Living With Compassion
It’s not been easy for me to come up with an over-arching philosophy to live by, but gradually I’ve nudged my way towards living with compassion. Daily life is constantly presenting situations, mostly involving people, that frustrate, anger, disappoint … and compassion provides a tool to turn all of these events into less stressful versions of themselves and provides a way to improve the quality of my thinking so that future events cause less disturbance.
I’m going to walk through a few events from this morning to illustrate what I mean by living with compassion and then later in this post provide some more details of the approach that I’m working on.
The first opportunity for a bit of compassion was my encounter with a woman walking her dog, she was deeply immersed in her phone call, her dog was off it’s lead and I was cycling passed her on a dual use path. As you can guess the dog walked in front of me, I had to brake hard to miss it, the owner just carried on her phone conversation. It was easy to direct my compassion at the dog, it’s safety wasn’t being considered by it’s owner, it could have been injured. It’s harder to be compassionate about the owner, she wasn’t taking her responsibility as a dog walker seriously, I felt the anger rise in me. But I didn’t know anything about her situation, maybe someone rang her up just before our encounter, maybe the phone call seriously distracted her due to it’s importance, maybe she just hadn’t thought through the risks loose dogs present to cyclists and next time she will be more careful, maybe she didn’t realise it was a dual use path … feeling compassion diffused the anger. If compassion had been my default reaction, the anger didn’t need to arise at all.
The second opportunity arose flicking through Facebook, a friend of mine had ‘liked’ an article from the Huffington Post, titled “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” shared by a friend of his who commented “This is funny, and true, even if she does sound a bit cross”. Well as a spiritual atheist I didn’t find it funny or true, I clicked through and read the article and it’s links, in a very mocking tone they seemed to imply that people who were spiritual but not religious were not good people, were self centred, not engaged in community, not open to new ideas or to robust discussion and debate. Well I could easily angry about this, the author is certainly not very compassionate. But she is definitely very angry about something, I don’t know what it is but I doubt it’s really spiritual people and it wouldn’t be fair to speculate, even by way of example. One thing’s for sure it’s easy to feel [Christian] compassion for her, her anger, her gross misunderstanding of what it’s like to be a spiritual person who’s not religious, her need to insult millions of people, for no apparent reason, her mocking tone.
Next us was a mobility scooter owner who emerged from behind a wall, directly into my path. A hard pull on the brakes on my part and a little skidding saved the day, he reacted too slowly to do anything. Often such events lead to shouted insults, but primed by these two earlier examples of compassion, I smiled, he smiled, I explained that he was invisible behind the wall, I understood that he was an old guy enjoying his time on the prom, more focused on the beach than me and no harm was done.
I know that I’ve not invented a new way to look at the world, compassion is at the centre of most religions and of course the Buddhist philosophy, but it’s often not internalised. Getting angry at the world normally benefits no one, unless that anger can be channelled into positive action. Trying to understand people’s motivations, to assume that most people are inherently good and well motivated seems to be a better way. To recognise that even the ‘bad’ things that people do are often just lapses of attention, cries for help, the result of peer pressure, a side effect of drugs or alcohol helps. Being compassionate for me isn’t about passivity, it’s about seeking to understand and help, rather than to criticise and punish and like most things that are worthwhile it’s a long and difficult discipline to master.
I chose a sunset to decorate this post, because the ‘angry minister’ took great pleasure in pointing out that there’s more to spirituality than sunsets, which is of course true – I find my spirituality in understanding how the universe works, experiencing it in action and in trying to leave it a better place than I found it.