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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Compassion and the Soul | January 21, 2024 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton



 

If the soul is where God works compassion, then we have soul only to the extent that we have become instruments for the divine compassion. No compassion, no soul. Yet compassion is not about pity or dropping crumbs from a table. Rather, it is about entering fully into our shared interdependence, whether that sharing is by way of rejoicing or whether it is about suffering and anguish. To follow one another into joy and to celebration - to stand together with one another in grief and to struggle against injustice – these are the two directions of compassion…Compassion emerges from such a hot passion that it allows boundaries of ego and separation to melt long enough to enter into one another’s deep spaces. There all becomes one.

 

The opening quote come from Dr. Matthew Fox. His is a call for compassion in our time…a deep compassion that goes beyond empathy…that has at its core an unshakable belief in the oneness of existence and in the responsibility we have for each other. He says that this entering fully into this experience is both for rejoicing and suffering. This is the journey…the journey of the soul to a profound reconciliation with all life. I think often of this journey, since I have been led to a profession where I find myself companioning people on this journey…the journey to find the soul…the authentic self. The question has arisen…

 

Where does the soul reside? In the heart, the mind?

 

This was a question asked recently by Tracy K. Smith in her book, To Free the Captives, A Plea for the American Soul. I have thought a lot recently about where this ‘soul’ is located. Is it located in our neurobiology…in our head, our heart or our gut? As a psychotherapist I have often been able to glean clues about the meaning of a person’s experience by paying attention to their body language and their language about the body. I am reminded of a teacher of mine, Caroline Myss who wrote extensively about these neuro networks in the body. She referred to them as ‘chakras’ from the wisdom of Kundalini Yoga, in addition to so many other spiritual traditions. The wisdom of these traditions seems to be echoing in the more recent findings of psychology and neurobiology…that there are in reality many brains…many neuro-networks in the body. Major networks exist in the head, the heart and the gut. This should not come as news to us…we feel things in our head, our heart and also in our bellies. Myss says that our belly (third chakra) is the place of identity…the place where we form our true identity in life. When we experience issues related to our identity…our self-esteem…how we show up in the world, we are apt to feel it here. The fourth chakra is the heart chakra. We are familiar with this area, also from the writings of Dr. Howard Thurman. He seems to place the soul here…even calling it the altar of the soul. This is the place of relationship and of compassion…with our God, with our fellow living beings and with ourselves. This is a good reminder for us to recognize the wisdom of our whole bodies…not just our brains.



But there is more to our journey. Jacob Needleman, my advisor at San Francisco State writes that we are called…

 

…to remember what the Zen Buddhists call “the original face”, the self [we] are “before [we] are born”. You and I, reader, may take this kind of expression as metaphor, as an intriguing poetic manner of speaking about a kind of experience we can readily acknowledge and value. But it is not. It is not metaphor.

 

Needleman is talking, I think, about the soul…the face within. He says if we persist in seeing it as something poetic…something that is metaphor, we will be committing a kind of ‘spiritual suicide’. I often speak to my clients about this ‘original face’…the core of the self that existed before they were born…before the experiences that have left their scars. I insist that this face still exists…we are the same person we were when we were but an idea in the mind of the cosmos…that whirling creation that birthed us. Now, this does not mean that we were meant for a life without pain…without sorrow…without trauma of any kind. That would be a ridiculous assertion. It would mean that we indeed did see this ‘original face’ as metaphor. No, we are built for suffering and for joy…for confronting the vicissitudes of life with the help of our companions…those who walk the way with us…those with whom we have been able to enter into deep spaces…spaces that reflect our shared life, human and more than human. These are the spaces where we are able to receive healing and give it as well…spaces where compassion reigns…spaces where we can rejoice and express our anguish.

 

But we need to go deeper…there is something that is in fact core to what I work with my clients on, to what Needleman is saying and to what the ancient wisdom of the chakras teaches. It is self-compassion. A compassion rooted in our body-mind…our biopsychosocial identity…our original face. Not only are we meant to practice compassion in our outer world, but we must do that internally as well. Dr. Howard Thurman spoke often of this need to go within…the altar of the soul…to that island of peace…He wrote:

 

How foolish it is, how terrible,

if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul!

It means that you are living without the discovery of your true home.

 

This is the root of our ability to care for ourselves…and by extension to care for the unity…of all our relations. If we do not have a place where we can go to revisit that original face…a place that is protected by a presence that is so comforting…so close to us…closer than even our own breath, we cannot follow one another into joy and to celebration - to stand together with one another in grief and to struggle against injustice. We are no longer equipped for the journey we are being called to make, as individuals and as people. After asking where the soul is, Smith goes on to consider:

 

And the soul of a people?

 

Where does the soul of a people reside? She goes on to describe the resiliency of her people. She speaks to her own family experience and by extension to the experience of her culture. Much like the profound work of W.E.B. Dubois in The Soul of Black Folks, Smith is able to draw us in to her experience so that even as a white person I was able to gain a better understanding of her perspective and of the perspective of her people…and by extension a perspective that each of us can share in…if we are ready. bell hooks wrote:

 

When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.

 

hooks knew that the real issue here is fear…when we can drop the fear, then we are able to love. She knew this on a personal level, a cultural level and on the level of womanist ideology. We can draw on this wisdom in order to rise to the occasion of our present time. We can stand with each other at this time of fear gone mad. We can draw nearer to people by listening to each other…by truly going to the deep spaces using the profound energy of our hot passion so that boundaries of ego and separation melt. But we cannot stop with only the human dimension. We must, as hooks says, draw nearer to the earth. We must be reminded on a cellular level that we are of the earth…the water, the air, the mineral, the star dust. It is only through this journey that that we will be able to draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us. May we become familiar with these heavenly creatures. Guide our feet in peaceful ways that we may discovery our true home.




 

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