Ethics of Life — 5.3 Compassion & Healing
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December 13th, 2021

continued from:

5.3. Compassion

Aimé Morot, “The Good Samaritan”, 1880 CE, public domain
Aimé Morot, “The Good Samaritan”, 1880 CE, public domain

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil.”

(Jesus of Nazareth)[1]

Compassion is the bridge between logic and love.

It can arise subconsciously and will often be a manifestation of wisdom following suffering. It is a special kind of wealth. It accumulates and compounds as we use it, as we open the doors to understanding the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all life-forms. Each step we take to open to the suffering and needs of all other life-forms will also increase our fellow feeling for other humans.

The root (etymology) of the word compassion is ‘pati’ (suffer) and ‘com’ (with). It is a form of courageous connection with other life-forms using imagination and empathy.[2]

“In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus uses the example of the Jew and the Samaritan, who would not ordinarily have been friendly towards each other. However, out of all those who could have helped the Jew, only the Samaritan did. Jesus tells of a man who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by robbers on the way. He was badly beaten and left for dead.

The first person to pass the injured man was a priest, who crossed the road and continued walking.

The second person to pass the injured man was a Levite, a priest’s assistant. He also crossed the road and continued walking without helping the man.

The third person to come by was a Samaritan, a person from Samaria. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews. When the Samaritan saw the man, he took pity on him. He bandaged him and cleaned his wounds. He then put him on the back of his donkey and took him to an innkeeper, whom he paid to look after him.

The parable ends with Jesus giving a commandment to go out and do the same as the Samaritan had done. This teaching of loving one’s enemies is also reflected in Matthew’s Gospel.”

It is understandable that we as self-protecting beings feel overwhelmed by the scale of suffering in the world. It can be comforting to feel confident in blaming other people for our or their misfortunes, making sense of it all in a way that precludes the need to respond with understanding and kindness, to avoid seeing that person as one of ‘us’.

It absolves us of potential feelings of guilt or an obligation to share property. It allows us to close the door and feel safe that it will not happen to us. It is the opposite of the sentiment ‘there but for the grace of God go I’[4] — grace in this sense meaning the impersonal turning of the universal wheel of fortune (‘chance’s strange arithmetic’).

Lately, we have seen an attempt by some governments to move away from the concept of the Good Samaritan, as the door is shut on vulnerable immigrants fleeing persecution, war and death. They are risking everything (life, limb and savings) to escape guaranteed suffering — brave entrepreneurial souls putting it all on the line, even risking their children’s lives, to try to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Some governments have even stated that rescuing immigrants, including rescuing children from drowning, will only encourage more immigration, and so we should not help them when they are in the sea.[5] What an extraordinary inversion (perversion) of the parable of the Good Samaritan.[6] We appear to be moving thousands of years backwards in our logic and ethical wisdom, as manifested in this modern language of dis-compassion.[7]

Banksy, ‘”Migrant child“’, 2019 CE, public domain
Banksy, ‘”Migrant child“’, 2019 CE, public domain

Under this political ‘realist’ approach, the Good Samaritan becomes an interfering ‘do-gooder’ who will only make things worse.[8] This is what happens when money and power become the gods to whom politicians, privately owned news oligopolies and some ordinary people pay homage.

We are being told by our leaders to turn off or tone down compassion, that we must sacrifice the ‘victims’ and the ‘innocent’ to ensure that no ‘bad people’ may potentially benefit from our humanitarianism or compassion — wilfully ignoring the greater degradation of that very humanity with every step down this road.[9] Yet there is always room for compassionate freedom of action.[10] This wisdom can never be spent.

Although the road to compassion may start as a motive emotion, it is important to realise that compassion is not a surfeit of feeling towards others — a type of excess of feeling that could be exhausted. For this reason, compassion in its purest form often manifests in an abstract way; it seems impersonal. It is a state of mind that requires work to maintain. It always seeks to look beyond the surface of relative form to the deeper nature of impermanence and the commonality of life.

Consider the following description of Albert Einstein.

“His heart never bleeds, and he moves through life with mild enjoyment and emotional indifference. His extreme kindness and decency are thoroughly impersonal and seem to come from another planet.”

