Thursday, December 1, 2011

Compassion

Rosette bearing the names and titles of the Shah Jahan
Folio of the Shah Jahan Album: India, Mughal, c. 1645
Metropolitan Museum of Art Islamic Collection 

The word “compassion” means, originally, to “suffer with.”

To suffer means, among other things, to allow. The Latin root suggests it means to carry from underneath, or support. (sub- 'from below' + ferre 'to bear.)

 So when we have compassion, it means to be with, to help support, to carry from below. In its context of allowing, it also implies a willingness to be with things as they are. It furthermore implies an emotional fortitude and an emotional endurance–compassion is not a practice for the weak.

 We are all, collectively, weak, and yet we often speak of compassion.

We find ourselves scattered in our own weakness, and see that we are helpless. We go on to find ourselves together in weakness, and recognize that. Suffering together– bearing the weight of this life and the difficulty of it– we form a community which, if it is in good health, recognizes the need for mutual support...  unfortunately, communities are not always healthy, and compassionate support is not always offered.

Compassion cannot be an outward quality first. And it can't be a materialistic quality, because just giving people things to help them– for example, offering people food, or water, or money when they need it– is not enough.  In the concentration camp of Auschwitz during the Second World War, Viktor Frankl noted that there were cases he saw where people died not because they were starving, but of despair.

There has to be a wish; there has to be an emotional impulse from within that is stronger than external circumstances.  This kind of wish is what kept people in the camps alive. That wish must be enduring; and weak people don't have enduring qualities. This is possibly why compassion fails in ordinary conditions; it's only in extraordinary conditions, extremes, where human beings are so utterly exposed to their weakness that they surrender and thereby discover real inner strength.

This may all sound like a Buddhist soliloquy; or, it may just sound like a rehash of all the old stories about compassion. But it is actually a question both of the cosmos and of individual life.

Scrolling back to the last post on this site, we can infer– and it is even possible, under the right conditions, to actually sense– that the universe was created in a compassionate act. This is, in fact, at the heart of Beelzebub's story about His Endlessness. The machine of the universe was created as a machine of feeling– an emotional bridge, a moving bridge– to reconcile what one might call God's thought, and the material of time, the contradictory affirming and denying principles of existence.

So the universe itself is love, it is compassion–it is a machine that supports from below. Every level is obliged to work to support the whole structure.

We are perhaps reminded of Dante's Divine Comedy,  in which heaven is a divine structure, built on the support of the many levels moving upwards from Hell and through Purgatory. Dante cannot reach Purgatory before moving all the way through Hell, finally traversing the body of the Devil Himself, who is upside down, until he and Virgil emerge, metaphorically speaking, as pieces of excrement– nothingness, that which has been thrown away– in order to even begin the work of purgatory, a great purging of sin that may lead to heaven... if one's suffering is accepted

We should note that, oddly, Gurdjieff indicated that Buddha did not say man should become free of suffering: he said that he should intentionally suffer. In other words, the inner work of suffering–and let us have no doubt, it is an inner work we speak of here– is a necessary work and a burden to be shouldered, not an event to escape from. This is the central theme of Dante's purgatory: a realm of intentional suffering, in which the sinners are grateful for the burdens they bear.

It is not abstract, because we find ourselves in this very moment at a point of emotional opening that is required in life. Our awareness– our consciousness– our feeling awareness must become awakened.  We must see where we are, we must see our weakness, and we must acknowledge our nothingness– all absolute themes in Gurdjieff's teaching, and, furthermore, at the core practice for almost every major religion.

If I acknowledge my own helplessness, perhaps then I am moved to a compassionate attitude towards myself.  This acknowledgment cannot be an intellectual acknowledgment. It must be an organic acknowledgment, one that penetrates to the marrow of the bones.

Acknowledging my weakness, suffering– allowing– my own weakness, I begin to understand that I am not in charge of anything, and that I don't control anything. The inflated balloon of the ego begins to sag rather quickly when this process takes place, turning into a sorry puddle of plastic. I may discover, when that happens, that there is actually very little else there, except the daily experience of life... which turns out to be deeper and more glorious than the colorful Thanksgiving day parade I have zealously been keeping inflated for most of my life.

  Compassion that begins at home, in an inner work, is quite different than compassion that is outwardly directed. Tolerance and generosity towards the inevitable sin and the weakness of my own nature is a beginning. This doesn't mean that I excuse my iniquities; absolutely not. I participate with them: I'm not going to be able to change them much, I'm not strong. I suffer them. I see how I am.

I see. I see. I see.

I respectfully ask you to take good care.


1 comment:

  1. One of my first and most influential mentors in the work told me of a rarely played musical piece of Music Gurdjieff wrote called "To Pity Oneself".

    In one sense compassion begins with ourselves, but in a wider connotation it begins with the realization that we ALL suffer the SAME human condition; in other words, we are ALL SCREWED UP -- ALL of us, and that includes me.

    In fact, the deeper I realize that I suffer the human condition with no magic strings attached to lift me from it, the easier it becomes to develop a compassion for all of us, human and otherwise.

    But KNOWING this is a painful and agonizing truth to which I must submit before anything can begin to change in me. There are tares growing alongside the wheat... "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear of your misfortune" while basking in our own escape from that particular suffering is as far from compassion as one can get, and yet this is the world of lies we live in.

    My question is then, can I SEE the lies? The lying of others and more importantly, the lying I engage in as part of my everyday life.

    This is perhaps the reason why Mr. Gurdjieff scolded parents who admonished their children to say "Thank you" when he gave them candy from his pocket of treats.

    The child who receives the treat will eventually, if left to it's own devices, come to "thank you" on it's own, as it should be, rather than being pushed and demanded to act like a well trained dog... this is where religion becomes less than useless; it becomes a stumbling block, with it's fierce ethical and moral demands.

    I often feel that if all the bibles and holy scriptures were to disappear into the sea, human beings would stand a better chance of finding true conscience than to be trapped in a world where men have gotten hold of religion.

    Here is where Mr. Gurdjieff gives us so many clues -- to have pity on ourselves, and let compassion follow the understanding that we ALL share the Human Condition, where the only ugly is the beautiful taken for granted, when we have done NOTHING to deserve it.

    Now the question becomes: How do I receive this; can I accept it as food, swallow it as I would a holy communion wafer, and digest not the surface but the gist of my own words? Can I digest this all the way into my bone marrow, so that my blood begins to change into something worthy of the dignity of a Man without quotations?

    The truth is bitter on the tongue, and sweet in the belly; whereas lies a sweet in the mouth, but bitter in the belly.

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