Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Step 4: Empathy

      Step 4 didn't seem like as much of a step to me as the first three.  I think a lot of the work for this step had already been subsumed by the previous step.  I've already valued empathy as an important trait.

       There were some valuable points for consideration with this step.  It didn't focus so much on empathy for all as it did on empathy for those it is hardest to empathise with - people who have done things we would not do, or those in situations we do not understand.  This is, of course, one of the hardest situations in which to have empathy, and one I've always had to work on.

      It is sometimes hard for me to step back from an abuser and recognize that their abuse comes from a place of pain.  It is hard to see the adulterer as a lonely, insecure person.

      There were two main courses of action with this step, and I can't say I did all that hot with either of them in the beginning.  The first action was to indulge in tradgedy, basically.  To watch a movie (or play or something) that would pull the viewer into the pain of the characters and to submit completely to that pain.

      I hate doing this.  I have always had excellent control of my emotions (though apparently not in the most healthy way - in more of a beat them into submission way), and movies don't typically make me cry because I focus on the not-real aspects.  And I avoid unhappy movies anyway.

      I started with the book To Kill a Mockingbird (my take on this for the book page is about 1/2 written right now).  That book certainly has some truly sad parts in it, but it wasn't as heartbreaking as one might think.  I found it much more though provoking than I did emotional.

      So I moved on to my old stand-by, Steel Magnolias.  I LOVE that movie (and the play).  LOVE.  But I fell asleep this time before I got to the sad part.  Erg.

      Eventually, I did accomplish this part of step 4, though it wasn't until May, and it was during a rather unexpected movie:  The Hunger Games.  There will be another post forthcoming about my issues with that series and why I haven't yet read the books, but MacGyver took me to see the movie last week and not only did the death of one of the characters really get to me; I was also completely emotionally sucked in to the sacrifice of one sister for the other - not to mention the pain of the parents in the movie.  So, that part of Step 4 was accomplished.

      Of course, I'm sort of skimming over the point of the tradgedy indulgence, which was to truely feel for another from their own point of view, and to accept the pain of others rather than denying it or demanding that everyone remain positive even when things are bad.  This was certainly an interesting point, as I have been a relentlessly - sometimes even heartlessly - positive person in the past.  I have learned throught this step to separate strength, compassion, and a positive attitude from one another.  One can show strength and compassion while at the same time recognizing pain and negetive situations.  Remaining demandingly positive in the face of others' pain often an unkind thing to do.  Sometimes, the better thing to do is to join them in their pain and help them to not feel alone.

      Interestingly, a story was told in church during April that fit well with this theme:  A little boy was very late coming home from school one day, and his mother was worried sick.  When he finally came through the door, she demanded to know where he had been.  "Timmy's bike broke on the way home and he was really upset, so I stayed with him to help  him," her son told her.

      "But you don't know how to fix a bike."
      "I stayed to help him cry," the little boy said.

       That is the kind of empathy to be gained from tradgedy.  That kind, and a refraining from judgement as characterized in the books by some of the Greek tradgedies.

      The second course of action was to add some more steps onto the daily meditation.  I sucked at this.  I'm still getting the hang of the meditation thing.  I usually meditate when I run, but I often don't complete an entire meditation cycle during a run.  MacGyver and I have also been rotating weeks for Sunday morning Buddhist meditation before church. 

      I will continue working on this meditation throughout the following steps and perhaps have more of an update later.  For now, I will simply say that it has been interesting.  You are supposed to meditate on three people: one you like, one you dislike, and one to whom you feel neutral.  My biggest problem was finding someone I feel truely neutral toward.  As soon as I start to really think about the person, I think of their positive qualities.  As for the person I dislike, there are few to choose from and the one I've gone with is someone very close to me who I've had a very complicated relationship with for many years.  It makes for a very interesting meditation.

      I've also found that for meditating on the person I like, I almost always end up feeling guilty for not being a good enough friend to that person - no matter who it is - at which point I have to go back and re-do the compassion for self stuff.  Ha.  It's a process, haha.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Step 3: Compassion for Yourself, Part 2

      So, my first post for Step 3 went off on a bit of a tangent.  Given my recent time connstraints, I've decided that one post per step, once I've moved on to the next step, should suffice to keep me aware of and accountable to my journey.  That is, of course, unless I go off on tangents.

     Step 3 really was an interestingly challenging step.  At first glance the title of this step, "Compassion for Yourself," sounded like a touchy-feely "you can't love others if you can't love yourself; when was the last time you had a manicure?" sort of things.  Of course, I know this book, so I knew better.

      Compassion for yourself is not the same as unconditional love for yourself, in the same way that Compassion for all people isn't the same as unconditional love for all people.  You can have Compassion for someone while still holding them accountable for their actions.  Having Compassion for yourself does not excuse your flaws.  It does, however, start with love.

