Fierce Compassion in the Anthropocene

By Willa Miller, via the Garrison Institute

During the winter season a few years ago, 108 inches of snow fell in Boston, breaking the record for the most seasonal snowfall in recorded history. And this snow, it did not melt. We watched it drift into six-foot banks in our backyard, burying our dwarf Japanese maple entirely.

Day after day dawned frigid, stinging our cheeks as soon as we walked out the door. Ice crystals grew from the eves. The sparrows fell more and more silent. The squirrels grew thin under their winter coats.

In Boston, we murmured aloud our worries about climate change, the at-risk homeless, and karma.

One morning, I walked from my house to the subway station along a paved bike trail. As I approached the station, a small huddled mass came into view right in the middle of the trail. Fast-walking commuters and the occasional intrepid cyclist weaved around this small figure, barely missing it as they passed.

As I approached, I saw it was a duck. Freezing, it had moved to the trail to huddle in a half-inch deep pool of water melted by the rock salt that had been strewn onto the trail to help the passage of commuters. Its wings were slightly spread, an attempt to capture whatever heat might be emitting from the pool of water.

I squatted for some time looking into one of its black eyes. It looked at me unafraid, perhaps because it could not move away from that puddle and still survive. I felt, for that minute, that the duck and I bonded as animals. In the end, fear wanes when it comes down to survival.

None of us know if the extreme winter of 2014 in New England was a result of climate change. Climate scientists tell us that we have rougher weather to look forward to. Other prognostications include the death of coral reefs, species extinctions, hotter summers, draughts, melting icecaps, and many other distressing possibilities.

To meet the impending future, much more will be needed than technological and engineering solutions. Much more will be needed than energy saving measures. It is time to stop and look into each other’s eyes, animal or human. It is time to look into the reality of the anthropocentric culture we have created.

To meet these conditions, we need to change the way that we live. We also need to change the way we conceive of ourselves as human beings. It is time to rethink our culture of independence and consider our interdependence.

Is it possible to restructure the human psyche for a new world, one that knows its own interdependence? Is it possible to revolutionize consciousness? These are questions that have long interested mystics and sages for the purposes of human enrichment and happiness. But what we believe, value, and prioritize becomes far more critical when the stakes includes survival of the planet as we know it.

In this new world, the tools and models developed within contemplative traditions have a great deal to offer. Meditative traditions have long explored the realm of consciousness transformation, with depth and precision. Contemplative traditions offer methods for self-cultivation, for resilience, and for turning ideas such as “interdependence” into a lived reality.

One such resource is the teachings on love, compassion, and altruism in the Buddhist tradition. Compassion teachings focus on the cultivation of empathy for all that lives, not only for the human race. When we extend empathy from our friends and neighbors to all that lives, our sense of moral responsibility widens dramatically. To act considering only the welfare of those nearby is not—within such a moral frame—enough, but we must rather consider the welfare of the planet and its creatures.

In the wisdom traditions of Asia, the idea compassion is different from our own cultural construct. Compassion, in these traditions, is not yielding or enabling. Compassion is strong and challenging by definition. The bodhisattva, an archetype of compassion, is often depicted as a powerful, courageous, and firm warrior. Sometimes compared to a mother’s love, the bodhisattva’s compassion is deep but fierce.

Four Ways Fierce Compassion Helps Us Move Towards Inclusive Altruism

Lately I have been thinking of the compassion we cultivate through Buddhist practice as fierce compassion. Fierce compassion is not mild. It is courageous and active. It upholds others in their deepest goodness, but challenges them when they fall away from it. Compassion of this sort implies that we can love others enough to tell them the truth.

Fierce compassion that is based in the contemplative perspective helps us to evolve towards inclusive altruism in four distinct ways.

Fierce compassion requires that we lean into our own shadow to see how we avoid truths within ourselves. Fierce compassion is introspective, and curious about our own darkness. Ultimately, we have to love our own darkness in order to work with it, and to hold ourselves accountable.

Even more broadly, this entails befriending our own experience. When we bring meditation into conversation with compassion, we must become willing to be truly present, in the simplest of ways. We cultivate an ability to stay here, with whatever is happening, and with whoever is present.

If what is happening is not pleasant, we gradually learn to come alongside the very states of suffering that we are in the habit of avoiding. We cannot develop a compassion practice without being intimate with our own suffering. In this way, fierce compassion begins with self-compassion.

Fierce compassion asks of us to extend love to those who is it not easy to love. It asks for us to suspend condemnation long enough so that we consider the humanity of those who have done us harm. When we consider their humanity, we, too, become humane.

Fierce compassion leans on a perspective of equanimity. It is broad. In this day and age, we need to broaden our sense of compassion, so that it becomes wide enough to embrace the earth as a whole organism. It is time to envision compassion beyond the traditional framework of humans and animals, to embrace plants and ecosystems.

Fierce compassion builds resilience. Contemplative practices of compassion rely on engaging with suffering as a method to transform it into joyful empathetic responsiveness. This process of transformation involves changing how we see ourselves in relationship to the world. Suffering as opportunity rather than burden.

These four dimensions of fierce compassion turn us towards some of the potentials of contemplative practice to revolutionize consciousness. To address the climate chaos and mass extinction that characterize our time, we will need to draw on our deepest resources. For better or worse, the evolution or devolution of our species rests in our collective hands. In the process of re-visioning who we are as human beings, dispositional compassion has a role to play.

Still, every winter as the first snow falls, I remember the eyes of my winged friend on the bike trail. They remind me that my responsibility as a human on this planet is not restricted to my own family and friends, or even to my own species. To be human is also to care. To be human is to exercise the ferocity of my compassion. Contemplative practices can help.

Willa B. Miller, PhD, is a dharma teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is the founder and Spiritual Director of Natural Dharma Fellowship in Boston, MA and its retreat center Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, NH. She is leading an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute with Colin Beavan, “Fierce Compassion: Where Activism Meets Spirituality,” on September 14-17.

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