Wide Open: A Practice for Compassion

Imagine that you’re Moses. You’re 80 years old. You just led the Israelites through the sea to freedom. And now you’re at the top of Mt. Sinai carving tablets of stone into instructions for life. You haven’t eaten much for 40 days. You come down the mountain carrying the weight of the law and there are these thankless people dancing and cavorting around a monstrosity of gold. You are tired, you are burdened, and you are angry. You think: “After all I’ve given, after everything we’ve been through, this is how they repay me? They don’t seem to care at all. They can think of nothing but themselves.” You shatter the tablets and you want revenge.

And then, as you storm up to the mass of them, you see their eyes. These are not the eyes of people who do not care. These are the eyes of fear. They are terrified. You see their confusion. You see their vulnerability. You see how lost they feel, how abandoned, how alone.

And you find that the boiling hot rage inside you melts. It drains down into the earth leaving you with an ache of compassion, of rachamim. Your heart melts into tenderness as you see this huddled mass of refugees, as you see their loss, their burdens, their sorrows, their fears. And now you are wide open, aching for them.

Feel yourself now in your seat. Sit comfortably in your chair. Notice your breath gently coming and going, filling your lungs with sweet air, leaving your body to return to the world. Notice the coolness in your nose, the expansion in your chest and back, the stretching of your belly. Feel your spine rising from its base all the way to your skull. Feel the crown of your head reaching toward the heavens. Feel your feet planted on the earth and your legs rooting you to the soles of your feet.

As you return to your breath, bring your attention to your chest. Feel your heart. Imagine that you could hold your heart in the greatest tenderness. Soften all around your heart.   Hold your heart in the greatest gentleness. And as you do, bring into your mind’s eye the image of someone you love. See their face. See the burdens they carry. See their sorrows, their heartache, their fear, their suffering. And feel the compassion, the rachamim, fill your heart. May you be held in the greatest compassion. May you be free from suffering, sorrow, and fear. May your heart have peace. Now imagine that they look back at you with tender eyes, and they see your suffering, your fears, your sorrows, your burdens. And they say to you, may you be held in the greatest compassion, may you be free from suffering, sorrow and fear. May your heart have peace. And now open your eyes just a bit, look gently around at the others in the room, and close your eyes again. Holding these people in your mind’s eye, May you be held in the greatest compassion, may you be free from suffering, sorrow, and fear. May your heart have peace.

-by Rabbi Rachel Timoner

The Ground of Love: Reflections from a Quaker on Interfaith Learning

Sitting at my kitchen table, looking out into the bird yard deep in snow, I find my mind flitting like the birds from branch to feeder and to the ground. What might I have to add from a Friends (Quakers) perspective on interfaith dialogue?

Quakers are widely known as one of the peace churches having grown out of England in the mid-seventeenth century. They arose in a period of great turmoil, and from the earliest of days, proclaimed as James Naylor did in his ministry about the Lamb’s (the Quaker touched by direct communion with God) war:

And as they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb (the Quaker ) comes not to destroy men’s lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God. 

It is not just the clarity that Friends share that using weapons will not bring ultimate justice or avenge wrong doing without creating more harm, but the certain knowledge that springs from direct communion with God.

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.

– Isaac Penington

The ground of love becomes the foundation of all relationships. Sitting in silent meeting for worship this past Sunday, Douglas Steere’s phrase mutual irradiation came to mind. He was a well know public Friend in the 20th century, actively engaged in encounters with other faith traditions around the world in his travels for Friends for a over two decades. His pamphlet Mutual Irradiation, A Quaker View of Ecumenism, published in 1971 affected me deeply at the time. Since then the phrase mutual irradiation has come back many times as a powerful expression of the power of presence and listening on to another. Steere labels Mutual Irradiation as a form of mutual sharing in which “one is willing to expose oneself with the great openness to the inward message of the other, as well as to share one’s own experience, and to trust that what ever is the truth in each experience will irradiate and deepen the experience of the other.” The joy of opening in connection to one another moves beyond holding each other at arms length, with determination that one already know the other or even one’s own faith tradition in a fixed way.

When Steere questioned Martin Buber about the secret of the “amazing interfaith gatherings” in Berlin in the 1930”s in which Quakers took part, Buber is quoted as saying “Rucksichtlosigkeit”, (ruthless frankness in pressing the argument to its furthest conclusion). In our dialogue then we are invited to go beyond to a deeper dimension of understanding not only of another tradition but one’s own, by the light shining out of another form of faith. No only though tenderness, but frank openness about our differences, which in itself has the potential to spark illumination of deeper truth.

