“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
My son gave me the autobiography of the actor, writer and film director Alan Alda, for Christmas. If you are old enough you will remember Alan Alda as the central character, Hawkeye, in the long-running television serial, “M.A.S.H.” He is a very able actor and his autobiography is honest, funny and rather unusual as such things go.
Alda describes how, over time, he learnt to be an actor and how he learnt the difference between acting and performing. There was a moment when he named for himself what was necessary to bring a scene to life. The word he used was ‘compassion.’
Alda realised that in a scene he had to be aware, all in the same moment, of himself in character and his feelings and of the other actor / actors and their feelings. He had to be aware of their reality as well as his own. Up to this point he had only been trying to get right his character in the scene.
Compassion comes from the Latin. ‘Com’ means ‘with’ and the nearest meaning of ‘passion’ in this case is ‘patient.’ Thus compassion strictly interpreted means being alongside someone in their suffering. This is exactly what compassion is when practiced in everyday life. It is recognising that the other has a real and actual life, even if I know little about it. And that in this life they experience similarly the fragility, vulnerability, joy, delight, desire and woundedness that I experience. We need to treat each other with care. We are susceptible to pain and hurt.
We experience ourselves as separate creatures, as Einstein states in the quotation at the top of this blog, but this is a delusion – and it makes us prisoners walled in by a one-dimensional life made up of our own limited experience and emotions. In order to break out of this prison we have to get enough distance from our own emotions (practice what is called ‘dispassion’) to be able to see the other person. Then, with imagination and a heart that longs to reach out to the other, we consciously try to see them in their own reality.
“Jesus, Thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love Thou art.” Thus go the words from the much loved hymn. Truly, this is the Jesus we meet in the gospels. Jesus sees people, always has time for people. You never get the feeling that he discounts anyone: doesn’t acknowledge them. Yes, he gets impatient on a few occasions, usually with his disciples because they are so slow in understanding. But having expressed his frustration he goes on working with them, bearing with them, teaching them and loving them to the end.
“God became man, so that man might become God.” (Athanasius) This is real compassion – getting into our humanity utterly and seeing life from our point of view.