I had the privilege of attending a talk by the religious historian Karen Armstrong on her Charter for Compassion the other day in Paris.
A former nun, Ms Armstrong is best known for her books on the major world religions. In 2008, she received the TED prize and was asked to make one wish that TED would support her to achieve. She chose to launch the Charter for Compassion, which was compiled by several academics and authorities in the field and has now grown into a global movement.
Within the context of the Charter, Ms Armstrong draws on the fact that all great religions have enshrined the importance of the Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. And, by extension, ‘do not do to others what you would not wish them to do to you’. Given my upbringing in China, I was also interested to learn that it was Confucius who first enunciated the Golden Rule, long before Western religions did so.
During her talk, Ms Armstrong mentioned the importance of going deep into the pain of one’s own suffering in order to understand the suffering of others. We must look deep into our own hearts to see what causes us pain, and refuse to inflict it on others. She said that this empathy was critical to this process of exercising compassion. I especially liked her call to ‘dethrone’ ourselves from the centre of our own world and put the other there.
I was also inspired by Ms Armstrong’s reminder that we always have a choice about another way of being in the world. That we can frame our behaviour and daily actions by spending our time relieving the sufferings of others.
At the end of her talk, I asked her what she felt was the difference between compassion and love. She commented that love had come to be an overused word in our society, and that it tended to symbolize emotions and feelings which, to her, didn’t accurately convey the active call to express compassion to our fellow man.
This seems like an accurate observation that made me wonder whether, in that process of connecting love to emotion, or even just solely to romantic love, we have lost that wider understanding of love as a state of being, love as our original, natural identity. Love as an expression of all that is pure, perfect and complete in who we really are. Love as our reflection of the Divine. Surely, if we were able to truly see both ourselves and others in this way, would this enable us to more easily transcend the images of suffering we see around us and thus naturally express compassion in everything we think, say and do?
I’m inspired by the work of Karen Armstrong and what she is doing with the Charter for Compassion project and hope, too, that whilst we go through our daily lives expressing compassion, we continue to remind ourselves that the source of these actions have their origins in Love. Love that is not something outside of ourselves or that has to be summoned up with effort, but a quality of being that is naturally, abundantly and beautifully expressed by us all.
Copyright Caroline Watson