Welcome, and happy Mother’s Day, to all who are mothers, who celebrate their mothers, and in celebration of the mother-energy available to all of us, regardless of our gender or state of parenthood.
Mothers hold a unique place in our minds and hearts. When we reflect on sacrifice, unconditional love, constancy, patience, humor – it’s our mothers who come to mind, or the image we have of motherhood itself.
I recently read about a teacher who had a middle school science class studying magnets, and on the test she asked for a six letter word beginning with “m” for something that picks things up. 50% of the kids wrote in “mother.” We know how true that is.
Making Mom Proud
We all grow up wanting to make our mothers proud of us, don’t we? And it’s not that they are judgmental, or harsh, or demanding. It’s that, even if they are flawed and oh-so-human, our mothers exemplified and taught us those virtues and principles that we knew were right – kindness, compassion, patience, peace, love. Of all the authority figures surrounding us, our mothers were our main teachers, reference points, and guides.
As the Spanish proverb goes, “An ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest.”
So today, in the context of this day of celebrating the ultimate peacemakers and peacekeepers – our mothers – we continue our series on peace. Today we talk about living peace – what our lives lived in peace might look like, and those spiritual principles we can apply to help direct us on that journey.
As I thought about peace I considered the Buddhist faith tradition. Specifically, I thought of the teachings of the Dalai Lama, one of my favorite spiritual teachers and a man about whom I speak often.
The Dalai Lama teaches that peace in our communities and our world is possible only when we live lives of compassion.
In his view, the exercise of compassion is critical, and it is for all of us, religious or not. As he said, “Compassion is not a religious business, it is a human business; it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”
In His Holiness’ experience, this is where peace starts, looking outside ourselves to the hearts and needs of others. When we can feel compassion for others, even and especially those who wish us harm, peace will follow.
Peace may be the principle, but compassion is the practice.
As I thought more about compassion, I looked to author Karen Armstrong who has long been a force for compassion in our world.
Armstrong spent her early years as a religious sister. She eventually left the convent and became a scholar of comparative religions. At one point she found herself in Jerusalem making a film about early Christianity when she realized she knew very little about the other Abrahamic faiths that live so closely with Christianity in that city. So she began to study Judaism and Islam. She began to lecture and teach about the need for greater interfaith understanding—not acceptance as so many call it, but appreciation of other faith traditions.
In February of 2008 Armstrong won the TED Prize, awarded annually to those creative thinkers dedicated to making positive global change. You can listen to Armstrong’s talk here. She used that occasion to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year.
The Charter for Compassion is a relatively short document drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national group calling itself the Council of Conscience. The creators of the Charter envisioned the creation of compassionate cities, compassionate communities, in which all are respected and nurtured. As Armstrong writes, a compassionate world is a peaceful world. The Charter for Compassion is a plan of action as well as a statement of principle.
Here in Atlanta the Charter is promoted by Compassionate Atlanta and One World is one of their partner organizations. In February of 2014 the Atlanta City Council voted to designate Atlanta as a Compassionate City, a vote confirmed by the Mayor that month.
Armstrong travels the world promoting compassionate action as what she calls “the task of our time” – the only way we are going to be able to live together in a sustainable, global community.
Mother’s day is a wonderful day to explore compassion.
In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong points out that we are hard-wired for compassion, and she gives credit for this human capacity to the development of our instinct to mother. As our human brains developed over the centuries, our first instincts were those that guaranteed survival, driving us to fight, flee, eat, and reproduce. Those are our most basic instincts, and we still carry them in our brain stem and cerebellum. However, as humans evolved, we began to build shelters and care for our infants and for each other. We developed the capacity to protect, nurture, and nourish a creature other than ourselves.
Over millions of years these tendencies grew. These new skills required a more complex brain, and so our brains grew larger and more multidimensional. The greater size of our brains, in turn, meant that babies had to be born earlier in the developmental process so that their heads could pass the birth canal and be born. Babies were entirely helpless and required greater care, for longer periods. Their mothers had to develop qualities of sacrifice, patience, resilience, putting all aside for their child if that child was to survive.
