. We have devised ways to live in the most unhospitable of environments, from the deepest oceans to outer space. We are capable of conquering any environment and removing all other life that resides there.
Other life forms are completely dependent upon Compassion for their survival. The connections are their lives and they have no other choice but to rely upon Compassion to provide what they need.
Man can get what he wants. We, unlike other life forms, can materialize our ideas and thoughts. The power of this freedom leads us to believe that Compassion is not important. We are led to believe that what we think is important because what we think appears to have such grandiose effects. No wonder it has been common to believe that we are the only creatures with thought since only our thoughts have such significant effects.
From this it can be clearly seen that the reason that we were created, our purpose in the web, is to test the hypothesis that an organism that is freed from its fixed constraints to the web can persist. We, alone, can choose our relationships. We, alone, can actively deny Compassion, by denying the truth about ourselves and others, and by subverting the natural relationships. It would seem that Nature wants to know whether an organism that can choose to deny Compassion can learn to survive anyway. We are the experiment.
In spite of our special powers we are ultimately still dependent upon the web for survival. There is no existence without connectedness. We cannot be in isolation. These connections are far too complex to ever be fully within our control. The web is vast and intricate. Compassion is the ruler and law-giver that makes it stable. We have no hope of conquering Compassion. We cannot become the replacement for Compassion. Though we are offered the freedom to deny Compassion, it is a false freedom. In this way we do not differ from all the rest of life. We cannot deny Compassion and survive. We are the experiment of Nature to see if an organism that is given the ability to deny Compassion can learn to choose to serve Compassion anyway.
Man must solve the Compassion Imperative or perish. The Compassion Imperative is our fundamental, organismic, biological imperative. We must learn to actively affirm Compassion and find and take our given, natural place in the web. We have a place. That place is provided to us by the web. We cannot choose another place by force of will. The power of the web is much larger than our will. If we choose not to take our place we will be excluded entirely. There is no other place. Our place was designed especially for us by the web. It is suitable for us alone. Just as it is true that nothing else will fit in our place, we cannot take another's place. If we do not choose to surrender to Compassion, then oblivion is our fate. There is only Compassion. To pursue anything else is futile.
There is much reason to hope that we can learn to choose to serve Compassion. Compassion is a universal convergence point. Every religion emphasizes Compassion as a fundamental tenent in one form or another. Human rights, animal rights, minority rights, every type of rights movement implicitly uses Compassion as its foundation. Wherever societies flourish and people thrive, Compassion is the source of their success. Every person has an understanding of suffering and its relief. It is not a giant leap, but only one more small step, to openly embrace Compassion above everything else. For clearly, nothing is more important.
Here ends this journey for me. We have barely scratched the topic of Compassion. The vastness of the topic makes a comprehensive survey impossible so an ending must be chosen arbitrarily.
Now it is for you to go forward. Serve Compassion with all those whom you touch. If we choose wisely and assist others in choosing wisely, and with luck, a compassionate society will be born. God speed.
How should we think about life and the living of it. Here I offer a metaphor that may be useful for that purpose.
Imagine that in one hand you are holding onto Compassion. Take your time to examine it. Explore it carefully and passionately. Recognize that this hand holds the most important thing. Examine it until you see this. Now close your fist firmly around it and with the other, second, hand do what you must do to live.
As you carry on with living with all the things you do with your second hand, pause frequently to open your first hand and contemplate what you hold there. Renew your intimacy with the object that lies resting in your palm. Then carefully close your grasp around that precious thing before returning your attention to the activities of your second hand. No matter how busy you may become never loose your grasp on that Compassion in your first hand.
The Compassion you hold onto will guide the actions of your other hand. You will naturally act in ways that allow you to give enough attention to your grasp of Compassion that it will never be forgotten, never given a minor status, never dropped from inattention.
Frequently you will find that what has come to lie in your second hand may not be compatible with what is in your first hand. At such moments open both hands and look down at both closely. If you become convinced that the thing in your second hand is not compatible with what is in your first, drop the thing in your second hand. Get rid of it.
If you ever begin to wonder if the thing in your second hand is more important than the Compassion that lies in your first, it is not. Stop and look again until you see this. If you do not do this you will inevitably drop the Compassion in your first hand. This would leave your second hand unconstrained towards all kinds of destructive actions.
Of course, none of us has perfect concentration nor the perfect ability to forsee the outcome of all of our actions. We learn day by day new ways our actions have effects. So it is inevitable that we will all drop that Compassion from time to time.Just get down on your hands and knees and feel around in the dark, inch by inch, until you find it again. It never rolls far away. Pick it up again, dust it off, and put it back into your fist. Forget about the incident; it is past. Each day is a new opportunity to hold Compassion again.
Holding onto Compassion is the source of Right Action.
A friend tells me he thinks you cannot get Compassion from a stone. I disagree. Most would agree feeding the starving is an act of Compassion. So when a government sends a shipment of food to a nation struggling with starvation I accept that as an act of Compassion. It may be true that the guy who actually unloads the food from the plane may not be thinking about the suffering of the people. It may be the only job he could find and he just wants to get it done and get home to Momma. That may be true for the entire crew on board the plane. In fact, I might go to each person involved in the decision to send humanitarian aid and each and every one of them may give me a reason for their contribution to the food delivery other than an empathy with the suffering of the starving people. Maybe the Minister of Foreign Affairs is acting on orders from the Prime Minister, and all the other bureaucrats have their own, personal self-interest in mind. To my mind the point is that the food is delivered and the hungry are fed and that means it is Compassion. I do not need any further certification of the act with respect to the feelings of anyone involved to know it as Compassion.
