Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
- Pema Chödrön
I love facebook—it’s a good reflection of what’s in the hearts and minds of most of the Internet-connected world. Facebook is one big social experiment and serves as a good representative of the collective human ego. Profiles often reflect what we want the world to see (more so than what actually is). Seemingly diverse in scope, facebook gives its users the ability to crystallize and define their own digital identities, complete with political leanings, sexual preferences, favorite quotations, and saucy, come-hither self-portraits. According to Internet World Stats, facebook membership reached over 830 million people across the globe by March 2012. In the last 3 months, statistics show that approximately half of the United States uses facebook, over 50% of all facebook users in the US are between the ages of 24-54, and majority of all facebook users in the US are at least able to vote.
With so many people using facebook, you can get a pretty good gauge of what’s on the social radar according to what people “like” and “share”. I profess that I often post things on facebook with the underlying intention of seeing what people are into and resonate with. In a nutshell, people like typographical inspirational quotes less than two sentences long, comics, photos of food, and photos of me (or you, preferably full body ones that show a little skin). People on facebook aren’t so interested in anything that takes too long to read, news articles that have nothing to do with celebrities, and anything that takes too long to read. If you want to get into the specifics of my personal facebook profile, most people seemed generally disinterested in the United Nations plea for environmental action and the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi, yet were disproportionately interested in magazine covers featuring Rachel Ray with her dog and one-line quips attributed to the Buddha.
[DISCLAIMER: Understandably, there are those who keep their "likes" and dislikes to themselves - and are likely interested in and read about "what's-up-in-the-world-not-according-to-me".]
Interpretation of this, albeit, limited data is unsettling because it gives us a window into how we relate with the each other and the world around us. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a little humor or simple statements that speak to higher ideals, however it does seem that there is a collective tendency toward self-interest. What I ate for dinner. How awesome I look in my bathing suit. The exotic/cool/fabulous thing I did on my summer vacation. Self-interest is important. We need to attend to our health, our personal relationships, and our security. But concern for the self often dominates our entire life. And, if you did actually click on that link to the UN Report on environmental action, you saw an example of the frightening consequences of living a self-centered existence.
Yoga, Buddhism, and most spiritual traditions teach a balanced approached to living a life that includes both consideration of self and other. Simple in statement, but difficult in practice, true empathy and compassion at their core involve letting go of the identification with our own small needs in exchange for the needs of others. As secularism has blended with spirituality people increasingly participate in spiritual practice and inner work because doing so makes them look good and feel good. There is an air of acquisitiveness that has infiltrated contemplative disciplines to such an extent that we sometimes believe that we can obtain realization or achieve a compassionate way of being. This is perhaps the byproduct of a living society that places extreme importance on action and one that values doing over being. Both are important, and both action and thoughtful embodiment of higher values should compliment one another. Thinking without action is purposeless, and doing without a foundation of real being yields rotten fruit. (If you need evidence of the outcome of thoughtless, self-serving action just revisit the details of the Enron scandal of 2000.)
Yoga’s teaching on relating with others begins by advising us to cultivate feelings of amity, compassion, goodwill and indifference towards the happy, unfortunate, virtuous, and sinful (sutra 1.33)—in short, when it comes to dealing with others, if we are prone to envy, disdain, mistrust, or anger, we must work towards the cultivation of their opposite. Keep in mind that Patanjali starts withthe embodiment of feeling and being in this teaching before attempting to address how we take action in the world. This is a difficult and important step in the process. Take, for example, the movement toward goodwill in relationship to the virtuous, as opposed to mistrust and jealously. We can feign friendship and keep company with those we dislike and are jealous of to show the world we are somehow above the mechanisms of lower self, but if such actions are not rooted in authentic amity, the demon of the ego resurfaces again and again despite our best efforts.
Generally, when the idea of ego is presented, the immediate reaction is to regard it as a villain, an enemy. You feel you must destroy this ego, this me, which is a masochistic and suicidal approach. But true spirituality is not a battle; it is the ultimate practice of non-violence. We are not regarding any part of us as being a villain, an enemy, but we are trying to use everything as part of the natural process of life.
- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Thus questions arise: how do we cultivate right feeling? And how do we let go of our own self-interest so that we may be of authentic service to others? These are not easy issues to interact with since they involving the intentional loosening of the ego’s stronghold upon our daily life. Looking at how we relate to others inevitably shines a mirror back on how we relate to ourselves. Jealousy shows us where we feel inadequate and insecure, and anger shows us where we feel afraid and unable to accept our own darkness. The work of dealing with others involves courageously looking within. Once we can not only see, but accept all of who we are, are we then able to see and accept others.