Over the centuries, in this dance of biology and behavior, we expanded our capacity for altruism, defined by Merriam Webster as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” I can’t think of a better definition of motherhood, and indeed it was mothering over the centuries that helped develop this capacity. It was this maternal instinct, the desire and need to put another being first, that very likely was the source of the growth of our human ability to empathize.
Here’s how Armstrong puts it:
“. . . a mother’s concern for her child pervades all her activities. Whether she feels like it or not, she has to get up to her crying infant night after night, watch him at every moment of the day, and learn to control her own exhaustion, impatience, anger, and frustration. She is tied to her child long after he has reached adult hood; indeed, on both sides, the relationship is usually terminated only at death. Maternal love can be heartbreaking as well as fulfilling; it requires stamina, fortitude, and a strong degree of selflessness.”
As John Fiebig said, “The hand that rocks the cradle usually is attached to someone who isn’t getting enough sleep.”
Armstrong has done two TED talks; the first contained her idea for the Charter for Compassion and a plea that listeners live it and spread it. The second is entitled “Let’s Revive the Golden Rule.” As she speaks about compassion, her focus is on the Golden Rule. There is an urgency to Armstrong’s message. As a scholar of comparative religions, she knows that the world’s faith traditions are entirely in line with this teaching, and have been giving us this same message for centuries.
The Golden Rule is not simply a nice teaching – it is at the heart, it is the heart, of every major faith tradition. You may have heard the story attributed to the sage Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus. It is said that a pagan approached Hillel and promised to convert to Judaism if he could recite the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.”
The first iteration of the Golden Rule came from Confucius, five centuries before Christ. He was asked which of his teachings his disciples could practice “all day and every day,” and he replied: “perhaps the saying about shu, (translated as “consideration). Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” According to Armstrong, Confucius taught that this [version of the Golden Rule] was the thread that ran right through the spiritual method he called the way, or the dao, and pulled all other teachings together.
The world’s faith traditions teach that the exercise of compassion brings us to a place that is unreachable when we stay within the world of egotism.
Practicing compassion brings us in touch with our deepest humanity, beyond the self-centeredness and egotism that generally dictates our actions. We act without self-interest, purely for the benefit of the other, out of a sincere desire to make another happy, or safe, or healed. We’ve all heard stories of amazing heroism and sacrifice in which people act for others with no thought of their own safety or even survival. I remember the story of some American business people who were visiting a leper colony many years ago and saw there was an American woman there nursing the patients. Loving, constant, attentive, and caring, her love for the patients just shone. One business man said, “I wouldn’t work here for a million dollars,” and she responded, “Neither would I.”
Living the Golden Rule: it is the road that leads us to God.
Practicing compassion, living the Golden Rule, ushers us into the presence of the divine. That is why it is so central to every faith tradition – it is the road that leads us to God.
Compassion is not pity. In Armstrong’s words, it is to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, to enter generously into another’s point of view.” When we are able to put ourselves aside, see through the eyes of another, we realize then that we are one. This is where religion is supposed to take us. Armstrong continues, saying, “Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”
In Christianity, the rule is stated positively – do unto others what you would have them do to you. Other faith traditions reverse it. You heard the version used in Judaism. Similarly, the Hindu Mahabharata teaches “do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”
The precept of the Golden Rule, no matter how it is expressed, is at the heart, is the motivating energy, behind the world’s scriptures. So why haven’t we gotten the message?
Well, for one, it’s not a popular message. In her TED talk, Armstrong says that when she speaks about compassion to church groups she looks out and sees faces she describes as mutinous – apparently people would rather be right than compassionate. It’s easy to sit in the pews and nod in agreement – not so easy to get out and do it.
Living compassion is hard. But if we are to live in peace, as individuals and as communities, we need to get the message.
So I was thinking, we have many new ways of communicating these days. And I thought maybe there’s a different way to get the word out. Now-a-days many of us don’t read articles or books with lots of words; we like it short and to the point. For instance, we know that important information is now spread thru Twitter.
What would God say if he was tweeting?
I think he’d say this: Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.
11 words, 49 characters. #livingpeace.
Let’s pay attention to the task of our time. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Compassion is a verb.” We have the chance to make our moms proud by living lives that matter, that lift others up, that lift us all up. Let’s not add another few centuries before we get that message.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre
Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center