This last column on spirituality and health explores what leading international religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, calls the common foundation of all religions: compassion. Armstrong reminds that at the core of every religious value system is some form of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Compassion challenges us to stop viewing spirituality as a conceptual discussion reserved for sermons and pulpits, and to start making it about action. Spirituality in action… I believe this is what the mystics and prophets meant when they talked about loving your brother and sister as yourself.
Compassion is all about action. We can think about it all we want, but it doesn’t really matter unless we demonstrate and extend it. The journalist Krista Tippitt has suggested there are component parts of compassion that we can see and connect with in the world. These acts change our lives and how we understand both self and other. Kindness. Empathy. Forgiveness. Generosity. Presence. Tenderness… all outgrowths of living a compassionate life and being in action in the world.
When we visualize a kind, empathic, forgiving, generous, present, and tender world, it is easy to understand how real health of mind, body, and spirit is possible. When we are compassionate rather than judgmental, we release stress and upset. When we embrace compassion over aversion, we practice acceptance and self-knowledge.
And when we commit to offering acts of compassion, rather than acts of aggression, we build relationships, create new possibilities in our lives, and contribute to the greater good. When we calibrate our lives to compassion, we are tuned into an infinite source of balance, peace, and stability.
But fully committing to compassion is not an easy task. In fact, it can change us in radical ways for which we may not be prepared. It means we surrender old resentments and angers in favor of forgiveness and empathy. It calls us to try on generosity and tenderness and discard patterns of selfishness. Most of all, compassion requires kindness; the type of kindness that may frustrate or even inconvenience us at times, and consistently challenges us to do and be better. Adopting a compassionate way of being is a tall order… so where to start?
Armstrong writes, “Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” Can it be that simple? The answer is an absolute yes. If we understand what pain is and how it impacts our lives, we have the option to promote and create an experience of love and joy for our families, friends, and communities. Compassion is all about elevating our consciousness, accepting our own pain and sadness, and then insisting that we create something better for those around us. Compassion requires both the cultivation of courage and the willingness to act on it.
Just for today, look around you and consider: What can I change and make better with a more compassionate approach to life?
Billy Rosa is a Registered Nurse, Integrative Nurse Coach Visiting Faculty, University of Rwanda