Monday, January 27, 2014

The Power of Compassion

Many years ago, I volunteered to work with Crisis over the Christmas period. Crisis is a charity in England that provides shelters for homeless men and women over the festive period. I completed the application form and filled in the enclosed shift booking form. 

Two weeks before Christmas, I received a letter saying that I had been accepted with instructions and directions of where to go and what to do on the first morning of my shift. I don’t remember what my motivation was for working with Crisis as I had never done it before. Maybe I had heard someone speak about it and how great it was and I thought "sounds good, I’ll give it a go." I felt quite excited after getting the confirmation letter.

I arrived early on the morning of my shift and was there with about 10 other volunteers. During the roll call of volunteers, I noted that some names called were not there. We were then assigned to Crisis employees for training. I was assigned to the alcoholics shelter! I really didn’t know what to make of it or what it might mean for me.

The shelter was in North London and I noticed the great atmosphere the minute I went inside. Music was playing. There was a dayroom, a canteen, and sleeping quarters. On each shift, I was in charge of something different. One shift it might be giving out food in the canteen; on another shift, handing out donated clothes and shoes as presents. Some nights I just passed the time speaking with different men and women. After hearing so many heartbreaking stories on these shifts, I realized just how easy it is to become homeless. All it takes is a few incidents that result in life spiraling out of control and people losing everything. It opened my eyes. 

In the dayroom, there was a notice boardOne day, I was looking at it and I saw a poem that a man named Jamie had written — about life on the streets. The rawness and purity of it really spoke to me, so I went to find him. Asking around, one of the women pointed to a man in his late 30s early 40s. I went up to him and told him how much I loved his poetry. He smiled and said simply, "I only learned to read and write six months ago." I was stunned, and yet deep down I recognized that his creativity was coming from somewhere fresh and different.  

I asked him if he would tell me his story. Here is what he said:
"On the streets for years an alcoholic and a drug addict, I was walking across Westminster Bridge one evening when I met a girl who was desperate for drugs. I felt so sorry for her that I gave her the drugs I had for myself. I did go and buy some more, but for some reason I couldn’t take them and threw them in the river. A few evenings later I’m sitting in a shop doorway and this man tries to give me a leaflet and I said to him, ‘It’s no good giving that to me, mate. I can’t read or write.’ He asked me if I wanted to learn and, I said, ‘Sure.’ And for three months, he came every week to teach me to read and write. At the end he asked me to join some religious group that he was part of, but I said, 'No, it didn’t feel right so now I spend my time reading and writing poetry.'"
I left Jamie touched and moved by his story and also in no doubt about the power of compassion. My regret is that I never asked him for one of his poems. The last I heard about him was that he was reading English at Cambridge University. I believe that the compassion he showed to a stranger turned his life around in such a dramatic way.

The value of compassion is widely recognized and there is even a specific therapy called compassion focussed therapy. There is also a Charter for Compassion, which has over 100,000 signatures, but if you look at the world, it doesn't seem it's becoming more compassionate.

There is a disconnect between knowing we should be more compassionate and not being so, which begs the question why? What is it that stops us from being more compassionate? One reason might be because we are just too self-absorbed, so much so that we just don't see the other, never mind act with compassion. But rather than labeling our entire species as selfish, could it be that we are naturally compassionate, but showing compassion is painful, especially when we can't do anything about it. So we close this aspect of ourselves down. This is why many spiritual awakening experiences result in compassion — the flowering of that which is already within.


  1. Thank you mehru I do appreciate your comment

  2. It actually might interest you that numerous studies have directly linked compassion with spirituality. Spiritual people have a much greater tendency to be compassionate to their peers
    Saslow, L. R., John, O. P., Piff, P. K., Willer, R., Wong, E., Impett, E. A., & ... Saturn, S. R. (2013). The social significance of spirituality: New perspectives on the compassion–altruism relationship. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, 5(3), 201-218. doi:10.1037/a0031870

    Abstract of a sample study:
    In the current research we tested a comprehensive model of spirituality, religiosity, compassion, and altruism, investigating the independent effects of spirituality and religiosity on compassion and altruism. We hypothesized that, even though spirituality and religiosity are closely related, spirituality and religiosity would have different and unique associations with compassion and altruism. In Study 1 and 2 we documented that more spiritual individuals experience and show greater compassion. The link between religiosity and compassion was no longer significant after controlling for the impact of spirituality. Compassion has the capacity to motivate people to transcend selfish motives and act altruistically toward strangers. Therefore, we reasoned that spirituality (but not religiosity) would predict altruistic behavior and that compassion would help explain this link. Indeed, in Studies 3, 4, and 5 we found that more spiritual individuals behaved more altruistically in economic choice and decision-making tasks, and that the tendency of spiritual individuals to feel greater compassion mediated the spirituality-to-altruism relationship. In contrast, more religious participants did not consistently feel more compassion nor behave more altruistically. Moreover, in Studies 3 and 4 we found that the broader traits of Agreeableness, Openness, and Extraversion did not help explain why more spiritual individuals behaved more altruistically. Our findings argue that spirituality—above and beyond religiosity—is uniquely associated with greater compassion and enhanced altruism toward strangers. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved) (journal abstract)

    So research does prove your point that there is a very real connection between spirituality and compassion. I read numerous cases of people who took DMT, had a spiritual experience and became more compassionate as a result of it.