When I posted my recent post about making a meditation hut, a friend posted a link to an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” It shows that Thoreau was the worst kind of misanthrope, and had not an iota of compassion for his fellow human beings. He remained unmoved by the sight of drowned bodies from a shipwreck. He only advocated the end of slavery because it
violated his belief in self-governance. He clearly advocated disappearing into the woods, not so one could emerge refreshed and renewed for the struggle against oppression, but because he really didn’t like or care about other people at all.
I wasn’t advocating building a meditation hut as a sturdy structure for keeping the world at bay – more a place where you could meditate when it’s raining, perhaps spend a few hours or days living the simple life, not a permanent retreat from the world. If you go into the woods, the aim is to be more connected with the whole of Nature, including humans, not to become detached from all other beings. The point is for those of us who are a bit introverted to recharge our batteries by spending some time alone, so we can be companionable and compassionate when we emerge.
Spirituality – embodied or otherwise – is merely narcissism and self-indulgence when it doesn’t involve compassion – literally, feeling with others. I regard embodied spirituality as a sense of mystical connection with the universe and all beings within it. In feeling this sense of connection, we experience compassion for the sufferings of other beings, and empathy with their joys. We can enhance this sense of connection by finding a community with whom we can practice compassion and mindfulness; if we don’t engage in spirituality in a group setting, it can become self-centred and shallow, disconnected from everyday reality. We need the experience of actually living and sharing with others to enable us to grow and become our authentic selves. This can be done by the creation of a community of shared values, which models in microcosm the desired qualities of human community. Of course there will be conflicts and tensions, but it is in how these are resolved that the real values of the community will be tested and refined. It is only by this kind of radical openness and humility that the community can become strong and genuinely inclusive.
I believe that the religious life is a shared spiritual journey towards greater communion with the cosmos, where Spirit descends into matter rather than escaping from it – but this communion does not involve the effacement of individuality; rather it is the celebration of diversity and the quest for authenticity, because the “divine” (the vision of ultimate worth) is the potentiality of all life to share in mystical communion. But we must expand our compassion to all beings, not just to those whose values we share, and we do this by engaging in social action – caring for the poor and the oppressed, protecting the environment, standing up for human rights, and promoting freedom, peace and justice.
We cannot really expect others to be convinced that we are “mystical” or “spiritual” unless we put compassion into practice by helping others. The two aspects of religion go hand-in-hand: without a sense of connection there is no basis for compassion, and without the expression of compassion in the form of caring, the life of a mystic can be barren and unproductive.
Pagan views of compassion
In a Pagan context, we might view the theological underpinnings of compassion as our view that divinity is immanent in the world, and everything carries a spark of divinity within it. Alternatively, we could take a naturalistic approach and recognise that everything on Earth shares at least 60% of our DNA – we really are all related. And we could combine these two ideas.
In 2013, reflecting on the Charter for Compassion, John Beckett wrote:
My theological basis for compassion is a religious basis, but it is also a naturalistic basis. Intuitively, we feel an obligation to help those who help us, first of all the families who give us life and who support us when we are young and vulnerable. We feel an obligation to help our close relatives, our neighbors, and our families of choice. We are social animals and we know we cannot survive alone – we need the help of others, and they need our help.
But beyond the practical aspects of compassion lies the recognition of kinship, of looking into the face of another and seeing ourselves. That person is like me, therefore she feels pain and joy just as I do, therefore I should help her feel joy and prevent her from feeling pain.
I would argue that compassion for beings beyond our immediate kinship group is what makes us human and humane. If you cannot feel kinship for the suffering of other beings, that isn’t very “spiritual”. I find it horrific that Thoreau could walk along a beach full of drowned corpses and not see fellow human beings, only a “spectacle”. I find it horrific that people can look on the sufferings of Syrian refugees and see only ‘flotsam and jetsam’, or the threat of the Other.
The ancient virtues of hospitality and reciprocity are core values for many Pagans, and these are, in many ways, related to compassion.
For me, one of the great things about being manifest in the physical world is the giving and receiving of love in physical form: hugs and caresses, and making love. And whilst it is true that love means that you will suffer when the loved one dies, I feel it’s true that “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. Love and reciprocity are the basis of all of existence, because it’s all about creating connections between beings. In the Feri creation myth, the universe came into being because the Great Goddess looked into the mirror of the void and fell in love, and the love created the Other. So love is the origin of the universe, and love is part of the fabric of existence.
How is compassion embodied?
We experience feelings (grief, love, dread, joy, fear) in our bodies. We talk about “a gut feeling”. Compassion is embodied like other feelings. It turns out that this has a neurological basis in mirror neurons – we quite literally empathise with other people’s pain because our mirror neurons respond to them.
Physical existence entails a certain amount of suffering (bodily pains, the loss of loved ones) and also a certain amount of joy. The Pagan response to this is to celebrate the joy and accept the suffering as part of embodied existence, whilst trying to relieve suffering.
It’s not much use being compassionate unless you put it into practice, of course. Unless we actually help people, merely empathising with them is not enough.
How far does compassion extend?
Compassion is not only fellow-feeling for other humans, but also for animals and birds: all our relations.
The Charter for Compassion would benefit from a “green clause” to emphasise caring for the Earth and our fellow creatures. Although there is a section on their website about treating the Earth with compassion, it hits a discordant note for me, as we need to recognise that we are part of the Earth, not regard it as a separate system from ourselves.
Another charter, the Earth Charter, drafted back in 1968, placed caring for the planet at the heart of its ideas.
And A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment also placed the Earth at the heart of its concerns.
In my view, social and environmental justice are inextricably bound up with each other: you can’t have one without the other.