February 2003 A Conscious Evolution Newsletter
HOME
 Articles:
Survival of the Spirit:
9/11 - A Day in the Life
Walking Softly Upon
the Earth, Part 2
A Land that
Dreamt of Life
Compassion and
Spirituality
 Features:
February Star Watch
Conscious Community
February
Interactive Calendar
 Contributors:
Newsletter committee, writers, & contact info
 More:
Metamorphosis
Index of All Articles
Volume 2, Number 2

Opinions presented in Metamorphosis are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of others associated with the newsletter.

Compassion and Spirituality

by Gregory Ellison

I’ve always thought of compassion and spirituality going together, and I imagine most folks would agree. Certainly most religions and spiritual paths proclaim compassion to be a virtue. And yet, most of us know people who seem to be very “spiritual,” yet don’t appear to be very compassionate. Such people might include the new age seeker who is so busy with spiritual classes and meditations and study groups that she simply doesn’t have time for other people in her active spiritual life ... or the “holier than thou” church member who is always criticizing others and pointing out their “sins” ... or the mystic who renounces humanity for solitary seclusion in a cave to seek cosmic consciousness or union with God ... or the fundamentalist “holy warrior” whose spiritual beliefs engender hatred for those of other faiths, beliefs or cultures.

Even among those whose spiritual expression includes charitable activities and contributions to worthy humanitarian causes, we sometimes see the sense of equality that is the hallmark of true compassion confused with an unequal relationship such as pity or patronage, a sense of stooping to help those “below” us rather than reaching out as equals regardless of our fortunes or stations in the world. Evidently compassion is not always as much a part of spirituality as we might imagine.

Why is this?

The idea of duality

I believe that a big part of the problem is the idea of duality, which has become so deeply ingrained into our world culture that it is an almost inescapable “background” assumption of all our thinking. In essence, duality is the habit of seeing things in “either-or” terms. Wherever there are differences, duality sees one side as “right” and the other as “wrong,” one side as “good” and the other as “bad,” one side as “true” and the other as “false.” In spiritual terms, this means that there is “spirit” and there is “matter,” and the two are entirely separate. The physical world is all that we can see and touch - people, objects, plants and animals, rocks and clouds - while the spiritual world is somehow “above” this material plane and entirely separate from it.

But there is another way of looking at differences, a holistic rather than dualistic way that emphasizes “both-and” rather than “either-or.” This is the recognition that all differences - even opposites - are aspects of an underlying unity rather than forever separate. This idea appears in the original teachings of nearly every spiritual and religious tradition, but perhaps expressed most clearly in the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. The great Tao (God) in this philosophy expresses in terms of complementary opposites like day and night, male and female, hard and soft, heat and cold, up and down, expansion and contraction, and so on.  Each pair of “opposites,” however, is like two sides of the same coin. Rather than being separate and unrelated to each other, they are dependent on each other. Neither could exist without the other ... and this includes Heaven and Earth (or spirit and matter)!

Dualism and holistic thought

Although most spiritual teaching originated with this understanding, over the centuries our intellectual, technological and political preoccupation with dualism has crept into our spiritual and religious traditions. This belief in separation rather than unity as the fundamental basis of reality has led to the concepts of empire, class struggle, warfare and domination in the social world ... and in the spiritual world to a picture of a vertical hierarchy in which Heaven is “above” Earth, a higher level of reality toward which we must aspire. It leads us to picture a spiritual ladder we must climb where higher is “holier” and therefore more worthy ... a “spiritual pecking order” where everyone is ranked above us or below us according to their spiritual advancement. Like the “Stairway to Heaven” of the song, those higher up the spiritual ladder are entitled to greater favor in the eyes of God ... by nature an idea that leads to thoughts of separation rather than unity.

While we might think of this upward striving as inspirational, the one thing it strongly emphasizes is our separation and inequality ... both the separation of human from human and the separation between Heaven/God and earth/humanity. A holistic view, however, encourages us to see our fellow humans as equals, regardless of the physical, mental or spiritual differences between us; and to see the divine spirit in each of us. It is an integrative view rather than a separative one, and genuine compassion is only possible from within such an integrative view. Without that, we may feel pity or charity but we cannot feel or express the true compassion that comes from putting ourselves in others shoes, from knowing our equality and seeking justice and happiness for the other for the same motives and with the same passion as we seek justice and happiness for ourselves.

