The winter holidays are here, a season of abundant giving and compassion. We extend our love and gratitude to family, friends and strangers. Religious traditions throughout the world symbolically celebrate this season as a time of light and illumination. Whether we are stringing lights to commemorate the coming of the Light in Jesus, the enlightenment of Siddhartha, the miracle of the container of oil, or the return of the sun at winter solstice, our traditions remind us to open our hearts in compassion to one another.
Within each tradition can be found The Golden Rule which assures us that acts of charity and compassion will open the door to our connection with the Divine, inner peace, and joy. Therefore, the season brings with it not only the celebrations but also renewed efforts and opportunities to spend extra time volunteering and giving gifts.
In the midst of our celebration preparations and extra practices of good will, it is the perfect time to reflect on how compassion helps to bring us together. It is a common element in almost all major religions, spiritual practices and societies.
As Buddha said, “Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others; thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.”
In both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, God is spoken of both as the “Father of Compassion.” In most of the chapters of the Quran, in the Muslim tradition, the chapters begin with “In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate.” In Hinduism, compassion is one of the three central virtues.
When we speak of compassion, we are not only speaking of our thoughts and actions toward others, but also with ourselves. The Golden Rule in our religious traditions subtly teaches us this. If you look closely you will see the importance of knowing how to treat yourself well in order to treat your neighbors well. Here are a few examples:
Christianity: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
Islam: No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself.
Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful.
Our religious leaders assure us that it is impossible to really care for others if we do not know how to care for ourselves. The Dali Lama states: “If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.” In another example Mother Teresa of Calcutta has been quoted as saying, “God told us, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ so first I am to love myself rightly, and then to love my neighbor. But how can I love myself unless I accept myself as God has made me.”
In this holiday season, when we often become frantic, disconnected, and even frazzled as we work to make the holiday special, remember to take some time to think about the true spirit of the season. Whether you develop compassion in your life as a result of an inner need for greater peace, understanding, and acceptance or as a result of a religious or spiritual practice, the end result is the same.
The rest of the year, it can be so easy for us to see ourselves as separate from others. We look at the choices and actions of others and find ways to justify our thinking that we are better than they are. Whether through age, physical differences, sexual differences, religious differences, or differences in nationality, political affiliation, or even social class, we separate ourselves mentally. Compassion, in an instant, washes all of those judgments away and reminds us that we really are all one. We are all worthy of love, of tenderness, and to be free of suffering.
There is great wisdom in our religious and spiritual teachings. Whether you adhere to the principles of one religion or spiritual tradition or not, most of them hold love, compassion, and forgiveness within their core. As the Dalai Lama has said, “Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not a luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”
When we look at spiritual and religious traditions, some of the best and highest elements of them is that they help to try to awaken within us the best that we can be. They allow us to try to remember to live with the most loving, giving hearts, whether or not you believe in God or some kind of higher power outside of yourself.
We extend ourselves in community with those who share our beliefs, our faith, our traditions. Compassion, in practice, allows us to enlarge that community to others who are suffering that may not be in that original set of people that we normally interact with. Compassion allows us to engage our hearts, the very same way that religious and spiritual traditions do.
Compassion is an active process. The next time you feel disconnected and hurried and on empty, which, given the holiday season could be this very moment, extend compassion to someone in need. It’s very possible that someone is yourself and you decide to stop judging yourself or allow yourself to finally rest. It may also be that you decide to lend a hand to a friend who’s having a hard time or spend time at a senior community center listening to stories told by folks who don’t have family.
Those acts of compassion, of connection, acceptance, and support of another human being undeniably bring you so much of what we find in major religions and spiritual traditions - the joy in being alive in our world and grateful and joyous to give of ourselves. There are those moments of divine connection that we often feel during our religious and spiritual practices where we feel the peaceful elation of union with ourselves, one another, and the universe.
As we enter the holiday season this year, expand your joy and your connection with your life and others through your practice of compassion. As Buddha said, “In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength.” Through our greatest strengths, we live our best lives!