How do we know we are making spiritual progress? There are certain signs which have their basis in right attitude: greater kindness to others and oneself, calmness and even-mindedness, a decrease in desires, and a greater love for the Divine are all indicators. Compassion, also, is a virtue which grows deeper with progress.
There are certain meditations designed specifically to increase compassion. Compassion allows us to begin to experience ourselves in all, recognizing that we share in the suffering of others. Through compassion we honor the oneness which flows through all, connecting everyone and everything.
Jesus modeled the highest level of compassion when he prayed, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do" as he was crucified. As he was dying, he was praying for his persecutors. His compassion was so all-encompassing that it could not be contained to those who seemingly "deserved" it. He knew the consequence of their actions on their souls and prayed for mercy on them. This is unfamiliar sentiment for so many who find themselves still clutching to past transgressions years after the fact, bent on vengeance and darkened with spite.
There is also the beautiful story of a Tibetan doctor captured in 1959 during the Chinese invasion. He was sent to a Chinese labor camp for twenty-two years. When asked by Dr. Mark Hyman about the greatest danger he faced during that time, his response was, "the few moments I thought I might lose my compassion for my Chinese captors."
Compassion is sourced from the heart. There is a poignant story about compassion and meditation in Altered Traits, by Daniel Goldman and Richard J. Davidson. They talk about a demonstration they were giving to Buddhist monks in India using EEG equipment. They were placing electrodes on the scalp of the subject, and as they were doing so they were blocking the view of the 200 monks observing the demo. When they were finished attaching the electrodes and stepped out of the way, the usually staid monks erupted in loud laughter. The researcher thought they were laughing because the subject looked funny with all of the wires coming off his scalp in a spaghetti-like fashion, but they were told that was not the cause of the laughter. The true cause was the monks knew these Western researchers were interested in studying compassion, but they were placing the wires on the head and not the heart! It is common knowledge in many Eastern traditions that compassion dwells in the heart.
Teachings and anecdotes are inspiring, but when I look at myself honestly I know I have work to do to progress in the compassion department. It's easy to extend compassion to those in need, but I find it much more difficult to bring compassion to the forefront towards someone to whom I'm in opposition. Recently, for instance, I was driving my kids home after my son had had a difficult afternoon. We passed an ice cream shop, so I decided I would stop so we could have a little ice cream pick-me-up. It was raining, and there was a coveted space right in front of the shop (which as I was considering the unexpected stop had helped tip the scales in favor of stopping). I started to parallel park, but there were two people standing in the spot not moving as I tried to reverse in. I rolled down my window (in the rain) and he gave me a dismissive wave and said the spot was reserved. I continued to try to back in, and they remained standing firm in their spot. I knew these were public parking spaces and a human body does not mean that the space is unavailable, so I rolled the window down again and asked him to move. With a great amount of rudeness, the man again told me the space was reserved. I told him it was not, and he said they'd been waiting three hours for that space and said something about spending $45,000 on filming for the day. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was quite conscious of the traffic building behind me as I couldn't get in the space enough to let them by. I suppose I can truthfully say my compassion for the cars behind me waiting patiently for me to get into the space hastened my decision to drop the ten second standoff and forgo the ice cream trip, but I was certainly not overcome with compassion for the person I had encountered standing in my way. I still don't know what he was talking about with the three hours and $45k statements, but I understand enough to know that if there was any truth to what he was saying then he was trying to accomplish something in a public space with a lot of variables which were out of his control, and time was money. From that perspective and with the gift of having some space between when this happened and as I type this, I can grant him that perhaps it was more correct in the big picture for him to have the parking space over my needs. However, it is clear that there were hundreds of other ways he could have approached our interaction with kindness, consideration, and humility instead of the entitlement and dismissiveness which he chose.
All of that to say, this man was abrasive, arrogant, and unnecessarily rude to me, and while I could bend my perspective to be more understanding and creative about why he may have acted that way, my knee jerk reaction was not to pray to God for his wellbeing. My ego was fully in command during the encounter, knowing that I had more of a right to that space than someone saving it for a car which had not yet arrived. Even as I thought back on the incident later, I thought I should have asked to see the permit allowing him to reserve that public parking space (being pretty sure such a permit was not secured), rather than taking that time and energy to work on becoming more compassionate toward him. And while this person behaved in this way, he was not crucifying me or holding me captive in a labor camp, and still compassion was not heavy on my mind but instead on the inconvenience he was causing me and the rudeness he was directing at me.
So, it is with humility that I acknowledge the reflection from the mirror this incident presented, and what it says about what is left to be done to go the distance in the compassion arena. It is easy for me to throw up my hands and say, "Yes, but Jesus was a true master, an enlightened being! What do I expect, how could I possibly measure up to him?" But, the point of Jesus or Buddha or Yogananda or saints of all great religions is to be models for humanity. To show us there is another way; a better way for our development. Yes, we have to learn our lessons in our own time, but thank God they are here to shine the light in the direction of ascension.
I am an Ananda® certified meditation teacher. I am passionate about meditation and embrace a yogic lifestyle for greater wellness physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
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