Thoughts about Compassion and Peace

Repost from September 20, 2015 in honor of yesterday’s International Day of Peace. Have a peaceful weekend.

“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”

— Lao Tzu

Back in February, when the wonderful initiative started – what an awesome idea it seemed having 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, by blogging on the same day – I wanted to take part, but struggled a bit with an approach.  Since the blog is for my thoughts, I decided that the best thing to do was to be me. Since then, the quarterly piece I’ve started twice, and not managed to finish, has been on the subject of compassion being at the core of societal DNA, falling second, really, only to our own instinctive need to survive. We need others to help us survive, and they need us. At it’s very core, this is how and why non-familial communities form, and from those smaller units, larger groups from, governments are developed, and on, and on. Without compassion, the entire structure comes apart.

Perhaps December will be the right month? Because I decided to switch gears a bit, again, this month when I realized that the International Day of Peace was Monday, September 21 – merely one day after this post was due. So first, the pitch for PeaceNow, and their quest to obtain one billion signatures on their petition to the UN to adopt a resolution containing a framework for establishing global peace – please read the resolution, and sign the petition, if you haven’t already done so >>>  International Day of Peace  http://www.peacenow.com/.

“The true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms, but in mutual trust alone.”

— Pope John XXIII

When I gave it some thought, I realized that the gear switch wasn’t as big as I’d feared, for after all, a lack of peace – internal or external – indicates a lack of compassion. If we are not compassionate towards ourselves, we cannot find inner peace. If we are not compassionate towards ourselves first, we cannot adequately feel compassion towards others – we may very well be polite and kind, and very nice people, but practicing compassion moves beyond that. Bringing about true peace globally requires a very large commitment from a very large number of people to act with compassion.

“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.”

— Lao Tzu

Human nature, at its very core, may well make that impossible – there has never been a time of peace throughout the entire world, and, sadly, it is unlikely to happen. But knowing that, sometimes even despairing in that knowledge, does not mean that we should give up our quest. Like ripples in a pond, the acts of compassion spread out – they can impact others in ways we may not even be aware of – and they encourage others to act with compassion, and so the ripples extend further and further out. Conflict is unavoidable, but if enough people are able to act as voices for reason and compassion, perhaps the conflicts that flare up will not escalate into huge conflagrations if there are enough people surrounding those in power, and, perhaps some conflicts can be avoided entirely simply by recognizing the humanity of those we disagree with.

In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru:

“Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.”

And finally, because Peace and Compassion cannot be separated, I’m also reposting the Charter for Compassion:

For additional information & resources, please check out the Charter for Compassion website, and consider signing on.

The full Charter For Compassion is reprinted below:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. 

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Photo taken near home – December 2016

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Tuesday’s Quotes – September 19, 2017 – Peace

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

— Ronald Reagan

It is not often that you will find me quoting our 40th President, but everyone makes sense sometimes. As we approach the International Day of Peace on the 21st of September, it’s important to remind ourselves that the world has never been conflict free – or even war free – but when we have choices, when our leader have choices, the first choice should be diplomatic, not militarized.

The idealist in me still wants to believe that it is possible for the majority of people to find the means to achieve peaceful, compassionate solutions because the desire to avoid the painful alternatives is universal. And the pragmatist in me knows that survival of the species is actually dependent on it. And we are hard-wired for survival.

But achieving that requires education, and it requires patience. And it requires leadership that sees peaceful conflict resolution as a clear path. Sadly, that seems to not apply to may of our modern politicians, particularly on the extremes. The voting public needs to understand the folly of that war-mongering rhetoric. And in the face of the posturing by North Korea that may be an impossible task.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
― Nelson Mandela

 

A portion of this post initially appeared on February 5, 2016.

On willows and life, and weathering the storms

“The willow which bends to the tempest, often escapes better than the oak which resists it; and so in great calamities, it sometimes happens that light and frivolous spirits recover their elasticity and presence of mind sooner than those of a loftier character.”

Not entirely sure how I feel about this particular line from Albert Schweitzer (but he’s right), but when we think of willows, we naturally think of resilience. Although I once had a discussion with a tree surgeon about willows, and it seems that reality may not quite equal the lofty view we hold of them. But still, they are beautiful trees – and much like humans both stronger and more fragile than we think. My willow lost its crown a few years ago following a freak early-October heavy snow, and somehow it managed to survive. It has, in fact, survived years of outright neglect – I’m not much of a gardener, and trees, in particular, are left to fend for themselves once they’ve been planted. In fact, it lost another section this past winter, but already seems to have filled itself in. It has always fascinated me how the willow, with its bent and twisted limbs, continues to grow around its own difficulties.  And it seems that we humans lose much every day, and, like the willow, somehow we also manage to keep going.

