Using Compassion to Guide Social Action - March 2017

Last week, we taught an Intro class to Four Different Meditation Styles, and one of the meditations we practiced was cultivating lovingkindness.  One form of this meditation is where you picture various people – some you know well and love, some you don’t know very well (like the mailperson or the grocery store clerk), and some you know and have difficulty feeling kindly towards – and with each person, you deliberately wish them happiness, health and freedom from suffering.  I was deeply touched by one woman’s account of doing this meditation for the first time.  She described an outpouring of love and deeply felt compassion, such that she was almost brought to tears by how much she truly desired freedom from suffering for the person she was imagining.  I was moved, and gently reminded that now, more than ever, all of us in America need to be deliberately and actively cultivating this compassion – for everyone.

But why is this so hard?  There are always feelings of fear, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, anger, distrust and hostility that make us feel we are in competition with others for happiness.  Now more than ever, these negative feelings seem to be seeping into our homes and down our streets like a gas.  Why?  Regardless of your politics, don’t we all want the same things?  To be safe and able to support and love our families, friends and neighbors?  I simply don’t believe that anyone desires to live in fear and hate.  I have a hard time imagining anyone deliberately meditating on sending hostility and destruction toward the mailperson, or their pet dog.  But of course it’s easier to picture sending hostility and destruction toward those you feel are doing the same to you.  

It seems this is one reason why this president and this election in particular have been so emotional – because of the overt and dramatic divisiveness and messages of fear (“we’re in danger….,” “we must aggressively protect ourselves….,” etc.) Democrats feel that way about Republicans, and Republicans feel that way about Democrats.  Families are split along these lines. Ethnic and racial groups are split as each gets tagged with being a “threat” to another.  Gender and sexual orientations are used to divide and denigrate.  There seems to be a movement to CULTIVATE feelings of fear and threat.  And then of course, the “self-defense” of fighting for and greedily snatching up the seemingly limited supply of happiness and healthiness ensues.  We then are against each other, divided and threatened. And instead of cultivating and CREATING more happiness and healthiness, we are cultivating unease, fear, hostility and the health effects (anxiety, depression, abuse) that go along with these.

How can we protect ourselves and others from believing that hate, intolerance and division are true, and then acting, with policies and at an everyday level, from this place?  I believe we start with compassion.  We actively cultivate a sense of understanding and lovingkindness toward everyone, including those who feel division and fear are necessary tools to fight for their/our own safety, happiness and healthiness.  We can only be open to understanding if we cultivate compassion first. 

We must come back to this grounding belief that we are all the same – we all want the same basic things: happiness, health and freedom from suffering.  This is easy to forget, and then become either aggressively reactive, or helpless and hopeless.  If we aren’t aware of our feelings, beliefs and thoughts, then our actions are mindlessly reactive and grow from these feelings automatically, without choice. 

Do we believe that there is a limited supply of happiness, health and freedom from suffering?  Do we believe that we can hoard these things for ourselves only, or need to?  Or is everyone’s health and happiness tied together – safe, healthy people promote safe, healthy communities which allow for the growth of safety and health?  Our response to feelings of fear and insecurity can be many things: it can be seeking out specific others and other groups to blame and fight against; it can be becoming helpless and hopeless; it can be recognizing strength in unity and common goals of different people and amplifying, strengthening, collaborating.

Whatever your response, awareness first, then action.  And at this juncture, part of the foundation of awareness should be an active, cultivated compassion for everyone.