      The first part of this step was to list out or ruminate on all the positive things about yourself.  Sounds like fun!  Erg, turned out to be a bit of a chore.  Turns out that, even inside my own head, there are certain things I feel guilty about giving myself credit for or being positive about.  I actually found myself making caveats inside my head, sort of like this:

     Hmmmm....  my good traits....  Well, I'm very fit.  I work out a lot and really love the way my body looks.  Not that my body is perfect - or any better than anyone else's.  I mean, I obviously have flaws.  My top abdominal muscles are a lot more defined than the lower ones, and some people don't even like defined abs.  But I like the way my body looks, which is really the point.  But it's ok if other people look different.  Lots of people with much different bodies than me have very beautiful bodies ....

     And on it would go.  Ridiculous.  It's one thing if I come out on my blog and say "I love the way my body looks!"  I might, in that case, want to point out that just because I love my body doesn't mean I in anyway dislike other bodies.  Actually, the fact that I find most human bodies beautiful in some way is part of my problem here, ha.  But I shouldn't be going back and forth in my head.  Part of my learning process with this step was being able to internally compliment myself and just stop there and take joy in it.

      I would also like to say that my physical traits were not the first traits I found myself thinking about, but the ridiculousness that occured inside my head when I tried to compliment myself on more important or deeper traits resulted in ridiculousness I couldn't even begin to capture here.

     But I recognized the issue, the harsh judgement I was using on myself, the wierd societal effects that had seeped into my brain, programming me to believe that 1) I should feel guilty for complimenting myself because that meant I was concieted and 2.) I should not compliment myself because that amounted to insulting others who are different.  Both of these are soundly untrue.  If I tell a co-worker she is really eloquent, that doesn't mean no one else in my office is.  If I tell myself I'm smart, that is not the same as saying I'm smarter than anyone else.

      Being concieted means (to me), complimenting yourself too much, for traits you don't have; valuing traits you do have too highly; discounting your own flaws; and, most importantly, believing that your positive qualities are the best, better than others, and entitle you to certain things.  Acknowledging the postitive about myself does none of those things.  So, here it is, in short, a few of the good things about myself:

     (I wasn't going to do this because I still find it really embarassing, even though I have occasionally complimented myself on this blog before)
  • I am rather intelligent.
  • I learn things quickly.
  • I am kind and understanding, and am becoming more so.
  • I am a loyal and caring friend.
  • I am a devoted wife and mother.
  • I am hard-working.
  • I perservere.
  • I deal with major stressors well and typically remain calm under pressure.
  • I try to make the world a better place, if even on a small scale.
  • I have a certain degree of courage.
  • I am fit.
  • I try to live ethically and morally.
  • I'm good at a whole bunch of stuff.
      I'm also bored of the list, so I'm going to stop there since I think that last one demonstrates why "I have a good attention span" was not on this list. ;-)  I notice that I still included some indefinite language, hedged a little here and there, and even included one qualifying statement (because making the world a better place is a pretty major compliment), but it's a start.

      Like I said, though, this step isn't just a whole bunch of hugging yourself in the mirror stuff.  Compassion isn't just about recognizing good qualities, but also about accepting people's faults.  And your own.

      The practice of looking over your own faults is a little different than that of looking at your positive traits.  The author warns at this stage that one should not become mired in self-pity or disapproval.  The point of this excersize is not bring yourself down.  It is to recognize that you are human.  You have flaws just like anyone else.  Your flaws to not make you better or worse than anyone else.  If you can look at your own flaws and see them clearly, two things happen.  First, you recognize that you are not better than other people; you see your own humanity.  Second, you become better able to accept the flaws of others, even if they are different flaws then your own.  Different people have different strengths and different flaws.  The goal is to accept all of these without judgement.

      I have lots of flaws.  In a way, recognizing my own flaws was easier than recognizing my positive traits.  There was no guilt.  Well, maybe guilt about the flaws themselves, but with every flaw there is the possibility of remedy or improvement.  I think the bigger changes for me with this step were in working toward accepting the flaws and moving on.  Leaving it at that.  I might improve upon my flaws, but I won't linger on them, and I must not linger on the flaws of others.

      You want a list of my flaws?  After all, I gave you a list of my positive traits.  Well, I'm not going to lay it out quite the same way.  You see, just because I recognize my flaws, doesn't mean I have to waive them around the internet.  Plus, as sad as it is to say, I suspect that there are a couple people reading who might take more pleasure in reading my flaws than I'm comfortable with.

      I wil say this, my flaws are many and myriad.  I struggle with a lot of failings.  I procrastinate badly.  I still catch myself being judgemental from time to time.  I speak without thinking.  I am a crap housekeeper.  I thrive amidst clutter.  These are the easiest and most concise ones to list.