(Leopold Infeld)[11]

***

Or Leonard Cohen speaking about his Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He became someone who [either] really cared about — or deeply didn’t care about — who I was. Therefore, who I was began to wither. And the less I was of who I was, the better I felt.”

(Leonard Cohen)[12]

We see this serene universal compassion most in the figure of Gautama Buddha and in Buddhism.

“While lay concepts of compassion are of warm feelings for particular people in need, Buddhist compassion is not particular, warm, or even a feeling … compassion in the Buddhist sense is not based on what we call ‘feeling’ … Instead, Buddhist compassion is the result of knowing one is part of a greater whole and is interdependent and connected to that whole. It is the result of practiced meditations. Indeed, Buddhist compassion should be without heat or passion — it is objective, cold, constant and universal.”

(Jennifer Goetz)[13]

This compassion from wisdom contains within it a reduction of the pain of the ‘feeling’ of aloneness, a diminution of a false sense of an important, separate ‘self’. This sharing allows us to connect with the Earth and other life-forms and the energy of life. This deeper compassion roots us like a tree and helps us to weather the storms.

“No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. … Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”

(John Donne)[14]

Katsushika Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, 1830–1832 CE, Wikipedia, public domain.[15]
Katsushika Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, 1830–1832 CE, Wikipedia, public domain.[15]

In writing what began as an essay on the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) and morphed into a book, ‘I’ had no intention of offering up anything personal. Yet I also have experience of suffering which it seems relevant to share in this context.

When he was a young man, my younger brother Derek went missing after a party. I wrote a letter to him, to be read on his return home, that I hoped would provide him with some comfort in what I knew to be a very difficult time. While writing, it became clear that I could not succinctly get close enough to the heart of what I wanted to communicate about suffering and relief from suffering.[16]

A poem almost immediately popped out from my mind (from what felt like the top of my head), near fully formed. It encapsulated all that what I wanted to say to him, based on my own experiences.

I share it here, as my communion with all suffering life-forms and to remember the countless life-forms that have left these shores in pain — to share “the eternal reciprocity of tears”.[17]

Peter Pink-Howitt, “Song for Derek”, 2004 CE [18]
Peter Pink-Howitt, “Song for Derek”, 2004 CE [18]
Peter Pink-Howitt, “The toss of a wave”, algo-art, 2021 CE
Peter Pink-Howitt, “The toss of a wave”, algo-art, 2021 CE

Derek never came home.[19]

We are all temporarily resident on Earth and in this universe. We carry the fire of life, and at times it burns us.

We owe it to ourselves and all life-forms that can feel pain, as well as potentially suffer mental anguish, to ease the journey. We must simply hold on to and value that which must be carried forward to survive — to keep the potentially improbable possibility of life alive. Knowledge and suffering can bring us wisdom if we reflect on our experiences and see how these experiences bind us together. That insight can also be used to reduce our suffering and the suffering of others.

Whenever the world feels too full of sorrow, it is because we feel separate and alone.

(Wilfred Owen) [20]
(Wilfred Owen) [20]

We need to come back to the forgiving stars, the cleansing seas and broad-shouldered Earth. They need us to join the greater dance: so full of strange forms and flows, the patterns and structure only seen much later, if at all.

We must weep together, laugh, sing and dance. We must give thanks.

(W. H. Auden)[21]
(W. H. Auden)[21]

If we let go of the fear of death and of loss, and the belief that we are unique in our feelings or pain, we soon see that death and loss are not insufferable. We are never alone.

We are all one body of life.

pxhere.com, public domain
pxhere.com, public domain
(Leonard Cohen)[22]
(Leonard Cohen)[22]

***

5.4. Healing

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.

This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

(Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)[23]

To lack tolerance and acceptance of the nature of the good and bad is to be unhealthy in oneself. Unholy. The first act of compassion is to accept the dark spaces within, to accept and so forgive light and dark their exploration of their degrees of freedom. In a sense, all must be forgiven for each to be forgiven.

Forgiveness here has a special meaning; it is a form of acceptance about the limits of freedom and free will, a compassionate understanding of how energies move through histories and people.

