We are fortunate to count Brother David Steindl-Rast among our friends and collaborators. The post that follows is his inspired commentary related to a recent Fetzer-supported project exploring the role of compassion and ethics in education, business, and everyday life.
At a recent gathering, a small group of us took up the topic of basic human ethics and the role of compassion. Rather quickly we realized that the Buddhist tradition is well advised when it speaks of compassion as the practical expression of wisdom and insists that we must always consider wisdom and compassion together. In the Christian tradition, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) pointed to this connection from a different angle. He claimed that what we can take hold of (by words and concepts) gives us mere knowledge; only what takes hold of us gives us wisdom. But what is this experience of being taken hold of—being “grabbed” and moved—but compassion?
We could also say that
and action that springs from this awareness is compassionate action. Wisdom knows that all belongs together; and compassion acts accordingly. Compassionate action is love. For love (in all its forms) is the lived “Yes!” to belonging.
Living in a double realm
We humans live in a “double realm” as the poet R.M. Rilke calls it. Everyday experience can make us aware of this fact. We say, for instance, “I have a body.” How strange: somebody—some body—moves its lips to say “I have a body.” Obviously it is not my body that has a body. And yet, it is myself—my Self. My I and my Self are one, and yet distinct. I am a bodily reality in space and time, but my Self goes beyond space and time. What makes up my body gets recycled many times in a lifetime, yet, I remain myself.
Compassion springs from our awareness of this Self.
Since the Self is beyond time and space, it cannot be divided, it must be one.
Each I is unique and separate, but we are all one in the Self. This is why the Hebrew Bible says: “Love your neighbor as your self.” Realize that you and your neighbor are one Self and turn all that you do into a lived “Yes!” to that belonging.
The ego and fear
Instead, the I—preoccupied with time and space—tends to forget the Self. To the degree to which this happens, the I shrinks and shrivels up into an ego. Forgetting that it is one with all through the Self, the ego suddenly feels alone and vulnerable among billions of others. It falls into fear and becomes violent. (The root of violence is always fear.) Next, fear of competition leads the ego into rivalry, and fear that there is not enough for so many makes the ego greedy. The result is the pyramid of power we know all too well.
Belonging drives out fear
But to the extent to which the ego remembers that its Self is one with all, this sense of belonging drives out fear. There is no need to fear those with whom we are one. A lived “yes” to that belonging conquers fear and creates a world of non-violence. Fearlessness leads from rivalry to cooperation and from greed to sharing.
A superficial look at the many moral systems in the world, past and present, may give the impression that they are different to the point of being incompatible. And yet a closer look reveals a basic human ethic: The bottom line of every moral code is: This is how one behaves towards those with whom one belongs together. The differences depend merely on who all is included in that belonging. In the course of human history the circle of those included has grown wider and wider.
Only an all-inclusive ethics of belonging—and thus of compassion and love—can save us in the present world crisis.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk, is notable for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science. Learn more from Brother David with this video on gratitude.