-by Julie Forsythe

Humility, Commitment, Trust in Interconnectedness, Empathy and Hospitality: Cultivating Dispositions for Interfaith Dialogue

Catherine Cornille, in her splendid book The Im-Possibiity of Interreligious Dialogue (Orbis Books, 2008), summarizes the virtues or dispositions that seem to be required of anyone who wants to take up the exciting venture of entering into a conversation with religious traditions and persons different from one’s own religious practice.

These virtues are worth pondering and practicing.

a) Humility: Inter-religious dialoguers are simply not going to be able to do what they want to do unless they are humble about what they already know through their own religion. Dialogue is stymied before it takes off unless all participants admit to themselves that no matter how much they have discovered in their own traditions, there is always more to know. Cornille calls this “doctrinal humility”: as true as any religious doctrine or belief may be, it can never be the whole truth. Religions deal with divine or transcendent truth. No human mind or system can contain the fullness of such truth. Few, if any, religions would contest this claim (pp. 9–58).

b) Commitment: But for inter-religious dialogue to be successful, all the partici­pants have to hold firm to, and have to be held firm by, the truth they do possess through their religious traditions. Dialogue is not chit-chat. It is not just trading information. It is truth that matters, and matters not just for me, but also for you. So my commitment to my own beliefs will inspire and require me not just to explain them to you, but to witness them to you. I want to persuade you to share in the liberating truth that I have experienced (59–94).

c) Trust in Interconnectedness: Within the rooted commitments of all participants in inter-religious dialogue, all of them have to also trust that, despite the depth of their commitments and despite the often incommensurable difference between religious perspectives, there is “something” that makes it possible for religious believers to understand each other and to challenge each other. If, as is often heard, the religions of the world are “apples and oranges” and cannot be com­pared, inter-religious dialoguers insist that they are all interconnected in their natures as fruit. Being fruit, they can relate to, and understand, one another. This is not to say where or how to find this “fruit-fulness.” But it does affirm the need to trust that it exists (95–136).

d) Empathy: This virtue signals the need for inter-religious dialogue to be personal, even intimate. While we are rooted in our own commitments, we also have to, somehow, get inside the commitments of our dialogue partners. We have to try to understand them not just with the clarity of our minds but also with the sensitivity of our hearts. That requires a goodly amount of “letting go,” of allow­ing your imagination to lead you into new space. Empathy is the energy that animates what theologians of dialogue have called the process of “passing over” into another tradition’s symbols, stories, and practices, and then “passing back” to see what difference this experience of the other makes for the understanding of one’s own (137–176).

e) Hospitality: This virtue is pivotal among all the others. Cornille calls it “the sole sufficient condition for dialogue” (177). Simply, but challengingly, it means that if we invite other believers into our own religious home as guests, then we will not be good hosts, real hosts, unless we are genuinely open to the gifts that they bring us. We have to be open to receiving gifts of truth and insight that are new, different, and perhaps in tension with our own. Hospitality is really the flip-side of humility: if we realize that we can never claim the last word of Truth, we have to be eagerly open to receiving more of that Truth from others. What is really different from what we believe may be a needed addition to, or correction for, what we already believe. Hospitality makes dialogue exciting, but also threatening. Unless we are truly open to being threatened, we are not going to be able to dialogue (177–210).

-by Paul Knitter

The Search for a Deeper Grounding for Service and Action in our Secular World

Many people today who are deeply concerned about the world’s suffering inhabit a secularized worldview in which it is assumed that religious understandings of salvation or spiritual liberation are irrelevant to the material needs and ways of thinking prevalent in our time. Such people, of course, do not see religious disciplines as a resource to help them respond to the suffering. And although moral teachings of mainstream Western religious traditions today continue to inspire their faithful to serve others in need, such traditions have largely lost touch with contemplative disciplines that were earlier maintained in monastic institutions.

As many members of mainstream religions themselves report, the modern emphasis on service to others in their churches and synagogues can mask a lack of spiritual grounding necessary for such service to realize its fuller potential to empower, heal and liberate both those who serve others and those served by them.

Yet, even as the world has become increasingly secularized in its rejection or forgetting of religious resources, people also increasingly long for what religions (at their best) have provided: access to a primal power of goodness that transcends the world’s limiting attitudes and structures of greed, apathy, and prejudice, that liberates people to discover a greater potential in themselves and others, and that empowers wise, compassionate and creative responsiveness to the world’s needs.

