By Roger S. Gottlieb
The modern idea of spirituality—divorced from religious tradition, dependent on a personal choice of creed, centered on feeling good and avoiding stress—easily invites criticism or even contempt. Many see it as an evasion of religious truth and moral responsibility, a narcissistic choose-your-own-at-the-mall self-indulgence that has nothing to do with serious religious, ethical, or political life.
I beg to differ. Of course there are many for whom spirituality is just what the critics accuse it of being. But this hardly settles the matter, for there are also many religious traditionalists who are sanctimonious hypocrites, many political liberals who are narrow-minded, and many self-styled ethical people who blissfully ignore their own failings.
Thus the question is not “What is spirituality at its worst?” but rather “Is there at the heart of spirituality a powerful, redemptive, and transformative idea?”
I believe there is, one that is simply expressed but often excruciatingly hard to put into practice. The idea is this: our lives will be far happier, in an enduring and deep way, and we will be a lot more fun to be around, if we seek to live by certain virtues. To the extent that we choose to be mindful, accepting, grateful, compassionate, and loving, our own contentment will grow and our interpersonal behavior will be increasingly caring, respectful, and just.
A quick glance at these virtues should make anyone who thinks spirituality is easy think again. Each time we face a life choice, cultivate one habit or another, or find ourselves in a morally confusing and painful situation the virtues come into play. We have to decide whether we can accept disappointment without obsessing over not getting what we so richly deserve; try to understand the experience of people who bore or frustrate us; take the time and attention to examine the contents of our own mind rather than act out of fear or rage; and look deeply into our society’s fundamental structures to how whether our personal lives reflect vast and impersonal forms of injustice.
If we focus on one particular spiritual virtue—compassion—we will see that while the spiritual life is tied neither to a literal reading of scripture nor religious authority, it is still far from a walk in the park designed for the lazy.
Compassion may be understood as both an emotional openness to the suffering of others and an active response which seeks to lessen that suffering, and can be found in religious tradition and contemporary spiritual teachings. It is a Mahayana Buddhist ideal (the Bodhisattva seeks to end the suffering of all sentient beings). God in the Hebrew Bible (Deut: 4:31) and Jesus in the Christian (Matt: 14:14) are described as compassionate. The term resonates with virtually all contemporary eclectic and non-denominational teachers.
Sometimes compassion is relatively easy. If we encounter a good person whose suffering is not his fault and is easily remedied (take care of him for an afternoon, offer a hug, give a small amount of money), then compassion may flow easily.
But think of Steve, who is always overspending: here he is again, desperately needing cash. And at the same time I am facing my own serious money troubles (family illness, stolen car). Now compassion may give way to impatience or irritation. “What about me?” I will think; or “For God’s sake, stop creating your own troubles.”
What if the suffering we encounter is part of the endless round of misery that accosts any well-informed person in today’s information overload society? Famine in Sudan, tornadoes in Missouri, pollution induced lung disease in China—and that could be just a single website on any given morning. Here we might develop what psychologist Kaetha Weingarten calls “common shock”—physical and emotional distress caused by witnessing the pain of others. We numb out and retreat, thinking “I just don’t want to hear about it.”
Here is the most difficult setting: can we have compassion for the perpetrators of crimes as well as their victims? After the Boston Marathon bombing, could we think of the killers as human beings marked by enormous emotional and moral disorientation, lacking the gift of being able to have an empathic connection to the innocent strangers they meant to kill? Can we think of cruel, selfish people as deserving of happiness? Can we, as Dante asked, have compassion for the damned?
To be compassionate even when we are needy or suffering requires that we observe our own distress without using it as an excuse to feel disdain for all those who “don’t really suffer like I do.” Dealing with common shock requires a vigilant awareness not only of all the terrible things happening in the world but of the effect of our knowledge of those things on our own minds and bodies. It requires the humility and self-awareness to admit “I simply cannot take in any more information now,” the faith that life is worthwhile even with all the suffering in the world, and the far-sightedness to see that despite all their pain human beings are more than the sum of their woes.
And the ruthless dictators, drug lords, and smiling CEOs who pollute? Don’t they deserve to be hated? Yet compassion asks us to recognize everyone’s suffering—even that of people who act very badly. The spiritual task here includes admitting our own moral weaknesses so that we can see what we have in common with the guilty; and also developing a moral clarity that allows us to act caringly against injustice without needing to be motivated by hatred.
Finally, we need to be open not only to other people’s suffering but also to their own understanding of their lives, to what we have to learn from those we would help as much as what we have to teach them. “Compassion,” insists Catholic priest Gregory Bolye, who spent decades intervening in Los Angeles gang violence, “is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” Anglican Archbishop Rowan William’s suggests that this covenantal relationship requires a loving attention which allows other people to develop, choose freely, and come to a better, truer life by their own energies. The great temptation, says Williams, is seeking to have the last word, to control what the other says and how they live. This may be relatively easy if the person is an innocent victim. The more they are complicit in their suffering (an addict, say), or a victimizer rather than a victim, the more difficult it becomes.
Thus, true compassion might well take a whole lifetime to get good at it, let alone master. And this is true for all the other spiritual virtues, which always require attention, energy, and a willingness to let go of old habits and attachments. Each day, every moment, I am invited to choose love over hate, gratitude over bitterness, confidence in my connection to people and the world over frightened isolation.
In this light, then, spirituality is not a relaxed or cheapened version of traditional faith, or an escape from social life, but a demanding and in some ways heightened version of both religion and social engagement.
Image credit: Kano Motonobu, ”White-robed Kannon, Bodhisattva of Compassion”, c. first half of the 16th century. Hanging scroll. Ink, color and gold on silk. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.