Practicing Compassion

Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed
~
 The Buddha

Whenever there is a disaster in the world, natural or otherwise, it does a curious thing – it brings out the best in us.

All of us stop for a moment, don’t we, and feel a mixture of gratitude that we and our loved ones are safe, and sorrow for those suffering from the earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, flood or, in the case of Haiti and the American eastern seaboard, a hurricane called Sandy.

New York workers prepare for the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy
 It’s then that our natural compassion comes to the fore. And yet, curiously, compassion, the virtue of empathy for the suffering of others, is not necessarily as readily available to us at other times.

In our ordinary, everyday lives it seems – on the face of it – that we have less need of compassion than at those times of crisis, be it family, community, or world-wide.

The etymology of compassion is Latin, meaning co-suffering; whereas empathy is the more simple attribute of understanding, compassion contains the desire to stop the other person’s suffering.

Deepak Chopra writes in his book Reinventing the Body, Resurrecting the Soul of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who developed ‘compassionate brains’ as the result of practicing a meditation on compassion, thereby transforming a spiritual quality into physical manifestation, erasing the split between body and soul.

Compassion: a Victorian firefighter cares for a koala left homeless by bushfires. Photo by Russell Vickery via smh.com.au.

 But why are some people more compassionate than others? Why is it that psychopaths allegedly have no compassion, and are able to inflict cruelty without even the comprehension of what they are doing?

Chopra wonders whether even psychopaths might be brought to understand the nature of compassion through a change of brain activity.

To become compassionate, or more compassionate takes practice …as does every emotion, both good and bad.  It’s not good enough to just think about being compassionate, or even learn about it, it’s about somehow rewiring the brain so you walk in other people’s shoes; and again growth is exponential, as we begin to feel and practice compassion in one area of our lives, it begins to flow into other areas.

In Hinduism compassion is called daya, and is one of the three central virtues, along with charity and self-control. Vasudeva Datta, a 16th century Vaishnava holy man prayed to Krishna to deliver “all conditioned souls” because his heart “breaks to see the sufferings.”

In Judaism, God is known as the Compassionate and invoked as the Father of Compassion, and in Buddhism compassion, or Karuna is the transformative heart of his teachings, both for the self, and others.

Or as the Dalai Lama has said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

How do you practice something you can’t see? It’s not like riding a bicycle exactly, but curiously the steps are very much the same. You choose to be genuinely interested in compassion, you pursue your interest spontaneously – choosing for instance to feel compassion instead of critical towards someone whom you believe has slighted or behaved badly towards you. You stick with the practice until you get good at.

One of the ways to cultivate compassion is using it to defuse anger, which is considered a low-level emotion, and usually disguises fear, and one of the very best ways to cultivate it, is to try feeling compassionate for yourself – which, when you stop and think about it is much easier said than done.

In fact, it’s downright difficult to be compassionate about what may seem afterwards to be obvious mistakes we’ve made, and yet if we can’t feel true compassion towards ourselves how can we feel it towards others?

Children, of course, can swing between compassion and sympathy, to cruelty and scorn in a millisecond, but as we grow up, our ability to be compassionate is often diminished by what we perceive to be condemnation towards us, and by the time we are adults, our natural compassion has got buried under a ton of beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.

But when one of the largest cyclonic wind systems on record has caused sixty deaths in Haiti before it even reached its destination of the Eastern States of America, then for most of us compassion becomes a natural response – and thank goodness for that.

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
~ Thomas Merton

Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong…

I love to hear a choir. I love to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.
Paul McCartney

Last week I witnessed a wonderful event.
My 12-year-old daughter, Anna has been in her school choir for a few years now, and was fortunate enough to be picked to sing at the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney’s week long choral festival, showcasing students from New South Wales public schools.

The Australian Girls, National Boys & Gondwana Indigenous Childrens Choirs perform in a Qantas TV ad.

When the kids that formed the full choir came together last week for the performance, it was pure magic from the first moment. The sight of the concert hall filled with 700 children, and the sound of their voices filling the air around us, was quite extraordinary, as too were the other musical offerings of the night, with everything from big bands, wind and string orchestras on offer.
There’s no doubt that without singing – the sound of the human voice in all its varied glory – the world would be a poorer place; but why exactly do we sing? After all, we are the only land-based animal that indulges in the activity – apart from the odd singing dog that is!
Birds sing, of course, gibbons (apparently) sing, and the rest of the world’s singers – whales, dolphins, sea-lions and seals, are marine mammals. Research suggests that it’s a predator thing – singing is a sound that could attract enemies, so only those animals able to get away quickly – birds and the tree-based gibbons for instance – or those that have very few predators, such as the water-based singers, and humans, indulge in what might otherwise be the somewhat dangerous practice of  letting predators know your location.

Photo by RhiannonDaire on Flickr.

Who would have thought that the simple act of opening our mouths and allowing sound to come out, could be so fraught with meaning?
When you think about it, it is a rather extraordinary thing that the mechanism of using our lungs as an air supply, our larynx as a reed, and our head or chest as an amplifier, and the tongue as the mechanism for articulation, can produce everything from opera to rap.
Nobody knows exactly why humans started singing, or even when.

