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 " what you will, but be ready to pay for it," or, put more positively, " 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.