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Compassionate living: What questions are you asking?

We’re all conditioned to find answers to life’s challenges, but sometimes, we might not be asking questions that are “right” for us. This week, while going through an old file, I came across some provocative questions I’d written down in 1990, taken from the July/August issue of Common Boundary magazine.

The questions spoke to me then, and they still grab me now, even though I haven’t produced answers for any of them. Here are two that I wrote under the magazine’s heading The Psychological Dimensions of Compassionate Living:

  • What is appropriate self-love and healthy narcissism? By contrast, what is self-indulgence?
  • What is the shadow side of compassion?

Under the heading The Spiritual Dimensions of Compassionate Living, I wrote these questions:

  • When does spiritual practice encourage narcissistic preoccupation or striving?
  • How do the meditative arts and the expressive therapies foster psychological and spiritual development?

Here’s what I wrote from Common Boundary under their heading Models of Compassion in Action:

  • Much social action seems to be driven by moral obligation and/or guilt. How would social action based on a contemplative ethic be different?
  • How can we distinguish compassion from guilt-based giving, self-righteousness, “do-goodism”, and codependency?
  • How can groups reach consensus when people have differing inner truths?
  • Where does meaningfully endured sacrifice end and violence to Self begin?

I think that each of these questions is wonderfully rich. It could take months to answer them, but I would like to address each one in upcoming weeks. For me, the easiest question is the first one. With healthy self-love, a person accepts and honors his or herself — strengths and shortcomings — and extends this love to others. Such “narcissism” means that someone is aware enough to recognize flaws and takes responsibility for them.

Self-indulgence occurs when someone is so focused on “fixing” him or herself, he forgets those around him and does not take time to extend love to others. Too often, cynics in western society dismiss meditation and other contemplative practices as “navel-gazing” yet they are so much more than that.

Looking inward and learning greater self-awareness, which, in turn, can result in more compassion and understanding towards oneself and others, is much different than reinforcing an ego identity and growing pompous and vain. The first deals with a far vaster, inner sense of Self, ultimately beyond self, whereas the latter is limited to the external self and what keeps it propped up (job, money, status, possessions, etc).

Which of these questions would you like to ponder? I’d love to hear your answers.

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July 21, 2011 at 3:43 pm
  • July 22, 2011 at 6:34 pmConstance

    I’ve been a Buddhist for 35 years. The philosophy of Nichren Daishonin answers the tough questions in beautifully simple ways regarding the relationship between self and environment. Everything is connected. Cause and effect is in action. I find it easy to make good choices and my “mistakes” are easy to spot! By the way, I wrote a profile of Jay Powell and Vicki Jensen in the summer 2011 issue of GEIST. Hope you get a chance to read it. Two years in the making!!! Constance

  • July 21, 2011 at 5:35 pmFrank McElroy

    Each a great question. Answers are complex and personal. Every one can be a teaching tool Just contemplating the questions is an exercise for the mind and spirit.

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