     Lastly, (and I'm running out of time to post today), this chapter touched on our Western perogative to be positive about things.  The drive to, as the author puts it, "think positively, brace up, stiffen our upper lip, and look determinedly on the bright side of life."  Sometimes, this is a good thing.  Sometimes, it helps people push on.  But it also sometimes amounts to a denial of our humanity and emotions.  Maybe someone wants to share their grief.  Sympathy can be a very helpful and soothing reaction to offer someone.  Sometimes people are hurt more or feel like their pain is being discounted by the persistant positivity.

       This is a big topic that I could go into more, but it also comes into play in Step 4, so I'll try to remember to touch on it there.

      Overall, this looking at myself, and the daily meditation excersize the book assigns with it has been a big eye opener, as have all the steps.  I can feel the changes taking place, and I am grateful.  Another way of looking at myself.

Step 3: Compassion for Yourself

      The "mission" for March was "Compassion for Yourself."  It was an interesting journey.  I realized a lot; I questioned a lot; and, ultimately, I remain questioning a few things.

      The goal, so to speak, of my Compassion endeavor and the book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, is to live your life by the Golden Rule as wholely as possible - to do unto others as you would have them do unto you and to not do to others what you would not like done to you.  But I had never really thought about the fact that the basis of that rule is how you treat yourself.

       I tend to judge myself pretty harshly.  My biggest struggle with the Compassion project has been to try to refrain from judging others.  Yet, somehow, I never really looked at those two things as connected.  Probably because the majority of the time, I don't see holding myself to a strict standard as a bad thing.

        And in some ways, it's not.  But it is a really interesting thought.  I expect a lot from myself, and that is my motivation for accomplishing as much as I do.  Generally, if someone doesn't have the same education as I do, work out the way I do, eat the way I do, I don't judge them for that.  People are different.  Ok, so I judge a little on the eating thing.  A little.  I'm working on it ;-).  But if I fail to do something I meant to do; if I fall behind on my cases; if I go a week without running, I can be pretty hard on myself.

       This isn't coming out clearly.  I feel like I've already contradicted myself.  Let me try to simplify my problem here:  I don't generally come down, in my mind, on others for failing to do things I would come down on myself for failing to do in any area where I recognize that I have unusually high standards for myself.  BUT, I do tend to judge people when they do things I would not do, or violate what I consider to be low standards.

      For instance my unabashed disapproval of aldulterers.  For as long as I can remember having any real opinions on relationships, since I was a teenager at least, I have had a very deep seated disdain for people who committ adultery.  I've run on about it here on the blog a few times.  You can click on Adultery or Cheating over in my cloud at the right to read some of my vitriole on it.  I just always saw adultery as a base and obvious demonstration of extreme ego-centrism as well as the worst kind of betrayal - one committed only for the gratification of the betrayer.  I also saw it as a cowerdly way to avoid one's own inner demons.

       Judgy, right?

      Obviously.  And, in all honesty, I still feel that way.  But I also own up to the fact that I have done things in my life that some adulterers would consider far worse.  I don't know what off hand, but people are different, and what one person considers a mortal sin, so to speak, others might see as a minor character flaw.  Perhaps someone I might judge for adultery may think I am the worst kind of person because I am adamantly pro-choice?

       I also recognize that while I disapprove of adultery and hold my beliefs about it, that doesn't mean my take on it is correct in all cases.  No one wakes up in the morning intending to make "bad" decisions.  Even people who do horrible, aweful things are coming from a place where they feel like what they are doing is right.  Does it make the things they're doing ok?  No, not always.  I still think adultery is wrong even if the person who did it doesn't think they were wrong.  But that person did what they felt was right for their life at the time. 

       It hasn't taken me much to stop instinctually judging in most cases.  My immediate reactions to people and situations really have changed A LOT in the few months I have been following this path.  But there remain a few areas in which I struggle:  Abusers of animals and people, and people who are themselves lacking compassion.

       I think it's pretty easy to identify why it's hard to refrain from judging abusers.  It horrifies and sickens me to see anyone inflicting suffering on another.  In the case of human on human abuse, I'm getting better and remembering that the abuser is usually acting out of some very deep and horrifying pain of their own.  That doesn't mean the abuse is ok.  It's not.  It needs to be stopped immediately.  But I feel that both the victim and the abuser deserve healing.  I'm not saying punishment is out of the question, but I do think healing is a more effective long term fix.  And something all people deserve.

      I'm not totally there on animal abusers.  I'm not sure why.  It's harder to identify a pain there, for me.  It sickens me, and really makes me jump in the punishment direction.  I'm working on it.  And donating money to the ASPCA.

      Then there are people lacking in Compassion.  It is the wierdest side effect to my Compassion project:  The more I become able to refrain from judging, to feel empathy and compassion and give people the benefit of the doubt, the shorter my patience becomes for those who can't.

