Wednesday, September 17, 2014

How to Love Your Neighbor

I’ve recently been thinking about compassion. All the great spiritual traditions of the world speak of having compassion for others – all others, no exceptions. Jesus told us to love our enemies. Buddha reminded us to have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike. Rabbi Hillel counseled us to refrain from doing to anyone else those things we find hateful ourselves. You get the picture.

In my meditations on compassion, and in my effort to actively include it in my daily life, I’ve hit upon the usual stumbling block: How am I supposed to have compassion for those people who can honestly be described as Bad Guys? You know the ones I mean – the people who not only put themselves over everyone else, but actively do harm either to get what they want or just for jollies.

It’s the old paradox of being tolerant of everything except intolerance, right?

So I started trying to figure out why the heck anyone would purposely do the kinds of things I define as evil. I completely understand the reflexive lashing out we do when we are hurting (the wounded animal effect). That’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean people who think about doing something, know it will do harm, understand that all the great world traditions say it’s wrong, and either don’t care or are actually pleased at the thought.

I finally came to a conclusion that startled me, but I think I may be on to something. Please bear with me as I do my best to explain.

First of all, I firmly believe that we’re all part of a grand whole, connected together with everything and everyone into a great All-That-Is. You might call that all-encompassing thing God, or True Nature, or Quantum Foam. No religion necessary here, but many spiritual traditions do speak of this quality of the cosmos.

In other words, separation is an illusion. You are my other self, as the Maya say. (That’s the Maya people of Central America, not the Hindu term Maya which refers to the illusion of separation I’m talking about here. Confused yet?)

I think some property, some effect of living in a physical body makes us tend to forget the connection, the All-That-Is-ness of things. We believe the physical separation we experience with the body’s senses is the ultimate reality of space/time.

But somewhere in the far back recesses of the psyche, we vaguely recall that in spite of appearances, we are still part of the greater whole. And every now and then, that knowledge erupts, overwhelms us with a feeling of oneness with the cosmos. It happens when we look up into a starry night sky, or hold a newborn baby, or stand alone in a forest full of birdsong. Then we remember who we really are, that we are coterminous with the infinite cosmos.

I think, though, that some of us never make that connection, never recognize that memory. How horrible to feel forever separate and alone in a universe that dwarfs the human body on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. How could anyone cope with such a situation?

By making themselves feel bigger, that’s how. Stepping on everyone around them. Manipulating their way to power, on a small or large scale depending on ability and drive. Doing harm on purpose to reinforce the feeling of control over something, anything.

OK, now I get it. And suddenly I feel great compassion for those people, in spite of all the horrible things they’ve done.

Because I, too, have had moments of loneliness, of separation from everything and everyone, moments of feeling so dreadfully alone that I would have done almost anything to rid myself of the feeling.

But for me, and probably for you as well, those times were just shorts moments we could recover from as soon as we saw a friendly face, heard lovely music, accepted a hug.

I can’t begin to imagine a whole life lived in that kind of darkness. I can understand how it would drive a person to hurt others in an attempt to assuage their own pain. Of course, I know better than to invite damaging, dangerous people into my life, and I’ve gone to great lengths to remove friends and family members who fell into this category. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about them.

If I’m right, I doubt any of those people even have an inkling why they do such horrible things. But I can have compassion for them. I can hope with all my heart that they find what they need to heal, because they are part of the cosmos just as surely as I am.