The Gifts of Practice: Compassion

river stones in a delicate pile
river stones in a delicate pile

The Gifts of Practice: Compassion

This is the second of my posts on the benefits of spiritual practice. First, let me be clear:  These are the benefits in my life. They will be different for you. They will include different virtues in different measures.

Second, another point of clarification:  By “virtue” I do not mean something that you strive and struggle and painfully hope for. I mean a quality of character that grows within you with the combination of discipline and gentleness. A quality that helps you live the life you long for. I mean a quality that helps you become the person you most want to be.

Who I Hope to Be

One of the virtues I value most is compassion.

Compassion, that characteristic of “suffering with” (com-passio) or understanding, taking in, and transforming suffering, is something I long for in my life. It is part of who I hope to be.

Compassion, mind you, is not the same as “niceness.” Niceness, seemingly kind even in the face of injury or insult, is not a quality I value as compassion. Nonetheless, I, like many I know—especially women—have been trained over years of my life to be nice.

But compassion, unlike niceness, can be fierce.

Fierce Compassion

Compassion is protective, not least of oneself. Compassion means understanding one’s own suffering and transforming it through gentleness, care, and boundaries. Setting boundaries—for the good of oneself and for others—can be a powerful expression of compassion.

Compassion doesn’t say that injury or aggression is okay. Compassion can say no.

To feel another’s pain, to acknowledge one’s own pain, is not to say that unacceptable actions are acceptable.

Compassion through Spiritual Practice

One of the things that spiritual practice has brought to me is understanding. And as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said, it is nearly impossible not to feel compassion for someone once you know their story.

The same is true of myself. Understanding, truly taking in my story, allows me to be compassionate toward myself. To be gentle and yet more often looking toward my hopes for my best self.

Somehow—and in some ways mysteriously—practice changes my heart to be more compassionate.

Yes, there is the metta meditation, in which one offers compassion to concentric circles. First one offers compassion to oneself, then one’s loved ones, those for whom one feels more or less neutrally, those one does not like, and those one despises. That is a beautiful meditation, but I rarely practice it.

In my journaling, however, I learn more about myself. I learn understanding and care. Through reflection, I “listen” to the stories of others. In my breathing meditations, my heart is calmed and my anxieties released, making space for my own love. In my singing and physical activity, my energy clears, which also makes space. In my conscious energy clearing exercises, I make room inside boundaries, letting go of what is not mine and bringing in what I hope to be my own.

Making Space

Making space is a key aspect of spiritual practice. It clears us for understanding our own lives and the lives of others. It helps us perceive more deeply and listen and watch with greater awareness of others and ourselves.

Moreover, making space in our hearts allows room for change. It helps us let go, be less constricted and more trusting of ourselves and the spinning Universe in which we live and move and are. Again, it doesn’t mean that we have no boundaries.

In fact, spaciousness is predicated on boundaries. Our boundaries make a container in which our spaciousness can be safe and trustworthy.

A Time to Practice

Part of why I am offering Growing Our Souls, the month-long spiritual support and encouragement group, is to practice making our hearts safe and trustworthy. Yes, it is to develop commitment and gentle persistence. But it is also to develop the characteristics, the virtues within us that transform lives.

Compassion, one of the faces of love, is one of the virtues that spiritual practice brings. Compassion is central to religion after religion, and it is something that no amount of “muscling” or white knuckling can bring us to. It is learned through grief, joy, and the conscious commitment to growth. And spiritual practice can bring us that growth.

So I invite you to be changed. To invite the change you long to see in the world:  Compassion and care for others, including yourself. Come with me, Tuesday evenings in January, and let us practice together.


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