      I am having the greatest struggle with a current client.  She came to me seeking a divorce.  He husband has recently begun suffering from a very extreme mental disorder.  She told me her story, and my heart immediately went out to her husband.  His suffering is obvious and very, very sad.  Living with him, though, has been very hard for her (I keep reminding myself).  She doesn't want to put up with it.  She wants out, and she wants to know "what she can get from him."  She feels it is her due (not an uncommon issue in my office).

       My problem with this:  She seems very entitled.  She seems not to care one tiny little bit about the obvious pain and suffering of her husband.  They haven't been married very long. She seems to have believed that marrying a Marine meant she would get to stop working and spend all her time riding horses.  That seems to be her biggest problem with the divorce.  She seems to be a heartless, conceited, self indulgent bitch.

      See how well my not judging people is coming?  HA!

      I promise, this is a very special case.  I have MOUNTAINS of clients right now, and this is the only one I can't seem to find a decent scrap of empathy for.  I know that she must have had a hard time living with him.  I've been close to mental illness in my life and I've been in horrible relationships.  I know that my view of her actions and opinions and marriage is my outside view tempered by my own feelings.  I remind myself every time I speak to her (which is a LOT because she also seems to think that as her attorney, I'm at her beck and call to do all sorts of tasks that have nothing to do with the case, ahem...). 

     It's wierd.  Someone says something mean to me; I'm able to stop and think about why they said it, where they're coming from, that maybe they're having a bad day.  But this client, whose only "sin" is her seeming failure to care about anyone other than herself, continues to be the trickling hole in my non-judging dam.

      This is definitely something I will need to explore further in my meditations on myself and on Compassion.  I'm sure it is some sort of mirroring or projection issue.

      Well, this post didn't really go where I expected it to.  I thought this would be the only post on Step 3, but since I barely hit on a fraction of the Step 3 topics, it looks like there will be at least 2 posts on Step 3.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Step 2: Look at Your Own Family

      Step 2 was the February step.  It's now March.  I didn't write anything on step 2 in February, not because I wasn't doing it, not because I wasn't thinking about it and living it and looking at my own world every day, but because of this part.  The Family part.  I really didn't know what to put here.

       My quest to become more compassionate in some areas of my family life began long before I ever heard of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate LifeA million years ago, back in college, it one day dawned on me what a selfish wench I had been as a child and a teenager.  Sure, I was a good kid for the most part - near the top of my class, deferential to authority figures (ok, there were a few particular exceptions to this, but they were completely justified), rarely in trouble.  I didn't rebel in any outrageous way*.

      That said, I was still a selfish wench the way most children are and don't realize it.  I picked on my little brother mercilessly.  I griped about having to do chores.  I was completely focused on my life, my friends, my schoolwork, etc., with little to no regard for what was going on with the rest of my family.  When I was around 16, we moved out of the house I grew up in to a much nicer house.  My parents were very happy about this move.  The new house didn't need tons of work the way our old one did; it was on a lake; it was great. 

     I hated it.  I felt like a sellout moving to an HOA on a man made lake, and I resented moving out of the house I grew up in.  I'm sure I drove my parents nuts referring to the lake as "the Gay Lake" (which I would NEVER, EVER do now!!!  I detest when people use 'gay' as though it's derrogatory, but I was young and stupid and grew up in a backwoods area where people still think being homosexual is a choice).  For the entire time I lived in that house until I left for college, I complained about hating the lake and the neigborhood, even though it was actually a really good situation and a big life improvement for us.  My parents didn't have to stress about fixing things all the time.  The lake made my mom so happy.  It signified something really great my parents had been working toward.  It was a triumph for them.

       Now, looking back on it, I cringe a little thinking of how self-centered I was.  Sure, I can cut myself some slack and say that all kids are like that.  Children don't develop empathy until they get older, and most teenagers are pretty wrapped up in their own worlds.  Everything is SO important when you're a teenager.

       NotDonna and I were just laughing the other day about how surreal it is to talk to teenagers and young adults these days, to just want to shake them and say "that doesn't matter!  Really, it doesn't!  Not at all, I promise."  But there's no point, because they don't get it.  It's one of those things you have to learn for yourself.  So we just sit back and smile.  And yes, we still calmly say, "you don't get it.  This really doesn't matter.  In 10 years, you'll see."  And they look at you like you're so far out of touch it's a wonder you can dial a phone.

      Yeah, everyone's like that when they're young for the most part.  Still, it makes me cringe.  And when it first dawned on me, it didn't dawn on me as a humorous reality.  I was horrified.  I felt aweful.  I still apologize to Boo a few times a year for what an aweful older sister I was.  I was plagued with guilt.  I still am a little bit.

       So I started working to be more compassionate with my family, even though I didn't recognize it as exactly that at the time.  I just knew that I needed to see things from their perspective to be a truely supportive family member and make up for my jackass youth.

