We were so grateful on Sunday to have with us Leanne Rubenstein, Executive Director of Compassionate Atlanta. She spoke about her organization’s goals of promoting the spread of a consciousness of compassion in the Atlanta area, and what that might look like for us.
In 2008, author and teacher Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED prize for her work in articulating the common ground of compassion among the world’s enduring faith traditions. The TED prize gave her $100,000.00 and one wish. For her wish, she asked the TED organization to help her create and launch “a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.”
The Charter for Compassion was crafted in 2009, created from the contributions of over 150,000 people from 180 countries. To date, over a hundred thousand people have pledged to uphold it, and the organization’s goal is to have a million signatories by Nov. 12, 2019, the tenth anniversary of the Charter.
The Charter is based upon the truth that each of the world’s major faith traditions embraces the Golden Rule, although each states the rule in a different form. Although the articulations of the Rule may differ, the spirit behind each does not. Armstrong writes that “all faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you, “or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies.”
In her talk on Sunday, Leanne led us through an exercise that brought that last point home. She asked us to imagine three people – a loved one, someone we knew casually, and then someone we disliked or with whom we had a very difficult relationship. She then asked us to imagine an event of very good luck happening to these three people, and to examine our feelings as to each. Did we feel good about a wonderful event happening to one we love, or even a casual acquaintance, but not so happy about the same event happening to one we dislike? Why? How do we examine such a feeling in light of the idea that compassion requires us to be genuinely glad when any suffering is alleviated, even that of people we don’t like?
She then asked us to imagine the same three people, but this time to imagine that great misfortune had hit them. What are our feelings now? We may be grieved that suffering came to those we loved or those we knew casually, but how did we feel at suffering coming to one we dislike? Do we grieve for them? Are our hearts open to them?
Leanne then made the point that the exercise of compassion for all is a lifelong practice requiring intentionality and awareness. Compassion is not merely an emotion that arises spontaneously – we need to maintain our spiritual practice and focus in order to cultivate a consciousness of compassion toward all beings. It may not be easy, given the many distractions we encounter every day. However, if we do, our happiness will increase as will that of others. As the Dalai Lama wrote, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Leanne also pointed out that compassion is not the same as empathy. The latter is an emotion – we may feel empathy for those in pain or those who suffer. However, compassion includes a component of action – we feel empathy and then we take steps to alleviate the suffering. We do something as a result of seeing the pain of others, and our action makes a difference.
Compassion thus gives rise to energy and hope, since we are taking action to help others. We do not become overcome by despair or fatigue, which may happen if we feel empathy but do nothing.
We have so many examples of those who have made this world a better and more loving place through compassionate action. We also have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others by stepping up and taking action, powered by compassion and love. There is no greater force.
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance