"Sorrow and Joy"
- in my meditation garden -
When it comes to “spirituality” the word compassion is used a lot nowadays. In fact it’s almost impossible to read a book or article about religion or spirituality without somehow coming across that word, compassion. The great teachers like Jesus or Buddha were icons of compassion. The core teaching of most major world religions is compassion and everyone in almost every tradition is told that compassion is the guiding principle for walking on the spiritual path. The problem is that this word often takes on very different meanings when it is used - sometimes far away from what genuine compassion is really all about.
Compassion is sometimes defined as sympathy or empathy, sometimes compassion is defined as pity, feeling sorry for someone who may be in pain. At other times the practice of compassion means just being “nice” to others. I actually think genuine compassion goes far deeper than feeling sorry for someone or “being nice” to others.
In order to get at what “having compassion” might really mean, I look at the many Gospel accounts in which Jesus is described as “having compassion” for various people. He has compassion for sick people and sad people, he has compassion for rich people and poor people, he has compassion for the crowds of lonely people wandering through life without direction.
When it is used in the gospels, the word for “compassion” has a far richer meaning than the English word. The Greek word for “compassion” is “splaxna,” which comes from the word for “entrails” or “bowels” – the deepest core of a person. And so compassion is a deep, profound, “gut level” love that flows from the very innermost core of one’s being – a far cry from being nice to someone.
Author and poet, Chris Wiman offers this beautiful insight into what compassion is really all about:
Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves.
This one little sentence almost perfectly describes the profound depths of what it means to have genuine compassion. Someone else’s suffering burns and flares in your own nerves, in your entrails, in the deepest core of who you are.
A while back I was listening to a “storytelling” program on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour. The program featured a young man who told his story of how a single act of compassion literally saved his life.
In his story this young man told of a heart-wrenching time when he had reached a “rock bottom” place in life. His beloved father who was a mentor and friend had just died and then two days later his wife died unexpectedly. He was a broken man and was himself contemplating suicide because he couldn’t possibly imagine how he could go on living weighed down by such pain and grief.
As the story goes, this grief stricken young man was on a plane on the way to his father’s funeral and was in the aisle walking to the lavatory as he passed by an old Buddhist monk sitting in the aisle seat. They locked eyes and the monk clearly saw the heartbreak and misery that young man was experiencing. So, the old monk reached out, held the young man’s hand, touched his forehead and whispered
I give you all my joy.
I take on all your pain.
That one single act of genuine compassion literally saved the young man’s life. It gave him a renewed sense of hope and enkindled his will to live.
I think all the spiritual teachers, gurus and authors are absolutely correct when they say that compassion lies at the core of the spiritual life. When we show compassion to another human being, especially to one who is suffering, we give all our joy and take on all their pain, and when we do this new life always happens.