Conjecture has it that the voice was the first instrument, long before instruments were invented and that perhaps it was used as a way for a voice to carry much longer distances.
It’s also possible that a tribal society used singing for each individual to be recognised by their sound, since all of us have a unique ‘voiceprint’ in the same way we have a unique finger print.

One of the extraordinary things about singing is that despite many peoples’ protestations that they can’t sing, anybody can actually learn to sing – it’s simply bad luck that many of us are wounded when we are children by well-meaning or even badly-meaning adults telling us we can’t sing in tune.
Not surprisingly, in fact, not that many small children can sing in tune because like taste buds, the voice box is not fully developed until we are at least teenagers, and so those early judgments that have possibly cruelled many a budding singing career are based on a false assumption.
For years I thought I couldn’t sing – and was told by my father on numerous occasions that was the case. Not that many years ago I decided I wanted to find out if it was true that I really couldn’t sing – so I got brave and joined a choir! Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m the next Big Thing, or Any Thing at all, but I loved it and it allowed me to discover that as long as I am singing along with people, yes, I can definitely sing.
I felt wonderful after a singing session, and so I wasn’t surprised, researching this piece, to find out that a survey of students participating in choral singing found numerous health benefits – improved mood, stress reduction, not to mention the social benefits of being included in community group.
Apparently just listening to choral singing relaxes the mind, reduces stress and positively influences the immune system, according to a multinational collaboration to study the connection between singing and health which was established in 2009, called Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing (AIRS).
Even better still, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a choir, in the shower or in the car – so open up your pipes, rusty or not and sing out loud. It can only do you good!

Quote of the week:
The only thing better than singing is more singing.
Ella Fitzgerald

Hair today, gone tomorrow…

Hair brings one’s self-image into focus; it is vanity’s proving ground. Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices. – Shana Alexander




The Princess turned 12 the other day. “Mum,” she said. “My life is just going too fast.”

I laughed. “You should see it from my end.”

She looked so depressed I tried very hard to be sympathetic: “Never mind,” I said.

“You’re not even a teenager yet. Twelve this year and 13 next, that’s how the numbers go.”

“Thirteen!” She positively bounced upright. “That’s right. Everybody has that big party when they turn 13 – you know, it’s like turning 18 or 21, but there’s a special name for it.”

“There is?” Plenty of things sprung to mind – the start of the highway to hell, the teenage tunnel, the flouncing years, but not anything specifically connected to 13.

“That Bar Mitzvah thing,” she said.

Right. My no-religion daughter wants the religious ceremony Jewish boys have when they turn 13 for her party next year.

Notwithstanding that living in the Byron Shire has enabled her to study an eclectic mix of Bahai, Buddhism and even Catholicism during her school years, turning male and Jewish, not to mention learning the Torah, seems a tall order.

But it did start me thinking about rituals connected with age, and of course, as well as the Bar Mitzvah, there is the Bat Mitzvah for Jewish girls when they turn 12.

Both of them are a rite of passage – the recognition that instead of just studying the Torah, the young adolescents are now capable of understanding it.

Catholics of course, have their confirmation, but what do we, those of us who have put conventional religions aside, have to celebrate the arrival of the teenage years?

Somehow the English ritual of going from Brownies to Girl Guides and leaping over a giant mushroom with Akela and Brown Owl on each side of you doesn’t seem to quite cut the mustard.

It made me think about the 12th birthday too. What were we doing as a mother and daughter, to mark it as somehow special? What could we do?

I suddenly remembered my 12th birthday, and that my mother had taken me to her hairdresser for the very first time.

I remembered the smell of the salon, the pleasure of getting my hair washed – that I even had my nails polished. It might not have the deepest religious significance I thought, but at least I could introduce her to one of the true lasting joys of womanhood – the regular visit to the hairdresser.

As American comedian Fran Lebowitz once observed: You’re only as good as your last haircut.

And thus it came to pass, that Anna, once nicknamed Voldemort for the torturous sleeping regime she inflicted upon her parents, sat up in the highest of chairs, and received the benediction of Richard, my hairdresser.

Baptized in the basin, trimmed, very lightly, a side fringe artfully created, and her locks blow-dried to golden curly perfection, an 11-year-old girl went in and a gorgeous young woman came out.

It was a wild success. Even for a Leo the mirror admiration became obsessive. She tossed, and flicked, and twirled and gazed at the new perfection of her. The next day the hair was even better, which fortuitously coincided with her sleepover party. She was in seventh hair heaven.

But then came the fall. The first hairwash and the next day there were anguished tears. “It doesn’t look the same,” she wailed. “I want it back just like it was when it was cut.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry with her. I felt for her. We receive a beautiful moment, but it passes, all too quickly. Our highs are followed by lows. And life passes, all too quickly.

But marking occasions, creating rituals, acknowledging the importance of our lives is vital to our sense of self-worth, and to our ability to reflect on where we are and how we’re travelling on the journey of life.

The idea of a Bar Mitzvah, or even a Bat Mitzvah, has set me thinking about a 13-year-old party, what it could be, and how it can be made meaningful beyond the inevitable pizza, popcorn, tween-dvd sleepover – or even haircut, if that’s possible.

“Life is an endless struggle full of frustrations and challenges, but eventually you find a hair stylist you like.” – Anonymous

Check out my Midweek Mediation on http://thehoopla.com.au/ in the Wellbeing section…