This type of forgiveness is neither naive nor dangerously innocent.[24] It does not absolve people of the requirement to make choices and to pay the price in negative consequences for their poor choices. It requires people to try to adapt their mental infrastructure and their use of cultural technology, and it requires others to help them do so. It asks us all to look at the whole system when we consider freedoms and behaviour, to look at the wave or river and not just the water molecule. We take this approach in science and must do the same in the science of compassion.

“Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light. Two are one, life and death, lying together like lovers in kemmer, like hands joined together, like the end and the way.”

(Ursula K. Le Guin)[25]

So, we must each forgive all the bad that is done to or through us, and so exchange that self-centred ‘I’ for a deeper identification with all manifestations of universal energy. To lack the ability to look at the causes of bad or unskilful behaviour is to be unwholesome; it is to damn oneself as bad then claim that it does not exist in ‘I’, because frankly the mirror is just too painful to look at.

The continuation and chance of life, with all of its light and dark, is the only good in itself — including its freedom for pain and suffering. Time is compassionate in its ability to allow love and some freedom to be different again and again.

Each act of forgiveness is the ultimate expression of faith in ‘good’ and in time’s potentially redemptive nature. Forgiveness and acceptance are as cool and clear as the early-morning dew that clings to the fresh mountain flower. They do not reject, explain or justify anything. They just are.

Licence to accept and forgive is merely to allow that there are greater forces moving through this world that deflect us all into each other. When we forgive, we do not justify poor practice. We simply accept that our actions are also an effect of previous actions and the potential cause of continued suffering in the world. ‘And so it goes’.[26]

pxhere.com, public domain.
pxhere.com, public domain.

“Therefore freedom comes not through hatred and denial, but through love and affirmation. ‘Love’ is not meant in the sense of ‘like’ as opposed to dislike, for one may love without liking; the two are on different planes.

To love both the root and the flower, earth and heaven, slime and air, death and life is not merely to like decay because it makes possible growth; it is to bring the two together into an inseparable unity and to become one with it by a complete acceptance; until, beholding it, man can make to himself that tremendous affirmation: Tat tvam asi — That art thou!”

(Alan Watts)[27]

None of us hold a monopoly on suffering, and the test of wisdom is not the quantity of suffering we have had. It is the amount of hurt we can let go of to avoid perpetuating waves of anger, hurt, and suffering for others. It is the amount of wisdom we can bring to bear to the causes of that suffering for the benefit of ourselves and others. That is why Buddha’s teachings remain just as relevant today as ever.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)[28]
(Rainer Maria Rilke)[28]

Compassion starts with ourselves, our capacity to forgive ourselves, and that allows us to step outside of ourselves for a moment to see the world, which we are just a small part of. We must help each other deal with anger arising from suffering and then let go of the anger to see more clearly ‘the wood for the trees’.

“Having killed anger you sleep in ease. Having killed anger you do not grieve. The noble ones praise the slaying of anger — with its honeyed crest & poison root — for having killed it you do not grieve.”

(Gautama Buddha)[29]

It is inconceivable that any sapient being should care about any philosophy, economics, religion or politics that is not rooted, like a tree, in compassion. If we are not compassionate to ourselves and others — in a universe with the potential for almost infinite suffering — then, whilst we may be intelligent, we are not acting wisely.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

(Dalai Lama)[30]

Peter Pink-Howitt, “As if creation were a wound”, algo-art, 2021 CE
Peter Pink-Howitt, “As if creation were a wound”, algo-art, 2021 CE

“I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”

(Vincent van Gogh)[31]

(Ted Hughes)[32]
(Ted Hughes)[32]

***

continued in:

***

[1] Matthew 5:43–48.

[2]What’s the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’?”, Merriam-Webster.

[3]Morality: The Parable of the Good Samaritan”, BBC Bitesize.

[4] “Allegedly from a mid-sixteenth-century statement by John Bradford” (Wikipedia, “there but for the grace of God go I”).

[5] Alan Travis, “UK axes support for Mediterranean migrant rescue operation”, The Guardian, 27 October 2014 CE.

