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Compassion Comes First

Seattle makes a 10-year commitment to become a more compassionate city.
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Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

Charter for compassion, photo by trib

Photo by trib.

On Saturday, April 24, 2010, the Mayor and the City Council of Seattle signed a document making Seattle the very first city in the United States to take on a ten-year commitment to become a more compassionate city.

The official statement acknowledged that the compassionate energies focused in Seattle during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit in April of 2008 are coming to fuller fruition in this greater dedication to compassionate action. Here is the final paragraph of that declaration:

"NOW, THEREFORE, be it proclaimed that the Mayor of Seattle and the Seattle City Council affirm the Charter for Compassion, declare Seattle a participant in the Ten Year Campaign for Compassionate Cities, and for the next ten years will establish April and October as compassionate action months in which our citizens, government and institutions work together to embrace and apply compassionate solutions and encourage community service to meet the needs of our families, friends, communities and neighbors."

The all-day event brought Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and a scholar in comparative religion, as keynote speaker. As the winner of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Prize, Karen was granted $100,000 to make a wish come true. She wished for an international “Charter for Compassion,” recognizing the key role that compassion plays throughout the world’s major religions.

Seattle is the first city to join the 10-year Campaign for Compassionate Cities in support of the Charter for Compassion.

The event itself was wondrous, coordinated by the Compassionate Action Network and hosted by the Center for Spiritual Living in Seattle. We three Interfaith Amigos were delighted to participate both in the morning and the evening programs, and to learn from all who participated. Karen Armstrong proved to be a particularly inspiring teacher, with an incredible grasp of the history of religious thought and the common pursuit of compassion.

What is so important about compassion that it merits the focus of a ten-year plan for our cities? Compassion is feeling the pain of another and seeking to alleviate it. Compassion is feeling the joy of another and seeking to support it. While compassion, in its narrowest sense, means “to suffer pain with another,” it goes beyond empathy to require compassionate action in the world. In the words of psychologist Arthur Jersild, “Compassion is the ultimate and most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity. It is through compassion that a person achieves the highest peak and deepest reach in his or her search for self-fulfillment.”

Compassionate action is a way of being most truly human.

As such, compassion is one of the most basic teachings not only of every religious tradition, but of secular and humanistic traditions, as well. Since the Buddhist tradition is often able to speak both to religionists and secularists, this often-quoted statement from Buddha is foundational:

It was reported that the Buddha was asked, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” The Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

And the Buddha taught that before one can truly manifest effective compassion for others, it is necessary to have compassion for oneself:

"It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found."

The Abrahamic religions, as Karen Armstrong has often expressed, each focus on compassionate action in the world. A central text in Judaism was quoted by Jesus, and forms the basic impulse to compassionate action in both traditions: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 7:12)

Compassion is love in action, and love in action begins with loving oneself. The Golden Rule, celebrated by all religious and humanistic traditions, is itself an expression of compassionate awareness. It has been taught in different forms: “Do not do to others that which is hateful to yourself,” was taught by Hillel in the early part of the first century CE; “Do unto others that which you would have them do unto you,” was taught by Jesus. “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Hadith) Each formulation is significant, and part of a single whole.

Heart handsCharter for Compassion Karen Armstrong and a yardstick for global empathy.

With so much emphasis on compassion in our religious traditions, why aren’t we already a compassionate city in a compassionate country that is part of a compassionate world? One reason is that the compassion promoted in our religious faiths is too often applied only to those who are members of that particular faith. Historically, others have been seen as outside of true humankind. Another reason is that the demands of our ego too often supersede a more compassionate awareness. So two things are particularly necessary at this time:

1.    The clear statement from every tradition that the injunction to compassionate action includes all human beings, the animal kingdom, and the Earth itself. Compassionate action is a way of being most truly human.

2.    Finding ways to support each other in developing true compassion for our own ego states of insecurity, greed, competitiveness, comparison, and fear—without collapsing into those states of being.

Here are five specific steps on approaching others compassionately:

With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:

  • Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”
  • Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
  • Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
  • Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
  • Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”

Quoted from Resurfacing: Techniques for Exploring Consciousness by Harry Palmer in an article by Tijn Touber in the June 2007 issue of Ode Magazine.

We really are all in this together.


Ted FalconRabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D., wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rabbi Falcon has taught Jewish traditions of Kabbalah, meditation, and spirituality for over thirty-five years. He is the author of A Journey of Awakening: Kabbalistic Meditations on the Tree of Life and co-author, with David Blatner, of Judaism For Dummies.

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