There has been much tragedy, again, in the world recently, which makes it hard, sometimes, to find the motivation to write. And of course, the US government is not making things any easier this year – with science denial, a white supremacy resurgence, and a narcissist – it’s hard to comment on the absurdities when everything seems absurd.

But this weekend, the state of Texas, particularly the southeastern portion of the state (home to many in-law relatives, and a few friends), is truly suffering the effects of a category 4 hurricane, which brought unprecedented flooding, and rainfall measured in feet, and while the media, and most of the country, was focused on the hurricane bearing down on Texas, our president seized the moment to officially ban transgender military enlistments, and to pardon a former Arizona sheriff who repeatedly flouted the law and used county funds as if it was his own piggy bank, from a contempt conviction for which he hadn’t yet been sentenced. And doesn’t seems to be spending much time thinking about Texas at all.

But, just as New Orleans eventually recovered from Katrina, and upstate NY recovered from Irene, and New Jersey from Sandy, and Florida from too many storms to name, Houston, and the rest of the state, will eventually recover, and rebound, from Harvey. We clean up, rebuild, and move on. In that respect, humans are very much like the willow – we are generally resilient enough to survive the tragedies in our lives, and our losses, but we are also changed forever. In ways both seen and unseen.

Photo taken up through the canopy of my lone willow, June 16, 2016

Connections

As I continue to recuperate from the lingering effects of my summer cold, and begin to prepare for our upcoming travels to spend time with family and friends, I dusted off this post from May 2015…

“Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.”
― Albert Schweitzer

I’ve always been fascinated by interdependencies and connections. We humans are creatures of connections – connected to our environment, to each other, to the vast universe (we really are stardust). We need to be in harmony with nature as a whole in order to maintain our own balance. It is essential to our own health and well-being that we maintain that harmony, and we are responsible for the health and well-being of the land that we inhabit. Symbiosis – the land sustains us as we sustain the land. And no, I’m not even close to being an environmental activist, but I do recognize that that we, as higher-order beings, have responsibilities. I may, and often do, fall short – too fond of internal combustion engines, for a start – but I do try to do the right thing most of the time.

There a multitude of connections that we form all of the time – to people, to places, weirdly, even to things. Connections to people, in particular, are formed constantly throughout our lives (unless you truly are a hermit). We connect with our families, our friends, our teachers, our coworkers. We are all products of the community that we were raised in, the community we live in, and the community that we work within. Fellow commuters, fellow travelers – some connections are more fleeting than others, but all are equally real. We touch others’ lives in ways that we will never know, or understand, just as they touch ours in ways we may not even recognize.

Connections to places particularly interest me because it’s harder to find a ‘why’ than it is with people. Someone once tried to tell me that an affinity for a place, sometimes one you’ve never visited, is rooted in a past life, but I think it has more to do with this life – our interests, our experiences, things we’ve read or seen that trigger a tangential thought – the way that things often do. This is how our brains work. We continually look for patterns and connections – it isn’t always a conscious activity – we do it instinctively (like seeing faces in floor tile – or toast). Sometimes these tangential connections help us find real connections, sometimes, like with conspiracy theories run amok, they lead us to false conclusions. Often they free us up creatively – the highly over-used phrase ‘thinking outside the box’ made manifest.

Our lives are all about connections – all of the time.

Only slightly off-topic, and by way of background — My husband and I got married in 1991 after several years of living together. I’m afraid our self-written wedding vows, which really did reference the interdependent web of existence, may be lost to time (or at least I can’t find a copy at the moment), but I did find the program that we put together. Not surprisingly, quotes about connectivity were the prevailing theme – this was after all for a wedding, and what better to inspire thoughts of connection. And since my husband and I are a bit odd, Douglas Adams featured prominently as well. I’ve included the program for your entertainment – please note that the blacked out attributions were made-up quotes that we attributed to pets and/or other family members, and that all participant’s last names have been blacked out in order to protect their dignity (but you know who you are). At least there are some fun quotes here…

Scan 42  Scan 43

Scan 44  Scan 45

Love a label? Finding compassion among the silos…

A couple of recent conversations with my younger daughter brought this post – originally published on October 19, 2015 – into my mind, so I’ve chosen to run it again as this month’s #1000Speak post & also as a potential conversation starter because I think, in some respects, it may be more relevant now than it was 20 months ago.