      And now that I have a family of my own, that extends even farther.  Because let me tell you, just because I had become reflexively empathetic with my parents, brother, and closest friends, the doesn't mean it came naturally with MacGyver and Punky.

      MacGyver is such an amazing husband that he makes it easy to take him for granted.  He is always doing sweet little things for me, picking up the slack when I'm overwhelmed; cleaning out my car or filling it up with gas; mailing the letter I've accidently left on the counter for a week; ordering the item I keep talking about but never get around to actually getting for myself.  Rarely a day goes by when he doesn't do something just for me to make my life easier or make me happier.

       I actually have to work to avoid expecting him to do those things.  To appreciate every single thing he does.  To fill up my own gas tank once in a while.

      And doing those same sorts of little things for him?  I suck.  Really.  In my head, it's because I'm so damned pressed for time all the time that it's hard to fit in those little things.  In reality, it's because they don't spring to mind for me the way they do for him.  I have to stop and consciously ponder, "What can I do for MacGyver today?"  And sometimes, it's really hard to think of anything.  Sure, that's not exactly compassion, but it ties in.

      I suppose compassion ties in more not when MacGyver is being super sweet to me, but when he's totally fed up with me.  MacGyver can be a little gruff when he's stressed, and he pushes himself to do so much all the time that occassional stress is unavoidable.  Early on, I did not help matters.  When he'd get gruff with me, instead of recognizing that he was stressed out (even though I knew he was), and trying to make him feel better, half the time I'd get pissy, which would only make him feel worse.  Lovely wife, aren't I?

      Now, it didn't take long at all for me to make the stress-gruff connection.  But was my first instinct to help relieve his stress so wouldn't be gruff?  Hell no.  My most serious relationship before MacGyver had been an emotionally and (to a lesser degree) physically abusive one.  As part of recovering from that, I had told my self that I would NOT take any crap from any man, period.  It took a little time (and a lot of patience from MacGyver) for me to clue in to the fact that being compassionate with my partner when he was stressed was not the same as letting someone walk all over me.

      And now I feel like an ass for having gone so far in the opposite direction in the first place.  But I've got it now, and that's what counts.

      Compassion with Punky has been challenging at times, too.  I was never really all that fond of children.  Realizing what a jerk I was as a kid didn't help.  Children are, by nature, needy, self serving little monsters.  They lack reason and empathy.  Lacking reason is a big deal.  When I first became Punky's mom, a psychologist friend of mine told me I was going to have a tough road with her because I communicated on an almost completely rational level.  (That sounds good, but it's actually not really normal; most people communicate with a mixture of reason and emotion; I have been called, by more than one psychologist, "hyper-rational."  Making communication with kids and very emotional people feel un-natural to me).

      She was right.  While Punky and I got along wonderfully when playing games and running around together, I still found myself getting repeatedly frustrated with her irrational behaviour.  "If you liked peanut butter yesterday, then you like it today!!!"  I also thought she was completely spoiled from having been an only child to a freaking awesome single father.  She didn't like to play by herself, and she expected near constant attention from me.

       I had lived quite happily alone with my beloved dog for years before this.  Punky was a big change.

       And as it turned out, she wasn't [abnormally] irrational or spoiled.  She was 4.  And I was an adult.  And I was the one not dealing with it. 

      It didn't take me too long to figure out just what a great kid Punky really was.  I don't know how I ever could have thought she was spoiled (well, I do - because I was being unreasonable and probably a little spoiled myself).  She knew what she wanted and she asked for it because that's what kids do.  But she didn't throw tantrums.  She was sweet and polite and loving.  Looking back, and having a whole heck of  a lot more experience with kids now, I realize that she was actually an amazingly well behaved 4 year old.  At worst, she had a little bit of only child syndrome, but there's not much that could've been done about that.  she was an only child.

      Being compassionate with Punky meant looking at things from her perspective - her irrational, child-world, need-based, not in control perspective.  I STILL have a hard time with this once in a while.  She's 9 now!  The thing is, she keeps changing!  It's hard to keep up with just what her perspective is!  Ha.  I have to remember when she goes on about boys and rants so dramatically about the goings-on between she and her friends what it was like to be that age and to enjoy play-acting these roles and not really knowing what they mean.  I have to remember that maybe when she's 16, I may want to shake her and say, "None of this matters at all!  Really, it doesn't!  Not at all, I promise.  It's not that important.  It's not important at all."  And she still won't listen to me.  But right now, she doesn't even understand what "it" is.  She just modelling; playing at being the people around her. 

      And I have to remember that I'm the person she models most.  And I have to remember to be something worth modelling.  So I have to bite my tongue and nod sympathetically when she tells me that Emma stole Aspen's man.  And tell her that he doesn't sound like a very good man if he's that easy to steal.  And wonder just how long before I can divert her attention with anything caked in glitter.

