Sunday, February 7, 2010

Compassion at the Heart of Faith - Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong's study of world religions has shown her that compassion lies at the heart of each one. Thus, we can say that at the heart of Being is compassion. Karen says that compassion is feeling with another. It is putting ourselves in another's shoes, standing where another stands, seeing through another's eyes--and acting accordingly.

Karen connects compassion with ecstasy. Ecstasy occurs when we empty ourselves of the self, when we step outside of ourselves, when we leave behind our local individualized self--and step into something larger. By being compassionate, by feeling with another, we step out of our own self-focused experience and into the experience of another.

How do we enter into the mind and feelings of another? Karen Armstrong says that one way to do this is to use our own pain. In other words, when we are treated in a way that causes us pain or discomfort, we can take careful note and resolve never to do that to someone else.

I am not a naturally compassionate person, but I can think of at least one very small way that I practice compassion. (Recognizing this very small way helps me to grasp what compassion is and how it feels to practice it, and then hopefully to expand upon it.) Here is my very small baby step in compassion. First, I have noticed a particular type of situation that causes me discomfort. Sometimes when I am telling a story or sharing a thought with one or more other people, an interruption will arise. For instance, if we are at a cafe, the server may come to take our order or another person may arrive and join our group. After the interruption, the conversation may veer elsewhere, and I don't get a chance to finish what I was saying. When this happens, I feel disappointed.

Knowing how I feel when this happens to me, I try not to let this happen to others. When someone is telling a story or sharing a thought and an interruption occurs, I try not to let the conversation veer away before the person has the chance to finish. I do this by saying, for example, "Jane, I want to hear the rest of what you were saying about Edgar Allan Poe." This allows Jane to finish what she was saying without seeming to put herself forward, in case she feels uncomfortable being the one to reintroduce her story. (I've even started extending this compassion to myself. Since I've been doing this for others, I find that, after an interruption, I can more easily say on my own behalf, "I'd like to continue what I was saying about Alice Walker.")

I find that I experience a nice warm feeling when I can do this for others and when I can do this for myself. I also think that this is what it means, in a very small way, to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself. In this conversational type of situation, I show the same consideration both for my neighbor and for myself.

I would say, too, that to be compassionate in one's work, one needs to feel what it is like to be on the other side. A doctor or a nurse who has been hospitalized with illness or injury can more readily feel with his or her patients. Psycho-therapists are required to undergo psycho-therapy themselves in order to feel what the process is like for their clients. A teacher of English to speakers of other languages would do well to take a course in Vietnamese or Arabic or Hungarian to understand what it feels like to be confronted with learning a very different language and culture.

Self-emptying, compassion, and ecstasy also occur when we lose ourselves in contemplation of something greater--as a scientist does in her lab, an architect in his building, a lawyer in her client's case, a painter in his studio, a musician in her composition, a dancer in his movement, a reader in her story, a writer in his characters, a chef in her cuisine, a teacher in his subject. This loss of self in something greater can occur both as a creator and as an admirer: it can occur for the artist who sculpts a statue and for the art lover who admires it, for the chef who prepares a beautiful meal and for the gourmet who savors it, for the poet who composes a poem and for the reader who enters into it, for the gardener who creates a garden and for the flower lover who basks in it.

Karen Armstrong has found that she experiences self-emptying, compassion, and ecstasy through her study of and writing about world religions. She has learned to have compassion, to feel with, people of other faiths. On page 290 of The Spiral Staircase, Karen says, "It was not enough to understand other people's beliefs, rituals, and ethical practices intellectually. You had to feel them too and make an imaginative, though disciplined, identification." Karen explains how she did this when writing about the Prophet Muhammad. On page 278 of The Spiral Staircase, Karen says, "I had to make a daily, hourly effort to enter into the ghastly conditions of seventh-century Arabia, and that meant that I had to leave my twentieth-century assumptions and predilections behind. I had to penetrate another culture and develop a wholly different way of looking at the world. It required a constant concentration of mind and heart that was in fact a type of meditation. . . . I was learning the disciplines of ecstasy." In fact, on page 287 of The Spiral Staircase, Karen says, "I was finding in study the ecstasy [and, I would add, the compassion] that I had hoped to find in those long hours of prayer as a young nun."

On page 63 of The Case For God, Karen Armstrong speaks of Socratic dialogue as a means to self-emptying, compassion, and ecstasy. Karen says, "In a Socratic dialogue, therefore, the 'winner' did not try to force an unwilling opponent to accept his point of view. It was a joint effort. You expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your partner, whose beautifully expressed argument would, in turn, touch you at a profound level." On the same page, Karen says, "Like any good initiation, a successful dialogue should lead to ekstasis: by learning to inhabit each other's point of view, the conversationalists were taken beyond themselves." I love that: "learning to inhabit each other's point of view."

Compassion, then, is the heart of religious faith. A very legitimate question to ask about any religion is this: Does this religion lead to a compassionate life? That is the gold test.


  1. I appreciate what you said about extending compassion to others, and also extending compassion to ourselves. Often we are more gracious and responsive to others and their needs, and then criticize our belittle ourselves and our own needs. It is good to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

  2. I like the learning to inhabit each other's point of view. I assert that when we can hold opposite points of view in our hearts and honor and respect the other person and our selves there will be no mo' war!
    Much Much Love, RaTaTa (treetop!)