[6] Daniel Trilling, “How rescuing drowning migrants became a crime”, The Guardian, 22 September 2020 CE.

[7]Children among 45 dead in 2020’s worst Mediterranean boat tragedy”, Aljazeera, 19 August 2020 CE. Image: Banksy, “Migrant Child”, 2019 CE, Instagram.

[8] Tristan Kirk, “Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed for claim that ‘do-gooder’ lawyers are causing criminal justice delays”, London Evening Standard, 6 October 2020 CE.

[9] See Wikipedia, “Death of Alan Kurdi”; Alan “was a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background … whose image made global headlines after he drowned on 2 September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea along with his mother and brother. Alan and his family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe amid the European refugee crisis”. I do not know of a better image than that of the death of Alan Kurdi to drive the message of how the lack of compassion leads to suffering today.

[10] Lorenzo Tondo and Maurice Stierl, “Banksy funds refugee rescue boat operating in Mediterranean”, The Guardian, 27 August 2020 CE.

[11] Bulletin of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, July 1954 CE.

[12] Sean Murphy, “Being True Love”, Tricycle, Fall 2007 CE.

[13] Jennifer Goetz, “Research on Buddhist Conceptions of Compassion: An Annotated Bibliography”, Greater Good Magazine, 1 June 2004 CE.

[14] John Donne, “No Man Is an Island”, 1624 CE.

[15] Katsushika Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”,* *1830–1832 CE, Wikipedia, public domain.

[16] I was aware that he was very unhappy and had always struggled to deal with the death of our mother Mary when he was only a little boy.

[17] Wilfred Owen, “Insensibility”, 1918 CE.

[18] “I told my sad story to the wind and, brutal wind, It would not listen to a single word. So I sung to the cold cruel sea, But it shrugged off my song in the toss of a wave, Even the dolphins refused to hear me.

Then I gave in and no longer cared, And I tried hard to sit still. Slowly, with great effort, I learned to sit still. And I learnt that my insignificant song was part of a greater chorus:

Many creatures have reason to feel sad

And who can claim to be lonelier than the sea?

Even the sun destroys itself to give life.

The beauty that exists in yellow leaves, that glint in the sun as they are torn from the trees, is all the more touching because of this.

We should spend our lives:

Listening for our echoes in the silence between birdsong, Looking for our image in the spaces between stars.

Life without suffering, toil or sorrow does not exist here, neither shall we.

There are other songs that we must try to hear,

Perhaps we will then be free.”

Peter Pink-Howitt, “Song for Derek”, 2004 CE. I was strongly influenced by T. S. Eliot in writing this poem, and in some ways the poem was a counterpoint to a number of Eliot’s poems — including the terrible (and in this case painfully prophetic) last eight lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, 1915 CE.

[19] It is still striking to me that the sea figures so strongly in this poem and in its poetic inspirations, given that Derek had already died in the sea. His death and manner of dying were unknown to me at the time of writing the letter and poem.

[20] “Happy are men who yet before they are killed / Can let their veins run cold. / Whom no compassion fleers / Or makes their feet / Sore on the alleys cobbled with their brothers. / The front line withers. / But they are troops who fade, not flowers, / For poets’ tearful fooling: / Men, gaps for filling: / Losses, who might have fought / Longer; but no one bothers.

And some cease feeling / Even themselves or for themselves. / Dullness best solves / The tease and doubt of shelling, / And Chance’s strange arithmetic / Comes simpler than the reckoning of their shilling. / They keep no check on armies’ decimation.

Happy are these who lose imagination: / They have enough to carry with ammunition. / Their spirit drags no pack. / Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache. / Having seen all things red, / Their eyes are rid / Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever. / And terror’s first constriction over, / Their hearts remain small-drawn. / Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle / Now long since ironed, / Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.

Happy the soldier home, with not a notion / How somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, / And many sighs are drained. / Happy the lad whose mind was never trained: / His days are worth forgetting more than not. / He sings along the march / Which we march taciturn, because of dusk, / The long, forlorn, relentless trend / From larger day to huger night.