      This was supposed to be a post about how I am practicing being compassionate with my family now.  About what I saw the last month when I looked around at my family.  About where they stand on compassion and how we can all get better.

      Guess I didn't quite get there.  Maybe in the next post.

*I did get a little while my last year or two of high school, drank a lot on the weekends, was serially cruel to boys, worked hard, partied hard, and made it look easy.  But I NEVER got behind the wheel drunk, stayed a virginal, never touched drugs, and didn't let all this effect my grades.  By most standards in my town, I was a good kid.  I graduated High School with a scholarship to college, excellent SAT/ACT scores, and no babies.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Step 2: Look at Your Own World

      To me, this step is about looking forward and out at all the potential good that could be done with Compassion.  It is also about looking at the world, and my world, with Compassion.

      There are many subjects upon which I naturally look with Compassion:  animals, babies, downtrodden individuals - you know, the easy ones.  I was going to say my friends and family, but, as this Chapter of Compassionate Life discusses, that's not always true.  Sometimes we judge our friends and family members even more harshly than we do others.  I think I'm compassionate with my loved ones most of the time, but I am also certain that I am guilty of the opposite at times.

      Like the previous step, this step is broken up into smaller sections.  The auther, Karen Armstrong, recommends looking at your own world through the varying lenses of the Confusian Concentric Circles:
Family is the center circle inside the Community circle, which is inside the Country circle (which would then be inside the World circle, Galaxy circle, and so on, but the book doesn't take it that far - I will not be writing a post about Compassion for extraterrestrials.).

      While I spent all of the month of February re-examining these various areas of my life and putting this step into practice, I waffled a lot about writing it.  The family step in particular is extremely personal and involves examing percieved flaws in people and relationships.  Not something I really want to be putting out there on the internet.  That said, I think to stay true to the form I am still going to write the 3 posts for step 2, focusing more on improvements than individuals.  If I'm lucky, I'll finish the step 2 posts (which are technically the Feburary posts) by the end of March ;-).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Step 1: Learn; Compassion in Paganism

      The First Step, Learn About Compassion, included two basic overall charges:  Learn about Compassion in faith traditions you don't know much about and learn about Compassion in your own faith tradition.

       I split this up even further because nothing can ever be that simple in my life ;-).  I split the "other" category into other religions and Compassion in general - ie, the value and effects of Compassion as measured empirically, scientifically, psychologically, neurologically, anthropologically (under which heading I placed motherhood), etc.  I pretty much had to split "my own" faith tradition in two since I'm a UU Pagan.  While Unitarian Universalism and Paganism are completely complimentary religious, they are still two separate faith traditions.  Each has it's own history and it's own - calls to action, we'll say.

       I already touched on some of my very enlightening discoveries about Compassion in other religions, especially Christianity, here.  You can find a variety of posts throughout Cheap Wine and Cookies that touch on empirical studies of Compassion/Empathy because it is something I have been interested in for quite some time.  One of my favorite discussions of this was Vegetarians Make Better Lovers.  I also discussed it in the introductory posts of this, the Compassion blog.

       Now it is time to delve into my spirituality; my faith traditions:  Unitarian Universalism and Paganism.  I will start with the latter because, frankly, the presence of Compassion in UU is more than obvious.  I mean, come on, have you seen the Unitarian Universalist National Campaign?

      Please click the button and check it out.  It's an amazing campaign and full of moving stories and stories to get you moving.  So, yeah.  The Compassion is there, right on our sleeves.  I could (and still might) write a long post about the particular challenges of Compassion in a religion that so heavily touts it, but for today I'm going to touch on the less obvious:

      Compassion in Paganism

      Paganism may or may not be considered an organized religion, depending on your take.  It is definitely a valid and widely recognized religion/faith practice.  I would hazard to say, though, that it is one of the more "disorganized" of the "organized" religions.  With no single creed, work of scripture, or overall text - or even collection of texts - it's hard to have anything to point to and say "there; that's it; that's Paganism."  Sure, there are 65 million different takes on and interpretations of the Bible and it's meaning(s), along with all the other major religious texts, but still the texts are there.  They are written out in black and white.  There is some skeleton, some structure to be seen.

       Paganism today - in my opinion - is more of an interweaving of a number of faith traditions from the past.  The so-called "Old Ways."  Earth, Moon, and Goddess centered spiritualities stretching far back into history, and even pre-history, spanning the globe.  From each of these ancient traditions, a thread, or, more appropriately, a vine, stretches forward to today, intertwining with the others, weaving the loose structure of Paganism.

       Like any other religion, Paganism means different things to different people.  One day, I'll write a nice, long post about what Paganism means to me, even discussing Wicca.  But that's not what today's post focuses on.  To get to the bottom of where I feel that Compassion falls in Paganism, all you need to know about my feelings on Paganism is this:

      Paganism is the modern renewal/re-embracing of ages old Earth Centered religions.  The cycles of nature and the Wheel of the Year are at its center.  It is from the powers and cycles of nature that the most basic precepts of Paganism spring.  The majority of Pagans I know hold two basic concepts near the center of their belief systems.  They are:

      An' it harm none, do what you will (also called the Pagan or Wiccan Rede); and

      What  you send forth comes back times three (also called the Rule of Three or Threefold Law).

