Once we are able to see suffering, we need to have a point of relatedness to the sufferer. Do we know them? Are they part of our circle, our 'family'. Can we relate to what they’re going through? Has this happened to us, or someone close to us, before? This relatedness gives a natural rise to care and concern and it is from this care and concern we are propelled into action.
In mindfulness traditions—secular or wisdom-based—compassion is specifically cultivated as a means to meet the inevitable difficulties of life in the human body. It's a response to what will be experienced by all. Nothing to do with gender, race, religion, community status or wealth. These inevitable difficulties leave no one exempt, whether it’s pain, illness, loss or death. These are universal.
Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself, reminds us: “To give ourselves compassion, we first have to recognize that we are suffering. We can’t heal what we can’t feel.”
So, compassion practices begin with ourselves--with that which we know directly. We stub our toe, we lose a job, the love of our life leaves us, someone we know dies, as our body and mind age, we lose functioning. We begin there, with the difficulties we ourselves have.
From this awareness of suffering, the process is pretty natural—compassion arises and responds to help stop and heal the suffering. We hold our toe or put ice on it, we look for another job, we work through the mourning of our losses, we come to accept the aging body and mind and the preciousness of each moment.
So, how is this compassion related to justice and equity? It's about the size of our circle of care.
For many generations, we believed that only humans experienced pain and suffering. We believed animals didn’t suffer—they didn’t have the capacity, because they didn’t have consciousness.
For this reason, and many others, including survival, we’ve been able to justify harming and killing animals for our benefit. There was no relatedness to their experience, as they weren’t part of our human family.
From there, when we are convinced that others are less than us--sub-human, or animal-like--then we can justify harmful actions toward them. This distancing of others through ‘dehumanizing’ or ‘othering’ creates a defensive stance and we can then harm out of protecting ourselves, our family, our friends—our circle—those we can identify with.
This is where inequity and injustice arise from—from putting others out of our circle and, hence, out of our heart and out of the realm of our acts of helpfulness and kindness. Out of our sphere of compassion.
But, as understanding grows, so does our circle: we learn that we are part of the animal kingdom--we are mammals--and mammals do experience pain and suffering; we learn that plants are sentient and experience pain; we learn that we can cause pain and suffering for others. When we discover and become aware of these things, our circle, and our kindness and compassion for those within our circle, can expand.
So, if a kind and compassionate stance arises for those within our circle, then really it’s about creating a bigger circle of identification. We can continue to widen and include, to expand and include.
Over the years of my own practice, I’ve noticed my circle of kindness and compassion expanding to include all living things—plants, animals—and even non-living things—rocks, earth, water, fire, etc.
When we do a kindness and compassion practice, we begin with ourselves, and then expand our circle of inclusion to those we love, those we know casually, those who we may have difficult relationships with, and then finally, those we don’t know—across the world, across species, across time, to all living and non-living expressions.
And while we have a tendency to see these as separate things, separate entities, really, from a scientific and a wisdom tradition perspective, there is no separation. There is no beginning or end to me or you or all of it--we are all just one big process unfolding in time and space. And, our awareness can expand to permeate it all--to connect with it all, to become aware of it all.
We expand our circle of inclusiveness, and as we do, our actions in the world turn from separation and distancing--othering--to helpfulness and kindness to all that we meet. Because there is no other, because the other is us, and we don't want to harm ourselves--quite the contrary--we are working to better ourselves and our conditions. We move into action.
And when our circle is widened enough then we want this goodness, these better conditions for everyone. We act to include. We care for the suffering of others and try to prevent it. We recognize and honor the precious uniqueness of us all. We envelop our children with kindness and opportunities.
So, in sum, we care for and tend to those we know, love and can relate to. Expanding our circle of inclusion expands justice and equity because we are less likely to leave those in our circle out of our hearts and out of our helping hands. Expanding self-compassion begins this process, begins this ever widening circle of compassion, kindness, equity and justice. Expanding access to compassion practices is but one long term approach to help quell the social inequity and injustice we see manifest today.
Imagine if everyone--children, adults and elders--worked to grow and expand their kindness and compassion. What possibilities do you see from a world where these are foundational?
Here's a guided compassion practice from our Mindful Monday Meditation on Facebook.
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