Compassion as a Response | October 22, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
In looking for some comprehensive and “real” response to the current violence in Israel and Palestine, I came upon this clip from a mentor of mine, Gabor Maté. It brought me to tears. It comes out of his ability to respond to the current manifestation of this conflict with wisdom and with courage…with authenticity and “response-ability”.
At its heart, Maté is speaking of compassion…the energy and wisdom of the heart that our current “toxic culture” has, to a large extent, abandoned. In so many ways, we have lost the capacity to use the wisdom of the heart and the gut, in addition to our intellect to guide our lives. Maté goes so far as to say that the “brain is in the body” …that’s how far this concept of oneness…of unity goes. The evidence is clear that there are neural networks in the heart and gut, as well as the brain. Of course, we know that this is something humanity has sensed all along. Rumi spoke of finding the divine within the heart. Howard Thurman spoke of the meditations of the heart. We often speak of having a “gut feeling” about something. This is the wisdom of the mind body…the unity of our being when we are balanced.
But our systems, both inner and outer, are out of balance. We have depended far too long on the intellect. This has caused us to wall off our hearts and our gut brains and has resulted in a world gone mad with rationality. We are able to rationalize this predicament only because we have turned off our intuition, our heart and gut wisdom, our compassion. A word about compassion… Maté says this is an active word…we are actively being moved by the awareness of suffering around us (and within). The movement is not experienced in our intellect only, we feel it in our heart and gut and entire body.
Our speaker from last week, Matthew Fox wrote a book called, A Spirituality Named Compassion, in which he describes a shift in consciousness that he underwent when he realized the depth of this concept in the world’s spiritual traditions. He describes the natural outcome of the experience of compassion as acts of mercy. These are what you might expect, caring for the sick, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, breaking unjust fetters to name a few. Part of this is, of course, “instructing the ignorant”. In our current toxic culture this is easier said than done. In a recent meditation Fox wrote:
Humanity has to move from the reptilian brain option (“I win, you lose”) which patriarchy is so enamored of, to funding our powers of compassion, caring and emptying, what Thurman called being “stripped to the literal substance of ourselves before God.”
And this is what both Fox and Maté are doing. They are putting before us the reality that we are being called to respond to. They are acknowledging our responsibility to seek wholeness and healing in a world sadly lacking in both. They have both made this their life’s work. I know others who have done this as well and I am grateful. I am for sure one of the ignorant that has been in need of instruction, from teachers and perhaps the most important teacher, life.
Howard Thurman was also one of those teachers. Fox acknowledges his recognition of the need to seek wholeness and healing through our ability to stand, stripped to the literal substance of ourselves before God. This means our whole selves…all of our neural networks…our brains. Thurman understood compassion as our recognition that we are all one…rooted in the common ground of our origins and our search for meaning and as such, are deeply responsible for one another, especially when we are suffering. He was deeply committed to this search and embodiment of a unity and oneness…as a way of life. In his book, Meditations of the Heart he wrote:
Every moment is a divine encounter, every facet is an exposure to the boundless energies by which life is sustained and our spirits made whole.
This is a way of being in the world that I first truly internalized through my own traumatic experiences. It often takes a wound…a devastatingly painful experience to truly understand this. Thurman says that this is happening in every facet of our lives. There is a lot of hope in this statement…we are given countless opportunities to be exposed to boundless energies in order to be made whole. In order to do this, we need to tap into all our wisdom…all our compassion, which Fox describes as our only future.
Maté goes on in his book, The Myth of Normal, to describe “The Five Compassions”. The first of these is to simply be with suffering. I say simply, though I realize this is not an easy thing to do. As living beings, we want to avoid pain, therefore it is much simpler to ignore it, wall it off, rationalize it. This is why, when I heard a fellow church member discussing their pain around current realities in Israel and Palestine, I was impressed. This is very difficult to sit with.
At the same time, this person stated that they were having a great deal of difficulty finding any compassion at all for the Zionists. I can certainly relate to this as well. The second compassion, curiosity and understanding, may open up for us a new level of compassion…one that does not excuse horrific deeds…one that does not ignore the realities of situations. Instead Maté reminds us that we must see all suffering…all wounds in context…in the context of the whole…including the why. Maté addressed this in the opening clip, giving us a clear understanding of the history of this conflict. It is clear that he has done his own internal work in preparation for helping us with this global work.
The third compassion Maté speaks of is the compassion of recognition. This is the recognition that we are all in the same boat and what happens to one influences all others. This has, of course, become abundantly clear in the state of the world today…the natural world, as well as, humanity, which seems to have harbored the illusion that we are outside of nature. Maté explains:
Healing flows when we are able to view this hurting world as a mirror for our own pain, and to allow others to see themselves reflected in us as well – recognition paving the way for reconnection.
And we are in desperate need of reconnection.
The fourth compassion is truth. With this Maté is speaking to the need to tell the truth…to be authentic. But he says that “truth and compassion need to be reciprocal partners” for, in the words of A. H. Almaas, “Only when compassion is present do people allow themselves to see the truth.”
This paves the way to the fifth and final compassion, possibility. Maté sounds like Thurman when he says:
I don’t mean possibility in the hypothetical, future-dwelling sense…but as a present, alive, ever-available inherent quality.
I would say that this possibility is our connection to the all-pervading presence…our creator…the mystery. Maté says that we must nurture this connection that may provide, at any given moment, the boundless energy, in Thurman’s words that will help us heal and move toward wholeness, both individually and as a people.
I want to believe this. I want to believe that our ability to respond to this particular crisis and all the other ones competing for our attention will improve. I want to believe that there is a possibility…a spirit abroad in life that makes for wholeness and community, as Thurman so confidently states in The Luminous Darkness. I want to believe that we can be authentic and compassionate, as our creator is compassionate. I want to believe in compassion as a response to the horrendous happenings in our time…the profound suffering. I want to believe that transformation can occur for us…for all of us, as brothers and sisters to all that lives. I feel it at moments…moments of divine encounter, for example last Sunday during the drumming of Pope Flynn, the piano of Carl Blake and the flute of William Underwood, III. I felt it through the words of Matthew Fox and my mentor Gabor Maté. May we find that spirit that is abroad…the spirit of healing, wholeness and community in every moment and may we be led by this spirit to greater authenticity…stepping into the moment of our high resolve, as individuals and as a people.