       This is not a lesson in Paganism, but I'm having trouble resisting the urge to explain these things before getting on to the Compassion component.  The Rule of Three is often read two ways.  The first way is as a sort of Nature-enforced karma.  Whatever you put out into the world will come back to you (or your kin or descendants) with three times the magnitude you put out.  The second is that whatever you put out into the world will come back to you in the realms of mind, body, and spirit.  I believe the two interpretations work coincide.

      In the past, I've taken a little bit of issue with the Pagan Rede because it doesn't sound all that moral on first read.  I mean, really, doesn't it kinda sound like, "If you're not an ax murderer, you're good"?  It's in the application that you discover how truly rooted in Compassion this rule is. 
      It's pretty easy to get behind the first clause, "An' it harm none," ("If it harms none,"), similar to the opening of the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm."  I think it's a darn good starting point, and if you really think about it, and keep that thought in the front of your mind, it's not as simple as it sounds.  It's a lot more complex than simply refraining from smacking around people who tick you off. 

       If you keep that thought, "do no harm," in the front of your mind you start to question very minor things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.  That snarky comment.  That little bout of road rage.  Needlessly squashing a spider.  Even buying inhumane meat or shopping at stores with unethical practices.  "Do no harm," is a pretty freaking tall order when you really think about it.  Sometimes, it can take some real concentration and focus on the moment to fully live that belief.  Sometimes, it can take a full on restructuring of the way we think and live.

      The cycles of nature that Paganism reveres are by their nature free of malice.  One might see the lion eating the gazelle as doing harm, but it is harm without malice.  The lion takes no more than what she needs to survive and support her offspring.  She does not kill out of anger or spite.  Even in fierce competition over mates where there is fighting not for food, there is still a restraint to the lowest degree of force necessary to succeed.  Death and even permanent maiming are rare.  So it is with nature.  So it should be with us.

       But, of course, it's not.  Our culture sometimes grooms us for cruelty, for spite, for that "me first no matter who I trample" mentality.  I believe that those drives and behaviours are incompatible with Paganism.  They do not fit with "An' it harm none..."

      "... do what you will."  Well, that sounds a little selfish, doesn't it?  Well, yeah.  But if your focus is on the "do what you will" part, you're missing the point.  You have to fully embrace harming none before you ever get to "do what you will."  I, personally, don't think I'm really there yet.  I'm getting closer, but I still have a lot of work to do on harming none.

      Once I get there, though, it's not a free-for-all.  First off, harming none, as I've said, is harder than it sounds at first blush.  But then the Rule of Three comes into play.  It should really say "...do what you will, but be ready to pay for it," or, put more positively, "...do what you will and it will be returned to you threefold."

      The Rule of Three reminds us that our actions do not exist in a vacuum.  Every word, gesture, and action has an effect, and we are responsible for those effects.  And whether it's obvious to us or not, we will face consequences - positive and negative - for those actions and effects.  Perhaps a cruel word uttered to a stranger won't result in immediate rebuke, but it plants seeds of negativity - both in the life of the person we spoke to and in our own lives.  We may get a little buzz of self-righteousness when we "put someone in their place," so to speak, but is that really something good for us?  Is that really something that feeds us?  No, slowly, little by little, acting like that eats away at us, it sets a pattern, and it makes happiness and contentment that much harder to find and to embrace.

       But if we act with kindness, with Compassion, if we act responsibly, we plant positive seeds.  We move slowly forward.  We grow.

       Have you ever had a stranger compliment you out of the blue?  Have you ever done something nice for someone just because you were there and you could?  Positive seeds.  Good feelings grow from that in both parties.  Your day is lifted.  More positive things come from those positive seeds whether they are directly related or not.  And the more positive seeds you plant, the more they produce.  The growth is exponential. 

       It is like Samuel Clements (writing as Mark Twain) famously said:  "I could live for two months on a good compliment."

      Start by refraining from harm.  Move forward from there.  Plant positive seeds or negative, but be aware that you are paving your own path, you will reap the consequences - positive or negative - times three.

*   *   *
      The Compassion in Paganism can further be seen in our reverence for the Earth and the Goddess.  Personally, I see the Goddess and God as aspects of the same overarching power, but different Pagans see it different ways.  The Goddess is also divided into her three personas: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.  While the Maiden represents youth, potential, and exuberance, it is the nurturing, Compassionate Mother and the Wise, Compassionate Crone who are most revered. 

