Valentine’s Day often leads me to reflect on some aspect of love. In C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves he writes about love based on aspects: affection or fondness), romantic or passionate, friendship, and unconditional love. To these four I would add another: compassion, a quality of heart that is aware of suffering and is willing to do what is possible to alleviate it.
Since I began co-directing the Boundless Compassion program over ten years ago, this quality of love continues to expand and deepen my living of it. I’ve learned that compassion includes more than being with those who suffer. Compassion involves personal transformation. It requires knowing the lens through which I view others and self, attentiveness to the judgments of mind and stirrings of heart, and deliberate choices in how I connect with the pain and suffering inherent in a significant portion of many people’s lives.
In my attempts to be compassionate, I resonate with Christina Feldman’s comment in Compassion: “We are always beginners in the art of compassion.” Just about the time I think I have finally become a compassionate presence, along comes a person or situation that throws my loving-kindness out of kilter. As Jack Kornfield notes in The Wise Heart, “Compassion is developed one person at a time.” He emphasizes: “The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world. With compassion we come to trust our capacity to open to life without armoring.” Kornfield wisely notes that we can’t “take in every homeless person we meet, and fix every difficulty in our extended family and community…” Boundaries are essential. Self-compassion cannot be left out. At the same time, compassion requires the courage of heart to say “no to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide.”
I find much encouragement and inspiration from being in touch with people of boundless compassion. When participants in our program reflect on their experience, they often remark that the program is “life changing.” This is due not only to valuable input about the theory and practice of compassion, but equally to the supportive kinship they experience with others who also long to be caring human beings. A community of compassion gradually develops as they share their desires and struggles to live with an open mind and heart.
No matter where we dwell on this planet, no matter what our personal faith or political allegiance, we know there is intolerable suffering and enormous inequality due to personal bias and to the disparate use of Earth’s resources among human beings. Compassionate living can heal the harsh division and drastic injustice in our world.
When I remember to do what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests, to imagine I am standing behind the back of another person whose way of life differs from mine and look out through his or her eyes, I can let go of my unkind mental judgments and armored heart. I can understand better what might motivate that person to believe and live in a certain way. It is then that I am able to turn toward the foundational entreaty of Jesus in which he urges, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”(Jn13:34)
© Joyce Rupp