Compassion in a flat world
A friend of mine (42, mother of three girls) got recently diagnosed with breast cancer. As you can imagine, finding this out was distressful and made me feel terrible. I felt a flood of familiar feelings we all usually get when we learn about someone we know suffering — sadness over the situation and frustration with life’s brittleness, commiseration for her suffering and empathy for her family…
The bit that was different for me than most of my previous encounters with others suffering is that she decided to make her experience publicly documented into a blog journal. It took me a while to understand why she did it, what it meant to her, what it means to me and others reading it, but now I think I know: By inviting me to read her daily journal through her blog, my friend offered me a chance to experience compassion! Furthermore, by opening her life to any anonymous reader stumbling upon her blog, she extended that offer to the world!
Let me step back and take a look at what compassion really is.
If you look up definitions for compassion on the web, you’ll find descriptions like these:
The humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.
A human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism.
The desire to identify with or sense something of another’s experience; a precursor of caring.
While these definitions are familiar and we can understand compassion when reading about it, I think they miss a key component of compassion. I recently read a comment regarding religious and similar beliefs that brought this component into view:
Experience is much more transforming than belief. With a belief there is nothing else more to do. With experience you can change.
Reading this I thought — that’s it! Compassion does not happen when you believe you understand the suffering of others and you feel bad enough to want to do something about it! Empathy, pity, sorrow and similar feelings alone can lead to sense of understanding and prompt you in action. Compassion is when you, at some level, experience someone’s suffering and are able to directly feel and relate to what the other person feels. It is a truly changing feeling that can not only prompt you to take action and do something about the other’s suffering, but also everyone else’s suffering of any kind!
Let me tell you few interesting encounters with people who are trying to help other feel compassion in an attempt to see if their views relate to my understanding of it before going back to my friend.
Last year, at the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit, I had an opportunity to see the ultimate icon of compassion, the Dalai Lama. Curiously, he holds honorary Canadian Citizenship — with Canada being an icon of compassionate society fostering multicultural and peaceful co-existence — which, among other things, attracted me to drop my anchor here I guess 😉
The part of the conference that I was most interested in was titled Educating the Heart, a metaphor for teaching compassion in the world today. I admit I didn’t go there because of the Dalai Lama, but another personal hero of mine, Sir Ken Robinson, an educator fighting to transform the school systems to enable them to foster rather than hamper creativity. If you allow me to digress a bit, I wholeheartedly recommend his TED talk and invite you to join us at TEDxUBC on Oct 23 (live stream will be available) to see in which way we think we can implement some of his ideas!
At the Summit, Sir Ken talked about personal transformation which would lead to people embracing creativity as a way to improve one’s well-being and compassion as a way to connect with all people in the world. To use his words:
We may be on the brink of an evolutionary step change in humanity.
I didn’t quite understand what he means at the time, but I think I now do — though I’d like to ask for your patience with the rest of the article before jumping into conclusions.
I recently watched Bob Thurman (yes, Uma’s dad and the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Monk by the Dalai Lama) speaking at TEDSalon 2006, saying we can all be Buddhas. Bob talks about how technology helps bring about the complete interconnectedness of everyone and everything, not unlike Buddhism’s total interconnectedness of all life in all universes. He says that while the expected logical outcome of that would be complete misery:
Who would really want to be compassionate? How awful! I’m so miserable on my own. My head is aching. My bones are aching. I go from birth to death. I’m never satisfied. I never have enough, even if I’m a billionaire I never have enough. Imagine if I had to feel even a hundred other people’s suffering. It would be terrible.
Actually something very different would happen as compassion brings paradox in life:
When you’re no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom, or the intelligence, or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life, and you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.
By offering us a way to experience the pain in others, compassion leads to a transformational change, one which seems illogical and can’t be explained by looking at the individual feelings one can break compassion down into. It is probably not unlike mind emerging from the neurons in our brain connecting at a physical level and then seemingly transcending the physical — “transcending” used here as in “it can’t be reduced to the physical properties of the neural network”. It seems to me that compassion is some kind of an über-feeling, a complex interplay of many other feelings like sadness, angriness, distress, even joy and happiness — as Bob in his TED talk suggests when saying that compassion should be fun and points to the joyfulness of the Dalai Lama even as he feels the pain and suffering of his peoples’ genocide!
Going back to my friend fighting the cancer. As I said, her journal offered me a chance to experience compassion. By giving me a glimpse of her daily struggle, of her courageous fight to arm herself with knowledge about the disease and learn what to expect from the surgery and the life with chemotherapy beyond, of her endless worry about the happiness of her family, of her openness of mind in sharing her life with strangers, my friend allowed me to experience a transformational change. A change that leads to understanding, knowledge, inspiration. A change that makes my own worries and frustrations pale. A change that ultimately makes me a happier person by cherishing life at a more intimate level and by fueling a drive to connect with more people at a compassionate level.
But, it is more important to understand what my friends could possibly get out of her openness. If you read my articles on participation and engagement, you would’ve probably concluded by now that she is not only participating in this flat world, but she is making it possible and easy for others to engage with her too — thus allowing herself to learn!
She might not realize this yet, but by making it possible for others to engage through comments and feedback, she might expand her knowledge beyond what articles, doctors, etc. may offer. She might find new strength in experiencing compassion herself by listening to the personal stories of others who may have someone in their family going through the same.
It is hard to imagine someone facing such a suffering as herself could ever feel compassionate about someone else’s pain, but as Bob Thurman and Buddhism teach us, what is logical is not always true — and compassion is a true paradox of life!
If I am right about compassion offering a way to experience the pain in others and not just watch from the sidelines and think you understand their state, its transformational power may feed the next evolutionary step that Sir Ken Robinson hinted at the Peace Summit in 2009.
I wonder if compassion may lead to some new emerging property of humanity, some sort of a transcendent culture, a network of feelings and actions in which we’ll all be plugged in and interact with everyone, allowing us to feel what other feel and share our own feelings too.
My passion is writing so I’d like to use this article as a way to express gratitude to my friend for including me on her journey! I also hope to inspire people in joining the journey too and offer support through her blog at http://personalexploration.blogspot.com/.
Finally, I hope the article would make you think about compassion and prompt interesting questions and ideas, which I’d love to hear!
What better way to end if not with this quote from the Dalai Lama and Sir Ken Robinson:
To be born a human being is a rare event in any case! And we should use the opportunity as beneficially as possible!