      In each of these personas, she is the bountiful, selfless provider.  As the mother, she is fertility, she is nurture of the helpless, she is nourishment and love.  As the Crone, she is wisdom, caring for the community, family, and world as a whole.  She is enlightenment.

      The Goddess is often seen as synonymous with the Earth.  Whether they are seen as separate entities or the same, the Earth is also the perfect example of selfless love.  The Earth provides.  The Earth gives.  The Earth knows no malice, nor even any defense.

       And as responsible stewards of the Earth, the better our treatment, the better our rewards.  Planting seeds, literally and figuratively.

       Paganism is NOT about cold steel and spell casting and attention grabbing eye makeup.  It is about Compassion.  For the Earth and all living things.  Compassion is central to Paganism.  And anyone who says otherwise, I would hazard to say isn't digging deep enough.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Step 1: Learn About Compassion

      The first step on my journey along the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is to Learn About Compassion.  I actually started this step way back in December, when I first decided to take this challenge.  I began by "reading" (ie listening to the audiobook) Compassionate Life twice since it is full of a WEALTH of information about compassion from a large number of different religions throughout history.

       Really, I started the first step many years ago, when I began to embrace the idea that anger is pointless and that the only real key to world peace was empathy (and with that feeding the hungry - tangent).

       So, even though I'm posting this in February, I consider the weight of Step One to have been completed in January.  But, because part of this journey includes journaling it, I'm going to try to get up this post, plus two more about my First Step before moving on to the Second Step.

      Compassion, Karen Armstrong contends, is the common thread running through all of the world's major religions.  It is a thread that is often lost or covered up by rhetoric or extreme fundamentalism, but if you dig into history, you can find it.

       I loved the chapter of her book on the First Step because I love religious and cultural history, and this chapter was full of it.  I found much of it extremely enlightening.  There was so much discussion of the roots of religions I hitherto knew little of like Confucianism and Jainism.  She also delved into depths of religions I thought I was familiar with like Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam, uncovering amazing tidbits I had never known and I'm so happy to have found out.  Her history of Yoga very much changed my perspective on the practice and inspired me to attend a lecture on the spiritual aspects of Yoga (which was wonderful, by the way - can't wait to put it into practice).

      The section on Christianity was especially interesting to me, having been a disenchanted Christian in my youth.  Basically none of what she said about Christianity was new to me, but the way it was laid out here, though simplified, cut through all the BS that drove me away from Christianity in the first place.  The author focuses on the loving, compassionate message of Jesus, which, in my reading of the Bible*, really was his whole message.  It is the later interpreters looking to serve their own interests and prejudices that inserted all that other junk.

      Jesus truly exemplified the Compassionate ideal, the Golden Rule - Do unto others as you would have them do to you/Do not do to someone else what you would not like done to you.  In Matthew 5:39-40 Jesus said, "You have heard how it was said 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.'  But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.  On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well."

      That's a pretty far cry from the gay-bashing, doctor-shooting rhetoric that some Christians spout.  (SOME, definitely not all).  Not only in Christianity, but in most major religions, there are those loud, shouting people who twist and pervert the message to meet their own ends.  So, just for the record, I'll say it one more time: JESUS NEVER SAID 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE,' quite the opposite, actually.  He also never said, "hit gay people with tire irons."

      Paul, in Philippians 2:2-4, even presented Jesus as a Bodhisattva, which is a Buddhist who has achieved enlightenment but instead of passing into Nirvana, chooses to stay with humanity and help lead others to enlightenment.  I think that's a pretty darned good take on it.  Paul says:  "Everybody is to be self-effacing.  Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people's interests instead."

      And that is the goal of Compassion.  I can barely even wrap my brain around the changes we'd be looking at if people thought of each other first.  Sure, there'd still be stress and strife and misunderstanding, but man, what a different place it would be.  If we all just gave each other the benefit of the doubt.  You know, like Jesus said.  And Buddha.  And Confucius.  And Muhammad.  And Kant.  And Aristotle.  And Mother Theresa.  And a whole bunch of other brilliant leaders.

      Learning about Compassion, and the thread it winds through the history of religion and philosophy, has been a real eye opener.  Not just in its potential to change the world, but also each individual life. 

      Because if I can let go of my little pet hatreds, if I can give up the self focused drives that cause me to judge others and guilt myself, if I can truly step outside myself and focus on others - fully, all the time - what a peaceful, serene state that would be.  I know I'm not adequately capturing this point, but trust me, it's a big one.  Read the First Step chapter of the book, and you'll see what I mean.  The potential for personal happiness is boundless.

      It's like the sage Douglas Adams said, "And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything."

*And I have read the Bible, by the way.  The whole thing.  Yes, it was years ago, but I did read the whole Bible, just in case any of you hate mongers want to get all up-in-arms that the Pagan is talking about the Bible.  If you want to say mean things to me because I said Jesus was a peace loving guy, you're missing the point anyway.