“Through compassion, we conquer the numbness and the daze which keeps us closed off from the messes and miseries of the world.” —Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy
The Womb of Compassion Of all our practices, compassion lies at the heart of the spiritual life. It is the uniting theme running through every major world religion. The writers of the Gospels frequently described Jesus as being “moved with compassion.” In the Qur’an, the phrase “in the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful” appears 114 times. In Buddhism, compassion combined with wisdom—the “great compassion”—is the path to enlightenment.
I am particularly drawn to the favorite Talmudic name for God: Rachmana, "the Compassionate One." The root of this Hebrew word rchm means “womb.” God has a womb. And in that womb, we are nourished and formed and loved. Compassion means “to feel with” and so divinity feels with us like a mother.
This kind of God appeals to me. This is why I was drawn to process theology, for it suggests that “God is the great companion—the fellow sufferer, who understands” (Whitehead). The more we come to know this intimate companion, the more we know our practice of compassion as a divine calling. By entering the suffering of others, we move deeper into the very life of God, whose womb contains the whole world.
The Practice of Self-Compassion
In our journey of compassion, we must constantly attend to our own suffering, especially in our interior life. In my own spiritual journey, it wasn’t until I learned the art of self-compassion that I could authentically practice compassion for others, that is, fully, without the lurking shadow of judgment. Growing up, I learned to judge myself harshly according to impossible standards. Absent was the kind of humble self-criticism that enriches the soul. What haunted me was the kind of judgment built on ego insecurity and painful feelings of “not being good enough.” This eventually led to a life-threatening bout with anorexia nervosa in my early twenties. It was not until I learned to face the inner critic’s true suffering, and embrace her with compassion, that I was able to find healing. The interior self is a mashup of disturbing paradoxes. We carry within us wounds and scars and psychic turmoil that run roughshod over our best spiritual intentions to be compassionate and loving. Only when we squarely face our inner critic and care for the whole mashup can the spiritual practice of compassion begin to take root.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers this healing breath prayer for the inner child—a simple practice of self-compassion that helped me heal from my eating disorder and start anew on the path of compassion.
Breathing in, I see my suffering child. Breathing out, I care for my suffering child.
When practicing self-compassion, we rebirth ourselves over and over inside the womb of compassion. We are then ready to give ourselves to others with the same sense of tender care that we offer ourselves.
But it’s hard. Compassion can be exhausting. These days, we are bombarded with one catastrophe after another—especially as climate change bears down on us with extreme weather-related disasters. How are we to keep our compassion from growing cold and silent out of sheer exhaustion and feelings of helplessness?
As I write, the third of three successive monster hurricanes rages through the Caribbean, destroying the security of the most vulnerable in its path. My church takes up a special offering each Sunday for each new hurricane as we offer prayers for the victims. But at this pace, the term “special offering” loses its impact, giving way to the routine. And the world asks: how much more can we stand? How can we keep the “numbness and the daze” at bay? Our capacity for empathy is clearly a pre-requisite for the practice of compassion. But empathy is often overwhelmed in these days of knowing too much, too fast. When Empathy is exhausted, she needs rest; she needs a place to be nourished, restored, rebirthed. And so we need to urge her inside, offer her a cup of tea, and let her rest quietly inside the divine, restorative womb of compassion. This means taking a break from the news, from the bombardment, from all that seems overwhelming to the spirit. It means returning now and again to the practice of self-compassion.
Empathy, once re-energized, can be rebirthed back into the world as compassion—not out of guilt or necessity, but out of an awareness that compassion is where meaning lies, where joy is born, and where God is. Such refreshed compassion naturally releases what the Buddha calls “boundless love towards the entire world—above, below, and across—unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”
Widening the Circle of Compassion
Perhaps the unrelenting parade of catastrophes we are facing today offer us something besides exhaustion and sadness and anxiety; it also offers us countless possibilities for rebirthing fresh forms of compassion into the world.
In our time, we must widen the circle of compassion to include bees and birds and pigs in factory farms. We must learn to hear the cries of hungry wild animals losing their habitats, the grief of trees as forests burn. We must share the suffering of dying coral reefs and dare to feel the anguish of poisoned and feverish oceans. We must let our compassion flow into imaginative solutions for climate change—for the earth is God’s body, and we must save her.
May You Be Free from Suffering
But let us practice mindfully, with attention to self-care inside the womb of compassion. Only compassionate attention to our own spiritual need for rest and restoration can buoy us to face a new day of catastrophe. Only then can we move beyond merely surviving the news to actively “praying the news.” And prayer is a profound act of compassion. Few of us are made for physical heroism in times of disaster. Even fewer of us are experts on pain-relief for the sick. Some of us are not even adept at cooking casseroles for the bereaved. But we are all capable of the graceful prayer of lovingkindness: “May you be happy, may you be safe, may you be free from suffering.” Inside the womb of compassion, everything is felt by God—every gesture and word and sigh. Each offering is nourishment for rebirthing some new possibility for transforming the world.