Most spiritual paths teach that we come close to God when we 'walk in God's ways' - that is when we embody the divine quality of compassion. In the midrash below, from Jewish mysticism, the attributes of divine mercy revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai form the template for the practice of compassion: ''Walking in all His ways'': (Deut 11:22). What are the ways of the Holy One? ''A God compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin'' (Ex. 34:6).
This means that just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too must be gracious and compassionate. Just as God gives freely to all, you too must give freely to all. Just as God is loving, you too must be loving.
Spiritual wisdom, according to teachers from many traditions, can be seen by how much compassion we embody. In the Christian tradition, compassion is the ultimate fulfillment of Jesus' command to 'love one another, just as I have loved you' (Jn13:34) and the Old Testament directive to 'love your neighbour as your self'. Created in the divine image, compassion is at the heart of our being, waiting to flow for another and for those that suffer. Through compassion we not only come to resemble God, but become a conduit opening up the flow of divine compassion in the universe.
The word compassion simply means 'being with suffering' and shares an etymological root with the word compass - the simple two-pronged mathematical tool used to determine the relationship between two points. Thus, compassion is about knowing and honouring the relationship between two people or sentient beings, or between one group and another. It is at root about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, embodying the mystical understanding of the interconnectedness of all being. It brings together qualities of care, empathy, acceptance, presence and non-judgment that receive 'the other' just as they are.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for compassion rachamin comes from the root word rechem, womb, suggesting that compassion makes us womb-like; it has a holding quality that is nurturing of life. With compassion, we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form. When, as Jesus, we see life through the lens of rachamin, with eyes and hearts filled with love and compassion, we become healers with ability to shape reality in a positive way.
In the Christian tradition, compassion, or the love and cherishing of others, means not viewing our own needs and desires as more important than those of others and also actively choosing the good of others (Phil 2:3-4), for not only our friends but also for our enemies. Compassion is not just passive, but carries this active quality. So often in the New Testament we are told that Jesus felt compassion and then did something: 'He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick' (Mt 14:14). This active component carries the wish that others be free of suffering. Jesus exemplified this active compassion in his ultimate act of sacrifice on the cross, which was intended as a model for our own lives.
As on the cross, self-giving compassion requires a surrender of our normal ego to a greater purpose, a shift from the 'I will' of the ego to the 'Thy will be done'; a letting go of the ego's will, to yield to a greater, deeper intention that is bigger than the little 'me' of the ego-me. This surrender to our innate God-infused capacity of compassion and love demands the letting go of our egocentricity, letting go of focusing and contracting around our needs, wants, beliefs and desires; identifying with Christ rather than our own limited ego. It is St Paul's cry in Galatians 2:20: 'It is no longer I that live, but Christ in me.'
The hesychasts of Eastern Orthodox Christianity describe these two kinds of consciousness as ego-centered and ego-transcendent. The former is a state dominated by ego attachments, the latter involves what Christian monastics have always described as 'detachment.' This is not detachment from caring or the world, but detachment from the acting out of the demands of our stream of consciousness as directed by the ego. This shift from ego-centered to ego-transcendent (or Christ-centered) consciousness is called metanoia in New Testament Greek.
Having an ego is not the problem. Indeed, we need a healthy, stable sense of identity, with a level of emotional and psychological maturity that has dealt with some of its emotional wounding and uncovered aspects of the shadow, to truly embody the quality of compassion. Once there is a degree of psychological robustness, then the impact of others' suffering can enable an expression of compassion rather than cause emotional overwhelm and psychological distress. The problem with the ego is when we centre in it, tighten into our sense of self and grasp at our little ego-me. Monastic detachment is not about eliminating the ego but detaching from its focus and demands, it is about melting our sense of ego contraction to open us up to a quality of love beyond individual limitation or boundaries.
Importantly, this is not about negating the self and ignoring our own needs, which has sometimes been falsely perpetrated in some religious traditions almost to a form of self-abuse. Neither is it about covering over our needs and wounds in life with a spiritual veneer that seeks to serve the other to bolster a poor sense of self-worth (please see my article on spiritual-bypassing). The ego-transcendent consciousness is found when we dwell in our true self in God that is the deepest place within us, rather than the false self as directed by the ego. As St Catherine of Genoa cried out: 'My deepest me is God.'
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are told that it is Wisdom that leads us into the way of compassion; Wisdom not being intellectual prowess, but coming to see through the eyes of God. We are told that Lady Wisdom stands 'at the crossroads' of life (Proverbs 8:2). She is like a young lover who yearns for us, longing to be one with us (Ecclesiasticus 15:2). One of her characteristics is compassion. She loves 'all things that exist' (Wisdom 11:24). Wisdom is deeper than our individual consciousness, deeper than our rationality, deeper than our ego, and leads us into the way of compassion, which is why the Psalmist cries: 'Teach me Wisdom in my innermost part,' (Psalm 51:6).
Losing Your ego, Finding Your Compassion
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf here offers an insightful and inspiring 15 min talk on losing the ego and finding compassion in the spiritual life, a theme explored, as he shows, in every faith tradition. He exemplifies this compassion in his own life by devoting himself to working to heal relations between Muslim Americans and their neighbours.
In Part II of Cultivating Compassion, I offer a form of meditative prayer that can help us both open to God as the compassionate source of our being and cultivate our compassionate quality in all of life.