Exercise: Think of someone about whom you care with compassion. Perhaps imagine your love / concern / compassion flowing towards them as a beam of light or a stream of water. Now bring to mind someone with whom you have difficulties or even of whom you are jealous. Think of their own circumstance. Is there room here for compassion? Think of their love for their families, or their desires to achieve, or just your shared humanity. Now imagine compassion from you flowing towards them as well.
In Hebrew, the word for compassion is rachamim, which comes from the Hebrew word for womb. Compassion is the unbounded love of a mother for a child. Compassion is the place where the boundaries that normally separate us are released. When compassion awakens, we feel empathy and connection with others because we all share a deep human connection, just as a mother and child are both one being and separate.
During my year in Israel, I got a bad flu. I had been living on my own for 7 years and had a wonderful wife taking care of me. Nevertheless, something about being sick and so far away from home made me really miss my mother. I called her and told her “I feel so sick.” “Oh David, I’m so sorry.” She laughed at the ridiculousness of my calling her from such a distance because I felt sick. And yet, it was comforting to hear her voice and know that she had true compassion for me. Not because of anything she wanted from me, or anything I might do in return, but merely and beautifully out of compassion for her son.
And then years later I found myself stroking my daughter’s hair while she was sick. She was feverish and feeling yucky. And yet, my presence helped her feel better for at least a few moments. The offering of compassion proved to be healing.
We spend most of our time remembering that we are separate from everyone else. We get concerned about our goals, our needs, our wants. And it exhausts us because we are putting so much effort into remembering that we are different than everyone else. We have no space for compassion. Our separateness becomes a kind of wall that isolates.
Compassion calls us back to a different mode, a mode in which we remember that we are connected. It is a mode that reminds us of our ability to be renewed and enlivened through our human connection.
I read of a lovely practice from the Dalai Lama. Whenever he sees wealth or belongings that could awaken jealousy, he instead invites compassion. How great that this person can bring such goodness to his family! How wonderful for him to be able to enjoy all these material possessions! After all, since we are connected on such a deep level, I have the smallest piece of his enjoyment awakened in me. Instead of negatively reacting to what I don’t have, I instead challenge myself to appreciate how great this is for him.
I invite you to find opportunities for compassion this summer. It could be to close family and friends. It could be offered to random strangers or others. It could even be extended to those from whom you feel most distant and so reminding yourself that even the greatest of divides can still be bridged through our shared humanity.
Rabbi David Booth
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