Thursday, November 09, 2006

Compassion and The Shadow

Compassion and The Shadow All major religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity, place especial emphasis on compassion. Buddha saw compassion as being the very essence of his teaching and he appealed to his followers to witness to this way of being in their lives. It is very difficult indeed to think of two more compassionate people than the Buddha and Jesus. What is compassion? Here is the way the Dalai Lama describes it: “Compassion compels us to reach out to all living beings, including our so called enemies, those people who upset or hurt us. Irrespective of what they do to you, if you remember that all beings like you are only trying to be happy, you will find it much easier to develop compassion towards them.” However, before I can be truly compassionate to others I must first develop compassion for my own inner being, for my own very self. Sometimes we are drawn to pity another human being, but pity sometimes is not a very effective emotion really as it may lead nowhere. It may lead to no action whatsoever, and for a desperate person may even lead that person further down into deeper depression. Admittedly, pity can and does lead to action for some stronger individuals. But real compassion always leads to action and to commitment and to connection with other human beings, even with animals and plants – that is, all of creation. Real compassion starts with oneself. When I really befriend my inner and real self with all its strengths and weaknesses, with all its good and bad points, with all its areas of light and darkness, with all its shades and colours, then and only then can I really and truly reach out and be compassionate for others. This, of course, is another way of describing what I was writing about in recent previous posts, namely attempting to integrate the shadow aspects of the Self, that is, in more formal terms, the process of integration, the process of individuation or of self-actualization or of self-realization. These are all different ways of saying the same thing really, when we meditate and think deeply about this whole enterprise we call life. Compassion for self means owing the lonely little girl or boy in me; coming to terms with the black spots in my character as well as the brighter spots; owning the anger as well as the peace-making aspect of my personality; means accepting those weaknesses of character as well as all my gifts and strengths. Compassion for self means accepting and working for the integration of all those negatives and positives of character into a whole. Fortunately there is no such person as a totally good or a totally bad being in and per se. Great novelists, writers, artists and film makers attempt to teach us this – however vainly they try. Thankfully they never give up trying as all their art is a witness to this spiritual integration of self. Think of the great television programme The Sopranos. To my mind the writers and directors achieved something powerful in the character of Tony Soprano. Yes, Tony is a heartless murderer at times. Yet, he is not evil incarnate. No, indeed, the writers and directors manage to paint a sympathetic character. We see a man with many powerful contradictions – complexes he inherited from growing up in a very dysfunctional family. Then we witness him struggling to tame his shadow self in the psychiatrist’s office. I’ve heard some of my friends describe the programme as brutal and violent. It is too! Some feel uneasy because Tony is humanised too much! Is he really? You see, we’re all more comfortable with black and whites, with pure evil and pure good. These extremes are easier to accept in our minds, because if Tony is the incarnate devil himself, well then we don’t have to confront the possibility of evil in our own selves. Likewise what the German director did in the film Der Untergang or The Downfall is worth meditating on. The movie was written by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. The film is based on the book Inside Hitler's Bunker by historian Joachim Fest about Hitler's final days. Hitler is presented as having some likeable human qualities – there were many objections to such a presentation. Obviously, to get to where he got Hitler must have had some redeeming human qualities. However, it’s not comfortable for us to admit that! After all Hitler was human not satanic. Let’s not project human weaknesses on unknown or possibly non-existent fallen angels! Germany's tabloid newspaper Bild asked, "Are we allowed to show the monster as a human being?" and some within the German press questioned whether Germany was ready for a portrayal that could provoke sympathy for the dictator. Well surely the answer to Bild is simply a scientific one – he was a human being who was bad and in whom evil did flourish. In short what I’m saying here that the task for us as humans is to integrate the Shadow or negative parts of us. A lot of human beings never achieve this; some manage to integrate less than others; and then, I suppose “monsters” (as Bild described him)like Hitler don’t manage any integration at all, and project their evil, madness or insanity out onto an unsuspecting world. There is food for thought and meditation here! How much evil in me do I project out onto others in my world? Have I ever tried to integrate my own evil aspects of character, and by integrating them have domesticated and made them a part of a greater whole comprising a myriad of different qualities and traits that makes for a full integrated person.

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