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 dont 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 doesnt 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?
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)!
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
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.
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
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 doesnt
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.
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.
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 Gods hands in the building of Heaven on
earth, and this is our spiritual task.
This may seem obvious
to some, but for many its 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 thats 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 weve 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 thats 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 Creators compassion and the compassion
of those made in the Creators image and likeness, the dependence
of God upon humanitys compassionate alteration of human
history. [Emphasis mine.]
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.
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
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.