Similarly when a farmer plants his crop and harvests it and feeds his family with it, that is an act of Compassion. The hungry are fed. Suffering is relieved. Compassion. I'm not interested in what the farmer is feeling about what he is doing. I leave him to feel as he pleases so long as he feeds his family. No matter what feelings he may have about the act I see the act as Compassion.
But that farmer would not have his crop if he had not had the fertile soil. So the soil must be there for the farmer to have his crop and for him to feed his family. Therefore I must see the soil as an essential element in that act of Compassion -- no soil, no Compassion. And that soil contains stones that contribute to the fertile quality of that soil. Hence I am inevitably lead to conclude that stones may act with Compassion.
If we did not have stones where would we stand. Where would we bury our dead. On what would we build our homes. All of life grows out of the lifeless. When a chain of events, a sequence of actions, leads to a final action that relieves suffering then each event in the chain has created that Compassion. I give each event its due. If any were missing the chain would be broken and the final act of Compassion would not be. Life itself originated from the lifeless. In the beginning it was the inanimate that gave rise to the animate. I will recognize every element for its contribution.
When we enlarge the meaning of the word Compassion in this way we gain a much deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of our place in the Natural Order.
Many Eastern religions and philosophy say that the self is an illusion, that there is no real self. I have always found this nonintuitive, after all I do seem to be here. But I have found some thought experiments that helped me to internalize an understanding of the illusion of self.
Suppose we are sitting together talking and I produce a living rabbit. I say, "Here is a rabbit." Then I cut the rabbit exactly in half, right down the middle. Don't worry. This is a thought experiment so no rabbit is ever actually harmed. Now we look at both halves of the rabbit and I ask you, "Now where is the rabbit?. Further suppose you decide to answer me, "There is no rabbit, only 2 half rabbits."
Next I produce another rabbit and this time I cut off exactly one-fourth of the rabbit leaving a three-fourths part with it. We look at both pieces and I ask, "Now where's the rabbit?. Again you answer me, "There is no rabbit, just one fourth and three fourths of a rabbit.. I produce a third rabbit this time cutting off exactly one-eighth and ask the same question and I get the same answer.
Suppose we continue in this way, cutting off less and less of each successive rabbit and you, rather stubbornly I must say, consistently answer that there is no rabbit, only parts of rabbits. Finally, with one rabbit I just trim the end of one toe nail and I point at the rabbit and the piece of toenail that I have removed and again ask, "Where is the rabbit?. If you are really stubborn and continue to insist there is no rabbit, then with my next rabbit I just sit for 10 minutes and wait for the few 100 or so skin cells of the rabbit to fall off in the process of normal skin exfoliation and ask again, "Where is the rabbit?"
This experiment makes it clear to me that what I am commonly calling a rabbit is a completely arbitrary definition of something that, in fact, never exists. The actual thing I am referring to when I say "rabbit" is just a mental image that does not actually correspond to anything of a real nature.
Now suppose we are walking together in the wilderness and we see a coyote hunting a rabbit. We stop to watch and the coyote catches the rabbit. The rabbit is struggling in the coyotes mouth and I ask you, "Where's the rabbit?. Suppose you say, "It is in the coyote's mouth.. We continue to watch as the coyote devours the rabbit. First he bites off a foot -- crunch, crunch, swallow. The rabbit continues to struggle. I ask the same question and receive the same answer. But now I find the answer unsettling because the foot has already been swallowed. That foot was part of rabbit. Now is it still part of rabbit or is it now part of the coyote?
As we continue to watch the rabbit eventually stops struggling and the coyote devours the rabbit, piece by piece until everything has been consumed. When did the rabbit go. At what point in this process did the rabbit cease to be. When the rabbit pieces are in the bowels of the coyote they are digested into smaller and smaller pieces until finally they are decomposed into their chemical constituents, absorbed and incorporated into the tissues of the coyote. It must be clear that any choice we make about when the rabbit is and when it ceases to be is completely arbitrary. Furthermore, what was once rabbit has become coyote. When it is one thing and when it becomes the other is again completely arbitrary. Any choice that we make has no relationship to the actual identity of the thing from the point of view of the Natural Order.
If the rabbit became the coyote when it was fully digested then it must also have been the coyote when it was undigested pieces in the coyote's stomach. If it was coyote when it was pieces in coyote's stomach then it must have been coyote already when it was struggling in coyote's mouth. If then, it must have been coyote when it was yet to be captured and still running for it's life. If then, it must have been coyote before the coyote ever saw the rabbit. In fact it must have been coyote even before either coyote or rabbit were yet born.
From the point of view of the Natural Order what we are calling a coyote and a rabbit are just porous bags of molecules, sacks of energy wrapped by the sheerest gossamer netting. And these bags or sacks may come close to each other and then move farther apart, at times commingling so intimately that they seem to be one. But it is always a matter of distance, sometimes very short, sometimes farther apart. It is always a continuum with no intrinsic borders, limits or boundaries. This demonstrates clearly that there are no individual entities, only relative concentrations of energy coming and going with extreme dynamism. This observation has profound implications.
First, it becomes clear that from the point of view of the Natural Order there are no entities only actions, without entities that do the acting. Thus the web of connections that constitutes the Natural Order is all of the Natural Order and the nodes we may talk about between the connections are illusions. There are only connections.
Second, any actions of ours that arise from a idea of self, where self is different from some other, are actions based upon an illusion. When you hate me you hate yourself. When you kill me you kill yourself. When you help me you help yourself, you help every person, you help everything connected to the Natural Order.
A work urging that holistic spirituality embrace compassion as the heart of life.
A profound series of essays on the real nature of compassion.