The Transformative Power of Compassion

A depiction of Jesus’ descent into hell

Several years ago, I undertook an exercise — inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — in clarifying the values I desire my actions to be guided by. It’s a relatively simple yet insightful exercise to do. I managed to boil them down to five, but one value stood out in particular: compassion.

Compassion quite literally means “to suffer together.” Amongst researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when one is confronted by the suffering of another as well as the subsequent motivation to relieve that suffering. Here, we can distinguish between compassion and empathy (or sympathy). It’s not just a feeling. Rather, it encompasses action aimed at alleviating the suffering of other living beings (human and non-human alike).

Now, I don’t hold myself up as someone who exemplifies compassion perfectly. Far from it, actually. Part of my own journey of (continual) healing, recovery, and growth has involved learning what it means to truly practice compassion: toward self, other, and all living beings. And, I’m certainly still learning.

So, why compassion? I could point to the research mounting on the benefits of practicing ‘mindful’ self-compassion for one’s own mental well-being as well as the way in which such practices increase one’s compassion for others. Here, the work of Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer are indispensable (you can view their research here).

Yet, on a ‘deeper’ level, I’m convinced that compassion is integral to what it means to be truly human. When I practice and embody compassion, I am fostering a connection to that part of my own being which we all share: our common humanity, if you will. And, this is inextricably linked with that ‘spark of the divine’ which resides within each one of us.

Or, put another way: I believe that we express the fullness of both our humanity and divinity when we genuinely embody compassion. Here, I cannot help but think of the ancient image of Christ descending into hell to rescue the captives. In Orthodox theology, this image plays a central role in understanding the notion of atonement: Christ entered into the world and indeed into the depths of death in order to liberate humanity (and, by extension, the entire cosmos). This stands in contrast to other understandings of the atonement which dominate certain Protestant circles, whereby Christ’s death is framed in forensic terms (e.g. “Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross in order to satisfy God’s justice”).

This image of a compassionate divine figure entering into hell to liberate others is not unique to Christianity, either. Take the image of the bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha below, also known as Dizang in China and Jizo in Japan. Despite being an enlightened being, Kṣitigarbha’s vow is to nevertheless liberate those suffering in the various hells (or narakas). Indeed, the very notion of the bodhisattva is deeply compelling and moving (for more on Kṣitigarbha and the notion of Christ as a bodhisattva, I highly recommend giving this piece a read by David Armstrong).

The bodhisattva Ksitigarbha

But, to ground this in lived experience, I cannot talk of compassion without sharing about my own story. Like many, I’ve often struggled with the idea of self compassion. Compassion for others? Easy (or so I thought). But, compassion for myself? Seemingly impossible. Particularly when caught in the grips of a depressive episode. Those who’ve lived with serious clinical depression know of the deep shame and self-hatred that often accompanies the experience. Time-and-time again, those around me would constantly emphasize the importance of being compassionate towards myself in the midst of such experiences. And, this was never news to me: I intellectually knew of the power and importance of (self) compassion. I would never dare speak to someone in the same way I spoke to myself internally. Yet, the internal dialogue would continue, creating a kind of ‘inner hell’ I felt imprisoned inside.

However, around a year ago, something shifted in my inner world. It was a day not out of the ordinary: I’d begun a usual evening running training session at a local oval close to where I lived. I quite enjoy listening to podcast conversations or audiobooks when I run and had chosen to listen to a recorded conversation between the comedian Duncan Trussell and his late mother Deneen. As I ran loops around the oval, I listened to the beautiful-and-funny-yet-heart-wrenching conversation between mother and son. And, eventually, the topic of conversation turned to her own imminent death due to having metastatic breast cancer. Much of this conversation (including this part) was aired in an animated episode of The Midnight Gospel. Below, you can watch the 3-minute section of the conversation I’m referring to.

A scene from the final episode of The Midnight Gospel (‘Mouse of Silver’)

At this moment, tears began flowing down my face. Which, I’m sure was a funny sight to behold: some dude running around an oval crying. Yet, they weren’t sad tears, but rather tears which sprung from a deep well of compassion within my being. I felt nothing but compassion for Duncan and Deneen in that moment… which, began to extend to all humanity. Indeed, life is a paradoxical mix of beauty and pain. None of us escape this wild journey alive: we will all experience the inevitable suffering that comes with being mortal human persons. I don’t know exactly why or how, but at that moment, I discovered that this ‘circle’ of compassion included myself. What a strange yet healing thing it was to experience this! I was able to stand ‘outside’ of and hold myself in a compassionate embrace. After all, I am part of the human race too, along with all my pain, fears, frailties, insecurities, and mistakes. The tears continued to flow and I gently held it all with loving-kindness. And, as I did so, I felt an immense sense of healing and lightness that I had not experienced in a long time.

Whilst those precious moments are etched in my memory, I would be lying if I claimed that I no longer experience moments of that same shame and self-hatred creep up on me. But, now, I’m able to hold it all in that compassionate embrace. Yes, even the darkest of thoughts and feelings. And, incorporating meditative practices like tonglen into my life has been so crucially important in continuing to cultivate this compassion. What I’ve discovered is that, far from being something ‘selfish’, practicing mindful self-compassion has only increased my capacity to truly connect with and practice compassion toward others.

I’ve often thought that, at the end of my life, I hope I can look back and say with integrity and honesty that it was a life marked by this compassion: the compassion of Christ and the bodhisattvas. I can’t think of a fuller, more beautiful way to live.

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Afternote: this piece was kindly republished by Insights Magazine (the magazine of the Uniting Church in Australia’s Synod of NSW/ACT). You can view it here.

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A Sydney-based bi[bli]ophile writing about all things mind, spirituality, philosophy, health, and flourishing. Endlessly fascinated by this wondrous universe.

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Shane Fenwick

Shane Fenwick

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A Sydney-based bi[bli]ophile writing about all things mind, spirituality, philosophy, health, and flourishing. Endlessly fascinated by this wondrous universe.