“As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.”
— Ram Dass

Recently a headline that I barely glanced at somehow infiltrated my subconscious and stuck there. And got me thinking about how our human need to identify with a group, and still somehow distinguish ourselves, may be making it harder for others to relate to us a people. Compassion is still possible. Compassion is always possible. But empathy? Empathy is harder to attain when dealing with such narrowly defined labels. Especially when those labels are often guarded so militantly.

“‘Pansexual’ Rises on National Coming Out Day” read the headline. Um, well, okay. I personally think that National Coming Out Day is a good idea – I think it’s important for people to be honest about who they are, and if having a dedicated date to do that makes it easier to do, then that’s all that matters.  It was the ‘pansexual’ label that drew me in. Perhaps because the adult  daughter of a friend varies her sexual-orientation label with quite a bit of flexibility. She is, primarily, lesbian. Sometimes she identifies herself as asexual. Or bisexual. And that’s okay, too, I think, but I do worry that sometimes she seems to assume that others just instinctively know where she is, and is annoyed that they don’t get it. Yeah, there’s surely more than a bit of drama here, which I think her friends mostly ignore, but it does make me wonder whether she ever feels isolated because of her strong need to label herself. But this problem of labels is one that exists far beyond sexual-orientation labels.

The notion that humans need to identify as a part of a group more specific than ‘human’ is well established. We identify by nationality, ethnicity, gender, color, religious affiliations, occupations, hobbies, sexual orientation, class, political views – and winnow it down further by subcategories within those groups. But we modern, westernized, humans have also developed a strong need to be seen as unique. The result seems to be that we seek increasingly fine-tuned labels because we want to make sure that no part of our individuality is missed, while at the same time needing those labels to help us find others that are more like us.

But group identification, and highly individualized labels, while helping us find our place in society and providing us some measure of support can leave us more isolated as well. Just when it’s possible that we need more love and compassion, we may find it more difficult to obtain.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of human behavior, rooted deep in our survival instincts, is a fear of that which is not us. We instinctively distrust ‘different’, just as we instinctively move toward ‘like’. This protects us from obvious predators, and from warring tribes, but does little for us in our day to day interactions. For the most part, we have those instinctive reactions so well in hand that we barely notice them, and they don’t prevent us from navigating through our lives, but they do lie at the base of our prejudices, and, occasionally, irrational dislike of people that we just met.

Each additional layer of group identification adds to those things that are different, or that fall outside of our range of tolerance. Or the tolerance limits of one or more of the groups that we identify with. Sometimes when we wholly embrace the views of a group, we end up cutting ourselves off not only from the larger society around us, but possibly from our families and friends.

I think our ability to be compassionate with those outside our silos is often limited because we confuse empathy and compassion, and we do not always understand that love can exist without a personal relationship.

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another”

— Thomas Merton

Compassion and love go hand in hand. Compassion can, and should, be taught. We recognize the suffering of others, and feel the compulsion to act. Love in this sense can also be taught, I think, for it is the love of our fellow beings, and animals, as well, that enables compassion and the desire and willingness to act in some way to alleviate the suffering of others. Empathy, which requires a way of relating to the others that cannot be taught – it requires a shared experience, or a natural ability that is possessed by few. Empathy can be particularly difficult when our own micro-universes keep us removed from those outside, but since we can feel love and compassion regardless of how narrowly we define ourselves, there should be no impediment.

And yet, in a somewhat ironic turn, the continual shrinking of the world at large seems to lead to a magnification of our differences. That magnification fuels fear, which fuels hate. So rather than an increasing globalization leading us to see each other as the same, we are focusing more on our differences. In order to move to a more compassionate, and peaceful, world, we need to open up our minds to the simple reality that we are all humans. To understand that we all are trying to make our way through this life as best we can, and that all of us need help and support from time to time. And that love and respect are something that we all need. And deserve.

“Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Do I have an answer? No, and there is no simple solution. But we all need to challenge ourselves to push past our preconceptions and prejudices – to suppress that urge to react to the different instead of interacting with it.

As I was writing this, possibly apropos of nothing, possibly in a sudden burst of insight, this quote from HG Wells came into my head and refused to leave:

“Sometimes, you have to step outside of the person you’ve been and remember the person you were meant to be. The person you want to be. The person you are.”