This yearning to rediscover our connection to the primal or unconditioned ground of our being, so as to live, act and serve others in a more deeply grounded way, takes expression in a host of modern desires that the materialism of the modern world does not address: the search for deep rest from the freneticism of modern life; the desire for a much deeper healing of body, mind and spirit than health-spas can provide; the wish to find a sustaining power of love for self and others in a hyper-competitive world; the desire for a renewed spirituality within or beyond mainstream religions; the urge to protect nature from the predations of our own consumerism; the desire to relieve suffering and establish lasting peace and justice in a world of increasing possessiveness, apathy and violence.

Although many people today believe they have transcended religious ways of thinking, and indeed many blame religion as a major cause of the world’s current problems, the same people often long for a deeper grounding for their lives and actions, the kind of grounding that was accessed in the past through the spiritual disciplines of religious traditions.

The longing for a more grounded source for living and serving also manifests in the pressing needs that are commonly voiced by people who work to address the sufferings of the world in all areas of social service: the need to find a place of deep inner rest and replenishment so as to heal from dynamics of burnout; the need for a more unconditional attitude to self and others that would sustain our service beyond “empathy fatigue” and empower others to see their potential for change; the need to become more fully present to those we serve to better discern and evoke their hidden strengths; the need for the wisdom, compassion and courage to challenge oppressive structures without losing touch with the essential humanity of everyone involved.

As Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thich Nhat Hanh taught, to bring more goodness into the world, we need to be in touch with the deepest goodness of our selves and others. To help people find much more peace and wellbeing in their lives, we need to come from a place of deepest peace and wellbeing in ourselves.

But such a grounded way of being and serving is not accomplished just by longing for it.

Gandhi, King, Nhat Hanh immersed themselves in disciplines of spiritual traditions that put them in touch with the depth of their being, from which they could respond to others in the depth of their being—helping many others to see themselves as deeply worthy and capable of great good.

[We can commune with] the unconditioned (empty) ground of our being that makes unconditional love and compassion for self and others possible. From this ground can emerge a purer vision of people that senses their intrinsic worthiness, great potential, and fundamental mystery, beyond all the reductive labels and ideologies of our societies. It is from this place that we can sense our underlying unity with others, commune with them in the original goodness of their being, listen deeply to them, respond creatively and wisely with reverence. But to find access to such depth requires immersion in disciplines that repeatedly turn our attention to the unconditioned ground of the depth of our being, to help us become increasingly transparent to its qualities.

By John Makransky, phd

Originally for publication in Dharma World on-line journal, March 2012

God Loves the Stranger

“God Loves the Stranger” Deuteronomy 10:18

When I take these words deeply into my being, my flesh and blood, there is enormous relief.

I am no longer struggling to protect the limited ideas I have about who I am. I am no longer projecting endlessly limited ideas of who you are. I am free. No one is a stranger. Everyone including my so-called enemies is an infinitely complex and precious creature. My labels, categories and strategies to protect myself from them are paltry in comparison with their sacred mystery.

In our everyday lives, the stranger is sometimes the refugee, sometimes, the person of color, age, youth, accent, small or large body, deafness, blindness, baldness, or different view, different neighborhood, different family or lover, profession or power. There is no limit to who can be the stranger. In fact, some of our most challenging strangers may be those we live with and those we have loved or tried to love.

To see and understand this is the purpose of practice. To provide the social and cultural conditions to deepen this understanding is the purpose of all efforts toward justice and peace.

The idea that God loves the stranger unites our inner work and our outer work. The inner work shines light, again and again on the false conclusions I draw about my self. When I look carefully, calmly, through the lens of divine love, I see that I am none of these labels. I am indeed a stranger even to my own awareness. Now I inhabit this mood, this moment of joy or sadness, fear or envy, generosity, clarity or confusion. Then it changes.

When I remember that God loves the stranger, the very category of stranger ceases to have meaning. God’s love is undifferentiated unconfined, unlimited. It is an expression of the reality of deepest unity and interconnection of all life in the cosmos, drawn from a single source, ever spiraling, expanding and returning.  All other beings  are working with their own limited ideas of who they are and who I am just as I am working with mine. There is no difference that is substantial.

When I am receptive to the love of the stranger who lives within my own heart and mind, I can extend this love to the other, to one I think I know and to one I do not know. Without exception. This attitude aspires to create a world that is moving toward a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, a world of respect and sharing, a world saturated with the recognition of unity and love. This is a world where black lives really matter and a refugee is received with interest, care and empathy.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book by RABBI SHEILA WEINBERG