Inviting the Pain of Compassion

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything.And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”-Andrew Boyd,Daily Afflictions: The Agony of Being Connected to Everything in the Universe.

When reading this quote by Andrew Boyd, it came to me that starting with the world’s worst horrors might not be exactly where I needed to start if I really wanted to be honest about my challenges with compassion. I cannot help but think how most of the instances that call me to welcome and maintain compassion, infusing my life, actions and words with its influence,are by and large here-and-now, everyday encounters in the mundane and unremarkable exchanges in our lives.

Yet, even in these encounters, compassion is not comfortable, and our animal nature, or ego, will quickly motivate us away from staying present in kindness and love big enough to hold each other in compassion. I am the worst at this when I am feeling vulnerable, or when I’ve overcommitted to an itinerary or identity or principle of some sort that I don’t want to open up to hold an embrace of another’s call for my presence. That which I experience in the heart of my prayer, in the depths of silence in my meditations, is bigger than that, and the journey to embody and surrender to my awareness is the longest one I’ve ever taken. And upon this journey, I find that the ways in which I have been raised and educated, my experiences in relationships and workplace, and my traumas, errors, losses, and desires, all compete with this simple move to compassion.

As the eldest of my generation in my family, as a female, raised as culturally Mexican as a child in Texas, and Catholic, like many of my friends and relatives, I learned that I needed to sacrifice at every turn for others. I learned that I shouldn’t upset others, and that if I did, I needed to give of myself to make it better,and that it was appropriate to feel guilty, and later seek penance for my actions. This system of thought and relationship can work in the best of circumstances, but we rarely if ever live in a world of sustained “best circumstances,” and so it becomes an internalized effort to mediate guilt in the absence of sacramental absolution or reinforcement of the denial of one’s experience or feelings. As a child, I felt this very powerfully, and I have even said that my insistence of writing the word NO all over the house and in our photo albums, on our walls and furniture, was the magical realism of truths present even as they were being hidden through proper, and sometimes improper, upbringing and education.

I’ve come to learn that it is art, nature, and spiritual practice that are the training grounds for compassion. Not a workshop or book, although they offer food for thought, but deeply personal everyday practice experiencing the exquisite nature of beauty just beyond reach in art…so much so that it can transfix us, move us to tears, obsess us and make us lose all sense of time. Sitting in nature and simply sensing it, feeling it, letting its sounds penetrate our being, its images imprint themselves on our ancient souls, reconnecting us–this can calm our ego and minds without much effort, with no thought required. Or a beloved spiritual practice that is religious in its very essence, re-uniting us with an experience of the ttranscendentand bigger than all, passion so deep that we can bring it to com-passion.

Each summer I find myself remembering these things as the madness of all the activity of the university slows, the heat invites me inward, the sweat reminds me to release what I hadn’t realized I was clutching. And it is the toiling of the summer that can bring a fall harvest bountiful enough to celebrate and feast, yet have enough to make it through that rough winter to begin dreaming again of a possible re-birth in spring.

We don’t have that experience as vividly here in Phoenix, Arizona, but the template of the Four Seasons has guided my life for over twenty years now, and I am truly grateful for the cyclical nature of each year, for it is merciful to this slowly learning human being. We are such fragile and delicate beings, so worthy of compassion, and I strive to be capable of it, as well.

Phoenix, Arizona
May 24, 2014


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