Compassion for me is an enquiry. A journey of self-discovery. Sometimes a difficult journey down the roads less travelled. When I was naive, my compassion was naive. When I became more and more devoted to resolving my unsettling patterns, the subject of compassion became more and more a great teacher. It became a complex dynamic between me and the world. It had very little to do with my authentic human-response to the world. I had no direct experience of true compassion: just facsimiles I’d assimilated and forged out of contemporary ideologies.
And then this happened in my mid-twenties …
I went to my local gym as I did three times a week to swim laps. I walked into the small locker room and there was only one other man in there. As I was changing I became intrigued by him. He was very short, very large, and very hairy. He continued getting dried and dressed. I then saw his face and ‘perceived’ him to be very unattractive. My heart sank and I genuinely felt uncomfortable ‘for him’. My mind raced to a merging of sympathy and pity. I was confused. And then I began to deal with this uncomfortable feeling by telling myself how blessed I was to have been born relatively tall, healthy and attractive.
I then ‘nobly’ turned my attention to this man and in my head said my standard compassion mantra, “I am sending you love and light.” I imagined white light pouring from above him into his crown-chakra. I immediately began to feel better. I was being kind, loving and compassionate.
Then, what I can only describe as a mystical phenomenon occurred, I felt I had been struck violently. There was a sharp pain on the right side of my head and right eye. I cupped my hand and winced. Then I heard a voice … loud and clear and angry – ranting at me …
“Who the hell are you? This man is busy with his day, his exercising and his life. He asked you for NOTHING. Who the hell are you to give him or offer him anything? Your arrogance and ignorance are astounding.”
I was literally in pain and under attack. I felt frightened. I looked to the man who was oblivious to my experience. In all this time the man had not looked at me. We had had no eye contact or acknowledgment of one another’s presence. He was literally minding his own business.
The voice was relentless yet paradoxically filled with love.
“You judged him from the moment you saw him. You know nothing about him. But rather than feel the disgust of your superiority and judgement, you are disguising it in pseudo compassion and calling it ‘love and light’. You are asking the Divine light to shine upon him and through him because you find the idea of him repulsive. You find the idea of living in his body repugnant. You are judgemental and vain and this perverted projection of ‘love and light’ that you call compassion is a spiritually arrogant cloak to protect yourself from your own ugly truths. You are conceited, feel superior and judge without any justification.”
I began to listen and feel those ugly truths inside of myself like a squirming tapeworm. I knew this was a sacred moment, a divine intervention. The voice softened and simply said …
“It is you who needs love and light. It is you who needs compassion. It is you who needs self-compassion to stop your own projections of self-loathing. There is only one true compassion. And that is self-compassion. Most so-called compassion is pity and judgement. If everyone had self-compassion for their projections, judgements and defences – there would never be a need to ‘offer’ anyone compassion. Love thyself and then all you experience will be suffused with love.”
And in a shuddering instant, the voice had gone and the man must have dressed and left the changing room.
In writing this some thirty years later, tiny remnants of shame are still here … but they are now soft gentle reminders of my understanding and experience of what true compassion is. I hope I never forget that sharp Zen-stick. I hope I always remember that self-compassion bears the fruits of Love, Kindness and a humility of shared humanity.
This beautiful poem by Rilke gives me permission to be human, to be in the art of self-enquiry and to remember it’s okay to be continually figuring it all out.
Widening Circles by Rainer Rilke
I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Please let us know in the comments below how this story and/or poem touches you. Do you have any moments of ‘clarity’ that changed your perceptions for the better?
Much love and ever-widening circles of Self-Compassion,