Perhaps if we all remembered, and became, the person we are, instead of being consumed by the person we’ve become, the world really would be a more compassionate place.

Thoughts on Listening

Very unoriginal this month, I fear. I’ve been giving a great deal of thought recently to the overwhelming lack of polite discourse (particularly political, but not limited to politics), and it’s disturbing how we seem to have stopped listening (or only listening long enough to get our own point across). That (very human) tendency only serves to further divide, and makes compassion difficult, and empathy all but impossible. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I’ve dusted off my August 2015 themed post on Listening. Instead of listening to find an opening for a response, think of how much better off we’d be if we simply listened, and really thought before responding – or realized that sometimes no response is necessary.

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

— Anonymous (but with many unconfirmed attributions to Robert McClosky – not the children’s author, a State Department spokesman during the Vietnamese War in the late 1960’s)

When I first started planning what to write for this month’s  #1000Speak post on listening, the quote above popped into my head. An old favorite from my youth (I think I may have first encountered it in an Art Buchwald column at the time). It is, perhaps, not entirely in line with the compassion theme, but it serves to start off with a reminder that we often hear the words and not the intent, and in order to listen compassionately, we have to move beyond our natural tendency toward distracted listening.

The next thing that popped into my head, and stayed there for days (oh, those pesky earworms) was Cat Stevens’ highly introspective, and very short, song, “The Wind”:

“I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
Only God really knows”

This is also, perhaps, not entirely relevant to a piece on compassionate listening, but it, too, has its place. Compassion has to start within us. And learning to be still and listen to ourselves will bring us closer to being able to do the same for others. It is true that if we are not listening to ourselves mindfully, and with compassion, we will never be able to listen to others compassionately. It sounds trite, but we have to understand ourselves before we can understand others. So, listen to that voice in your head, and occasionally the one in your heart, so that you can find your own equilibrium. That makes is much easier to simply live in a world inhabited by other people, and makes it possible to reach out. With a helping hand, or to take one.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.”

— Margaret J. Wheatley

Hearing is passive, listening is active. We hear an overwhleming amount all day long. Those of us capable of hearing, are also incapable of turning it off. We are, in fact, bombarded by sounds, all of the time. Our brains, helpfully, do block out ‘normal’ sounds while we sleep – so that we can sleep – and they also filter sounds, in much the same way that they filter abundant visual stimulation, by deciding what’s relevant, and dialing back what isn’t (or hopefully isn’t).

Unfortunately, we filter quite a bit, unconsciously, while listening, also. This is very apparent when we listen while doing other things – we get distracted by email while on a conference call, or we are attempting to eat dinner while chatting with a friend on the phone, or we are trying to read while our children are talking to us about something that we have minimal interest in, or… There a veritable multitude that I’m guilty of and I know I’m not alone. Suddenly I realize that I have absolutely no idea what we are talking about – let alone why my opinion is necessary.

“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.”

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

When we attempt to listen while doing other tasks, we often miss the intent, if not the actual words. When someone tells us they are tired, it could be simply a factual observation. Or it could mean that they’re bored (a common problem with teens). Or it could be indicative of an existential crisis. Or depression. Unless we are really listening – to the words as well as the tone, the underlying emotion – we may miss something important. Perhaps even an attempt to reach out.

“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”
— Henri J.M. Nouwen

But, we have another, more difficult, problem when listening. Part of our brain’s filtering, categorizing, and self-protective functions, includes keeping ‘me’ front and center. Even when we are listening attentively, we are still hearing through our own filters – our own experiences, prejudices, belief system. A co-worker’s spouse has gout? How did your Aunt Jane deal with hers? We are often listening more with an ear out for how to respond. Even if our intent is sympathy, understanding, common ground, it is still making the listening about us, not about the person we’re listening to. Many times all that is needed is someone to listen. Not to offer advice, not to commiserate. Just to listen. This is perhaps hardest of all. Part of our desire to connect leads us to seek out a common thread that we can respond with, but that comes from our own desire. Ask if there’s anything we can do, if that’s appropriate, and sincere, but don’t preface the offer with a commentary about Aunt Jane’s gout, or your problems with morning sickness during your second trimester.

Don’t multi-task, try to take your own experiences out of the equation, and just listen. Something that is increasingly difficult to do in our highly electronic, multi-tasking oriented world, but it is necessary to try as we continue our efforts to make our corner of the universe a better, more compassionate place.

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

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Please check out the weekly and monthly magazines to see some of the wonderful pieces that have been collected.

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