We are all creators

One of the greatest - and most difficult - dualities to transcend is the one about “matter” and “spirit.” Hard-headed materialists say that only matter is real, and spirit is just the imagination of excited brain cells. Spiritual folks, on the other hand, are inclined to say that only spirit is real, that the physical world is maya or illusion. But both perspectives miss the real point, and in so doing reinforce our belief in duality.

Matter and spirit are both real, they are just different aspects of the cosmic process. We can say that spirit creates the material world ... but that doesn’t mean the material world is not real. To the contrary, having been created by spirit it is real! As Linda Goodman was so fond of saying, “if you mind, it matters!”

This is simply yin and yang: spirit creates matter, matter reflects (takes the form of) spirit. In the famous hermetic axiom, “as above, so below.”

Although spirit transcends any particular religion, it is said in the Abrahamic (Jewish/Christian/Islamic) religions that God the Creator made us in His image ... and what would be the image of the Creator if not a Creator? The German mystic Meister Eckhart put it like this: “We are the seed of God. A pear seed grows into a pear tree; a hazel seed into a hazel tree; a seed of God into God.”

What’s the point?

The point here is simply that the living Earth and its evolutionary growth in consciousness are the work of spirit, not something “other than” God or spirit. Seen in this light, peace on earth - which can only be attained by a shift in consciousness toward compassion and away from competition and control - is a spiritual quest, perhaps the spiritual quest. In a very real sense, we are God’s hands in the building of Heaven on earth, and this is our spiritual task.

This may seem obvious to some, but for many it’s not at all obvious, and there is a strong tendency among many religious and spiritual folk to think that we are just marking time here on earth, and will one day “escape” the material world for our reward in heaven when we die. If that’s the case, then why should we care about the fate of the world? Why should we care about the suffering and injustice, except when if affects us personally?

The usual answer is because we’ve been “told” to be compassionate by religious or spiritual authority, and therefore must follow the rules to collect the points we need to gain entry to Heaven! But that’s the wrong motive. We need to be compassionate because we are agents of spirit, and compassion is what happens when we realize that the reason we should love our neighbors as ourselves is because our neighbors ARE ourselves!

Matthew Fox, a contemporary Catholic theologian, expressed this understanding in a remarkable way in A Spirituality Named Compassion, when he said that salvation is “the omnipresence of compassion and the nearness of human and divine compassion, the reality of the Creator’s compassion and the compassion of those made in the Creator’s image and likeness, the dependence of God upon humanity’s compassionate alteration of human history.” [Emphasis mine.]

The global village

When the returning astronauts snapped the first pictures of the Earth looking back from the moon, those of us alive at the time became the first human beings in all of history to actually see the common home that we all share ... a glittering cloud-swirled blue-green marbled bowling ball of a planet turning slowly against a pin-pricked background of space and stars. For the first time we were able to see, not as a concept or theory but with the direct certainty of physical vision, the place where we live ... and to know beyond doubt that the “we” who live here are not just our neighbors or our nations, not just our allies or families or races or religions, but every living thing.

The global village is not a clever concept or idea, it is a stark reality. We all live on a single piece of real estate hanging in infinite space, and our lives and fates are inextricably intertwined, like it or not. Who lives on our planet? We do. Not us and them. Just us.

Creative compassion is recognizing the “us”-ness in everyone. It is caring for others as we care for ourselves, because only by caring for others can we care for ourselves. It is valuing others and letting them be what they are, even when they are very different from us. It is recognizing that when and where there is need, it is up to all of us to help meet that need. It is understanding that when there are disagreements, the important thing is not winning but finding solutions that accommodate both sides.

Compassion is not abstractly or sentimentally feeling pity for those less fortunate than ourselves, it is actively working to remove the injustice and inequality that is responsible for that suffering. It is making the happiness and success of humanity more important than our own advantageous position in the human community. It is no less than entirely and completely removing the concept of “us and them” from our mental vocabulary, and replacing it simply with the concept of “us.” For that is the truth of the matter ... and the state of the world today is such that without the creative compassion that comes from recognizing that truth, our global village will soon perish and the evolution of human consciousness in the universe will have been a failed experiment.

It is truly up to us. We are, each of us, divine beings with the power to create the reality we choose. We have the power to change our minds and thereby change the world. We have the power to choose compassion.