We wise, who with a thought besmirch / Blood over all our soul, / How should we see our task / But through his blunt and lashless eyes? / Alive, he is not vital overmuch; / Dying, not mortal overmuch; / Nor sad, nor proud, / Nor curious at all. / He cannot tell Old men’s placidity from his.

But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns, / That they should be as stones. / Wretched are they, and mean / With paucity that never was simplicity. / By choice they made themselves immune / To pity and whatever moans in man / Before the last sea and the hapless stars; / Whatever mourns when many leave these shores; / Whatever shares / The eternal reciprocity of tears.”

Wilfred Owen, “Insensibility”, 1918 CE.

[21] “I cannot grow; I have no shadow To run away from, I only play. I cannot err; There is no creature Whom I belong to, Whom I could wrong. I am defeat When it knows it Can now do nothing By suffering. All you lived through, Dancing because you No longer need it For any deed. I shall never be Different. Love me.”

W. H. Auden, “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day”, 1942 CE. ‘Music’ as transcendent redemption. “a platonic vision of music as an abstraction, existing separately from the world. Music can’t interact with people: it can only play. Music is the transcendent beauty that can’t be effaced by any suffering.”

[22] “The birds they sang At the break of day / Start again I heard them say/ Don’t dwell on what / Has passed away / Or what is yet to be

Ah the wars they will / Be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught again Bought and sold / And bought again / The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”, The Future, 1992 CE. The wonderful last couplet is possibly adapted from translations of Rumi that give: “a wound is the place where the light heals you”. Image: pxhere.com, public domain.

[23] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1973 CE.

[24] It is the compassion shown by those who suffered in different ways from the atomic bombings.

[25] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969 CE. In the novel, ‘kemmer’ is the period of being ‘in heat’.

[26] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, 1969 CE. Also “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are” (Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan, 1959 CE).

[27] Alan Watts, Seven Symbols, 1937 CE. ‘Tat tvam asi’ means ‘that art thou’ or ‘you are that’ — i.e., you are the universe and are not separate to it. He also wrote: “Foolishly it is thought that the highest achievement of the human spirit is a heavenly purity detached from earth — a rootless flower suspended in the air and nourished wholly from above. Yet in the symbol of the lotus, we see that there is no conflict between heaven and earth; above, the flower develops into the fullness of its glory, expanding joyfully, opening its petals in welcome to sun and rain, while below, its roots stretch out into the morass, welcoming darkness and slime as the petals welcome light and air.” Image: pxhere.com, public domain.

[28] ““Though the world keeps changing its form as fast as a cloud, still what is accomplished falls home to the Primeval.

Over the change and the passing, larger and freer, soars your eternal song, God with the lyre.

Never has grief been possessed, never has love been learned, and what removes us in death is not revealed.

Only the song through the land hallows and heals.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Sonnets to Orpheus, XIX, 1922 CE edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell.

[29]Ghatva Sutta: Having Killed”, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikku, Access to Insight. Many thanks to the great work being done at Fake Buddha Quotes; in writing this book I have tried to take extra care with quotes attributed to people, including Buddha, which appear to take much too much licence with the earlier, more original, texts.

[30] Dalai Lama XIV, The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings By and About the Dalai Lama, ed. Sidney Piburn, 1990 CE.

[31] Vincent van Gogh, “Letter to Theo”, 1880 CE. Theodorus van Gogh was Vincent’s loving, supportive younger brother.

[32] “Join water, wade in underbeing / Let brain mist into moist earth /Ghost loosen away downstream / Gulp river and gravity / Lose words / Cease / Be assumed into glistenings of lymph / As if creation were a wound / As if this flow were all plasm healing/… Try to speak and nearly succeed / Heal into time and other people”

Ted Hughes, “Go Fishing”, River, 1983 CE. See also Athira J. S. and K. Sreena, “Ted Hughes’s Cave Birds and River: A Re-discovery of Ecological Spirituality”, International Journal of Pure and Applied Mathematics, 2018, 119(18): 1295–1303. It should not surprise you to know that Ted was also no stranger to suffering; see Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, “Written out of history”, The Guardian, 19 October 2006. Image: pxhere.com, public domain.

If you would like to read this whole serialised book, please start at the Preface:

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