|A Crib in a boat in Soverato, a few nights back|
As we start off 2011 it is no harm to begin this second decade of the 21st century on a positive note, a note of compassion. Having been long engaged in teaching (some 30 years) and in meditation practices (some 20 or more years) and having written a book on my experiences of using meditation techniques with both students and adults, I have long been convinced of the importance of compassion on two fronts, viz., compassion for others and compassion for one’s self. I have also read much from the experts in the field (The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, Sogyal Rinpoche and the famous Irish Jesuit, author and spiritual leader, William Johnston); though readily admit the secondary importance of such reading to the vastly more important practice of meditation itself. Like everything in this world the theory will only bring you so far, real life practice will bring you much further. A judicious coupling of both will probably bring you further still. I have written about meditation in these pages before. See this link here: Some Previous Thoughts on Meditation
At the moment I am reading Professor Paul Gilbert’s wonderfully accessible, though typically erudite, book, The Compassionate Mind (Constable, London, 2010). Gilbert argues that while we readily accept the importance of showing compassion for others, especially others who are undeservingly down on their luck, we seldom, if ever, show compassion for ourselves. We, certainly those of us in the West, have been taught almost universally to be our own worst critics. Gilbert’s book, to my mind, is a tour de force, which argues cogently and in a very clear manner – indeed in a scientific manner – for the importance and efficacy of showing compassion for the self. Such a compassion for the self will allow us to be more compassionate for others and strengthen our own self-image, our own sense of self, and of course our own self-confidence and indeed competence in the world at large.
As a meditator and spiritual junkie of long standing I have for some time been conscious of the importance of waking up to reality (as the late great Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello put it), of being aware of the call to living in the now, of training the mind to rid itself of distractions by concentrating on the movement of one’s own breath, of quieting the mind so as to arrive at the Still Point of being (hence the title of my blog and that of my book. See this link here: Veritas Book) and a veritable host of other phrases meaning essentially the same thing. And this same point is made in all the great religious traditions, especially in Buddhism, though there are/were movements within all the main religious traditions which emphasise/d the same point to a greater or lesser extent. However, that system of belief, or more correctly that practice of meditation, as devised by the great Siddhartha Gautama, namely Buddhism, most deservedly gets the honoured place for its universal advocacy and continued sound practice of meditation throughout some 2500 years.
Essentially, then, Professor Paul Gilbert is saying nothing new at all. However, he is essentially doing something new, namely proposing compassion as a scientifically verifiable (in practice and by everyday observation) way of dealing with life which we find ourselves thrown into without any forewarning – a point Gilbert makes again and again in this quite long book (some 592 pages including the index).
This book is divided into two main sections: Part I, which contains six chapters, deals with how science can illuminate the way our minds and brains work and why compassion can be a powerful healing process. Part II, the following seven chapters, like all self-help books and manuals, gives us the usual series of exercises along with lengthy introductions and commentaries that are at once enlightening and inspiring. For each chapter, Professor Gilbert gives us a lucid summary in his introduction. However, the most important point he continually makes is that a solid scientific base can be offered for the practice of compassion both for the self and for others. This the present reader found both instructive and enlightening, though in no sense ground-breaking as Dr Daniel Goleman has already published a scientific work in this area, though with an emphasis on the process of meditation rather than the practice of compassion, with the co-operation of The Dalai Lama and the help of a host of meditators and scientists.
Throughout the text I got the feeling that I was in the company of a pessimist and realist of the Schopenhauerian variety, and I hasten to add that I was in no way disappointed by this fact as I belong very much to the same camp myself. Sometimes, or even regrettably most times, if the truth be admitted, writers of self-help books can be so saccharine sweet and so presumptuously and preposterously positive that one would think one were reading a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. Professor Gilbert reminds us again and again, rather like a Greek chorus, that we were born to be tragic creatures. Again and again he reminds us that we were thrown into life without our will in the matter. This is the Dasein of Martin Heidegger though he never alludes to philosophers at all, his preference being solely for scientists and psychologists. He tells us that we were born to die, that we were marked with the sign of death on our foreheads when we were born. This is humankind’s tragedy. He spends a lifetime building up a home, a family and possessions and then it will all come to dust in his death.
The only way to tackle this thorny question of mortality is by engaging in the practice of compassion for self and others. This practice, while it won’t make us ecstatically happy, will bring us the necessary equanimity to live a fairly content and even prosperous life, though it will always be a contentment that will have to accept that despite its successes, all its efforts will end in final failure, namely death. Now, this message, to this reader at least, is far more realistic that believing in a fairytale world of another life, though I’ll admit that if such brings the reader some measure of hope, please continue to embrace your dreams.