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The Roots of Compassion

To be compassionate toward others, we first have to learn to be merciful with ourselves.

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.

Love yourself stencil, photo by Donna Grayson

Photo by Donna Grayson.

As a young adult I was fascinated by a verse in the Tao Te Ching: “Compassionate towards yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” If I desired peace in the world around me, the verse implied, I should start by practicing compassion for myself, thereby unleashing a healing energy that would help reconcile divisions with the people I encountered. Ever since I was first graced with this insight, I have tried to cultivate an awareness that any difficulty I have with another is a reflection of the relationship I have with myself—and, conversely, the more peaceful I am with myself, the more peaceful I am with those around me.

Compassion in Islam

My reverence for that verse in the Tao Te Ching deepened during the course of my studies in Islamic spirituality, as my parents and other teachers emphasized that compassion is the most critical divine attribute we can cultivate in our lives. On this mysterious journey on Earth, the most valuable provision is the understanding and practice of mercy and gentleness for oneself, which results organically in compassion for others.

The Prophet Muhammad said that the heart of the Quran is rooted in the “Basmala,” the formula that opens virtually all of the one hundred fourteen chapters of the Holy Book: “In the name of Allah, Boundlessly Compassionate and Merciful.” When a Bedouin asked the Prophet how the Basmala could be bestowed upon him, the Prophet famously replied: "Have compassion on yourself, and on others, and the Basmala will be bestowed upon you.” These words of the Prophet Muhammad constitute the core of Islamic spirituality.

The Power of Compassion

How can one begin to explain the awe-inspiring power of mercy and gentleness? Teachers from various traditions ask us to observe nature's closest metaphor to compassion: The element of water. There is nothing so soft and yielding as water, but it is powerful enough to overcome the hardest stone. This soft element has the power to wash away continents. Water, like compassion, is necessary for life: Wherever water falls, says the Quran, life flourishes. The Earth was parched, says the Holy Book, but God sent down the waters of mercy and the Earth was “clothed in green.” Likewise, the person who practices compassion is blessed with authentic strength and at the same time blesses the world with life-affirming grace.

Compassion for Self

We are placed mysteriously on Earth in a state of confusion and bewilderment. In truth, we have no idea of who we are, where we come from, or where we are going. In the poet Rumi’s playful words, “We all arrive here a little tipsy.” In this confused state, we need to be gentle with ourselves. Our beings deserve to be touched with compassion every step of the way.

To grow compassion for ourselves, we must embrace not only our ten thousand joys of life but also our ten thousand sorrows of life. We need to learn to embrace our uncomfortable feelings with mercy and gentleness. The human ego tends to avoid, deny, and minimize feelings that make it feel threatened. Unpleasant feelings such as anger, sadness, and jealousy possess an edge only because we perceive them as something separate from ourselves. When we acknowledge them and enfold them with mercy and gentleness, we allow them to become healed and integrated. When, with courage and compassion, we kiss our inner demons, they turn into princes and princesses. Spiritual teachers have said that the more space sorrow carves into our being, the more joy we can contain. There is, of course, no need to run towards pain and suffering. But we should not run away from them.

We can truly forgive only if, during the process, we practice compassion for ourselves by lovingly enfolding the difficult feelings that arise in us.

I once had a client who was desperately seeking spiritual techniques to forgive the man who had murdered her daughter. This was, she believed, the only way she could be freed from her burden of hate and pain. But the more she tried to forgive, the more angry she became. In fact, she began to develop illnesses. What was missing was compassion for self: the compassionate need to honor her feelings of anger and suffering, the need to make sacred the difficult feelings by embracing them with mercy and kindness. What she needed was not to push them out but to bring them in, gently, lovingly, with mercy for herself. When she allowed herself, little by little, to embrace her dragons through a spiritual practice called “sacred holding,” she experienced a remarkable healing: She was blessed with a sense of release, freedom, and unburdening, and her strange illnesses disappeared. This woman’s story demonstrates that we can truly forgive only if, during the process, we practice compassion for ourselves by lovingly enfolding the difficult feelings that arise in us.

Charter for Compassion screengrabThe Charter for Compassion
Video: Thousands are uniting behind a simple principle that one scholar believes forms the basis of the world's religions: compassion.

Compassion for the Other

Over time, compassion for self creates an inner spaciousness that gives us the capacity to be compassionate with the other, no matter how confrontational or adversarial he or she is. From the place of inner spaciousness, we are able to discern between behavior and being. We realize that we are confronting the antagonism, not the antagonist.

In Sufi literature there is a story about how a judge might behave while sentencing someone who has committed a terrible crime. One judge might proclaim the sentence with contempt and disdain for the criminal, eager in his heart to banish this “scum of the Earth” into oblivion. This judge does not differentiate between behavior and being. Another judge, one who has cultivated inner spaciousness, would render the same sentence—but with solemnity and respect for the offender’s soul. Out of compassion he makes sure that the offender is accorded human dignity and is not maltreated in prison. Maybe the judge even prays for the offender, sending light from his heart to the soul of the convicted person. So the same sentencing is carried out with two different energies. Is this a big deal? Absolutely! Compassion is an energy from the soul that has the power to shift heaven and Earth, both in our own hearts and in the hearts of those whose lives we touch.


Jamal RahmanSheikh Jamal Rahman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jamal is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Fragrance of Faith: The Enlightened Heart of Islam and Out of Darkness into Light: Spiritual Guidance in the Quran with Reflections from Jewish and Christian Sources.

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