At the shops the other day, in one of the big chain-grocery stores, sat trays of plants in pots, drying out and turning brown, shrivelling before my eyes. Buying one of these in hopes of resurrecting its vitality, I asked the young lady at the checkout whether they were going to be discounted while they still had a little life in them, and noted that they were dry. Her answer: "Head office controls such issues". In this moment the buck was passed from someone who could do something about the issue to an administrative process that had no link to compassion.
The concept and embodiment of this 'emotion' is broader though, than the recognition of suffering, whether it is plant, animal, human or planetary. It is also deeper than the warm, caring feeling triggered by baby features, large eyes, soft pelts and unquestioning loyalty of pets. These are emotional reflexes, compulsively embodied.
There have been and still are many faces to compassion, some of which involve prayer. For as long as I remember, a lady I know has had a beautiful little statue in a glass-fronted cabinet. When I asked her about it, she explained that this individual represents a deity pronounced Quanyin (written as Guanyin) and that people pray to this archetype of compassion, to ease their suffering. Of course, a horrible dissonance also arrives when we realise that this idol of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is cut from an ivory tusk. But then again, in days gone by, piano keys were also cut from ivory. At least now our compassion for animals has us seeing them as equals, with the right to well-being and a long life.
Sadly though, compassion seems to work best when we see animals as human-like, rather than as themselves, with the many traits that they have that make them different from us humans. Instead, it is the scientific breakthroughs that show how like us these animals are which feeds our caring. Just the other day, I came across a short video showing an octopus asleep and changing colours, which may indicate dreaming, much like a dog kicks its legs when asleep but dreaming about running. Does knowing this about an octopus change the way you feel about them? I am betting it does since they usually come across as quite alien.
Attending a Buddhist teaching session this year, I encountered compassion through an interesting lens that seems most useful in our modern-day life. This, in a nutshell, is what I discovered:
We act out of a desire for happiness, seeing ourselves as gatherers, separate from one another, often in competition, only able to gather up the feeling of happiness fleetingly, from the external.
Reshaping our perception of reality - of the nature of the way things are - centres happiness within, dependant instead on the way mind contemplates creation and acts out of this vision.
Gratitude for life, appreciation for being and its transient nature, and knowledge that the power of intention create ripples in our lives, focuses mind on the importance of positive, gifting thoughts.
A calm demeanour and humbled ego accepts well-being for self and others, filling quiet emptiness with love and joy. In this state the mind and being seeks not to judge but to shoulder that which poisons others, consuming and transforming it through the offering of intention and action.
There is scientific evidence underpinning this approach for a happier, more meaningful life. Certainly, an ability to empathise is important in developing compassion, but empathy alone is not enough. This is because it builds walls of exclusion, defining an 'us' and a 'them'. It opens self to being smothered by mirroring externally-derived emotion, and impotent at not being able to force change. This approach leads to emotional 'burnout'. By contrast, practising compassion enlarges the brain networks involved in experiencing empathy, co-opting more regions of brain activity, and embodying greater plasticity in the mind. This approach overcomes the critical shortfalls of empathy alone, leaving us feeling that we can make a difference and that life is worth living, as I explain in the book, Design Your Mind.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb