Radical Compassion

CanolaFields2
Humble, yet beautiful canola fields.

Most of us know what it feels like to hold dear in our hearts a family member, friend, or beloved pet. When we cherish someone, we love and appreciate them, care for them, and try to keep them from harm. We may even prioritize their wellbeing over our own at times, if it truly helps them to do so.

What would it be like to cherish a complete stranger in this way? What might happen if we treasured even those who try to harm us or our loved ones or who engage in despicable acts? Could there be any benefit to such a thing? The very thought of this might feel so vulnerable and so contrary to everything we’ve been taught.

Most people experience a visceral reaction when they first encounter the idea of cherishing one’s “enemies”. We are strongly conditioned to guard against the unknown and to protect ourselves from potential harm. For most of us, our reactions around self-protection tend to be very automatic, black and white, and unexamined. While its important to take care of ourselves, there is often more space than we believe to care for others, as long as we do so in a wise and skillful way.

Is it ever useful to disdain someone – even if they have done some awful thing? Hatred is a profound feeling of aversion. It drives us to act in a way that is intended to reduce our unpleasant feelings – generally by fighting against, escaping from, or ignoring the perceived source. In this sense, hatred can be highly motivating and may result in behavior that at least partially or temporarily alleviates our own suffering. However, hatred also has some unfortunate longer term side effects.

It takes an amazing amount of mental space and energy to hate. Although it may be directed at our “enemies”, anger also burns us from the inside. Chronic anger has harmful effects on our health and what we practice only becomes stronger. Not only is prolonged resentment and disdain bad for the health of the individual, anger can also become a threat to public health. It is easier to mistreat those we judge as fundamentally bad, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of hatred and counter-hatred. Research shows that punishment is not nearly as effective for behavior change as reinforcement and people generally live up to or sink down to the expectations we set for them.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. …The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do you believe there is a glimmer of goodness that resides in everyone? If so, it can be helpful to remember this when you encounter someone who seems hard to love. If not, you can at least acknowledge the common humanity we all share, reminding yourself that this person too was once a helpless baby – that like you, underneath it all they desire happiness. It can also be helpful to recognize that you are not immune to the misfortune of others. Right or wrong, societal unrest and dissatisfaction ripple out in ways that impact us all. Everyone benefits when we value each other. Its possible to respect the disrespectful and love the unloving without endangering personal integrity. We do this by acting with wise compassion, wishing wellbeing, and doing our best to avoid harm. Cherishing another does not have to mean placing ourselves in danger – sometimes the best way not to harm someone is to set a loving boundary. It can be more effective to love from afar in some cases.

Cherishing someone who might seem hard to love takes humility – a modest estimation of one’s own importance in the grand scheme of things. Humility comes from the Latin word humilitas meaning lowliness – or – humus, the earth beneath one’s feet. How can you cherish another when you believe they are less deserving? We are all very small in the big picture and we are inextricably connected – the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. According to a classic teaching tool for high school and college chemistry students, if you take a deep breath right now, at least one of the molecules entering your lungs came from Julius Caesar’s last breath.

Can we acknowledge the limits of our control and understanding – especially that we can’t truly know the heart of another? Is it possible to see that we aren’t separate from or above anyone else – even from humanity’s worst offenders? If we can truly accept these things, our automatic reactions will be more likely to come from a place beneficence and compassion. One way to start practicing radical compassion is to make a regular practice of lovingkindness or giving and taking meditation (tonglen). A simpler way is to just begin noticing in our daily lives the ways in which judgmentpride, and anger show up in our relationships with others and to perhaps make space for responding more skillfully.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

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