Women and the Discipline of Compassion

The thing I love best about feminist theology is how easy it is to describe to someone who has never heard of it. Feminist theology is about humanization. It is about taking the focus off of the abstract and instead attending to the daily existence of all human beings. It is rejecting abstract dogmatic concepts in favor of praxis. Of course, the impulse to living in a feminist theological context is found in compassion. It is through compassion that we are led to reject damaging dogma. It is in compassion that we find our deepest and most generous theological impulses.

And yet, I’m convinced that compassion is still something we don’t quite get. We use the word as though it means mercy. But does it? Mercy, to me, implies a power relationship. The oppressed cry for it and the oppressor grants it (or does not). Mercy does not require “com” (together) “passion” (suffering). It requires only will. Others believe that compassion is a synonym for kindness. But kindness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. From where does it spring?

Compassion, actually suffering WITH someone, is quite hard to come by. I don’t mean by this that most people in this world are shitty, just that we’ve come up with less difficult ways to engage with others, ways that allow us to keep a degree of healthy distance. The trouble with compassion is that it can only really take place through an emptying of self combined with the desire to fully love the other – much like Christ did. And although we laud this ideal, how can we, as twenty-first century people, really get on board with letting go of the “I” so that we can love more fully? How is it possible to let go of our precious egos?

What IS the “I”? As a post-enlightenment people, we tend to equate our mind with “I”. Our likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts – those are all what make me me. And yet, wise people throughout the centuries have not thought so and have believed that discipline through meditation can teach a person to shed this illusive sense of “I”, what we now call the ego, in favor of a more universal “I” that is no “I” at all.

Here is an experiment. Take a moment right now to observe your thoughts. Right now, mine are telling me that I probably appeared like a total nutcase to the person with whom I just had a meeting. There is also a voice telling me that that is nuts, that I’m proud of how different I am and that I was just fine. In fact, there are several voices in my head judging the event and creating a narrative.

So, tell me, if I am my thoughts and feelings, then who is the “I” observing them? Who is saying, “I am thinking that so-and-so probably thinks I’m crazy.” Who is this “I” that is not making judgments about anything but merely observing what is going on in my head? I have no answer to that, nor does anyone else. And yet, it is this “I behind the I” that is observational and free of judgment that we really need if we are to truly become compassionate people. You can’t just decide for compassion, you have to make it into a discipline and learn to be at home with this hidden “I”. You must be able to separate your identity from your thoughts and emotions. Buddhists know this. Saints know this.

Emptying yourself so that you can fully experience the suffering of others has often been a trait universally ascribed to women. After all, isn’t one of the complaints we have against sexism that women are expected to abandon or sacrifice themselves for others? And if we have been socialized to do this, aren’t we automatically more compassionate as a gender? I argue that no, we aren’t, and that is simply because compassion as a practice demands an intentionality fully centered in a desire to love and understand another. When we empty ourselves as a social obligation, we are not fully intentional. Moreover, the kind of “compassion” we perform in this example does not necessarily require a true emptying but rather a denial of ourselves. Finally, abandoning self for others in this sense does not rely on the “I behind the I” but rather on the “I” constructed in our egos and social identities.

When women practice compassion as an intentional act, this emptying of self is done not as a gendered sacrifice of all she is, but as a spiritual practice of discovering her true self and that of the other person. Moreover, practicing the “I behind the I” helps her to develop self-compassion which is then passed on to her companion in a gift of true connection. Thus, practicing true compassion enables self-knowledge, self-compassion, connection, and healing – all goals of feminist theology.

It is when we can become self-knowing and self-compassionate that we can fully enter into the experience (have compassion with) another and it is that experiencing from which theology is born. Good theology is not made in universal decrees and inflexible dogma. It is born in experience and built from the ground up.




Resting In Myself


For my birthday, I gave myself the gift of a weekend silent retreat at a local retreat center. I’ve been on many retreats but never a private one so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. My regular spiritual director recommended someone to be my temporary director while I was away and this person was very helpful. She gently recommended that I think about not doing all the writing I was planning on doing during my stay and that instead I consider a silent retreat.

A silent retreat is not quite what you might think it is. It’s about way more than not talking. A silent retreat is also about silence of the mind. So, while I wouldn’t be talking (except for when meeting with my spiritual director  once each day), I would also not be reading or doing anything else that could distract me from interior listening. The only exception I made was for a short period of spiritual reading before bed each night because I’m Autumn and I can’t just not read. When I wasn’t meeting with my spiritual director, I would be in contemplation. Basically, I meditated and drank a ton of tea for three days and it was fucking glorious.

And what did I learn? I learned (with some help from my  temporary spiritual director) that I have a deep, deep tendency to not trust myself, my thoughts, or my experiences.  If something unjust has happened in my life, my reaction is to brush it aside because I don’t want to think that I’m a victim or to sound whiny. I mean, worse things happen to other people, right? And if something great happens, I am cautious, believing that what I’m experiencing is probably not what it seems. When I have ideas, I tend to dismiss them as “stupid”, “weird”, or “crazy” because there have been important people in my life who have pathologized my eccentricity as mental illness and, though I and professionals reject that idea, the pain of it sticks in my mind.  When reflecting on my calling, I cannot hear the voice of what some may call God because why would God speak to me? Surely she’s got better people to talk to, people who aren’t crazy. What I hear must be only the promptings of my own self-interest or nutty ramblings.

The problem with not trusting yourself, aside from the obvious, is that it does block the inner voice that is calling you into being, or, at best, it muffles it. It has been nearly impossible for me to work out my calling, to be able to identify what is genuine from what are simply just thoughts hanging out in my mind. How do I know that I’m onto something if I’m basically just a crazy person with no sense of reality? This lack of trust in myself is not the same thing as Impostor Syndrome but something much deeper and far-ranging. It also extends beyond the mind to my body. I’ve lived my entire life deliberately blocking out the experiences of my body (well, some of them anyway) and this has led to a complete mind/body disconnect that is only now being slowly repaired through meditation and my powerlifting obsession. I’ve had a daily meditation practice for almost three years now. I’ve repaired some small bits of the disconnect between my mind and my body but I still don’t really trust that my uniqueness is not sickness. No matter how many times therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have told me that I’m not ill, the shock of those other memories stays lodged there, allowing me to subtly undermine my best self.

Well, it seems that the medicine for such distrust and disconnection is to spend three days in solitude and silence of both body and mind. To be honest, though I enjoy talking, silence is not difficult or uncomfortable for me, so that aspect of the retreat was pretty easy. After all, I prefer lots of alone time. The harder part was silence of the mind. My brain is pretty much working ALL THE TIME and I am always thinking and reading, two  habits I had to put aside for the weekend. Instead, I spent a lot of time sitting in the chapel on the second floor, just trying to be open, receptive, and compassionate with myself. In the Christian tradition, we call this waiting with openness “contemplation” which may confuse some people who view contemplation as intense thinking. But contemplation as many of us practice it, is simply being able to be present to your internal and external circumstances, open and without judgement. I don’t go into a trance or try to block out thoughts, rather I allow the thoughts to come and I also allow them to float away, much like leaves in a stream, without trying to hold onto them or judge them or myself. This practice, like exterior silence, is also easy for me. That is, it is easy when I am actively in a state of contemplation. It becomes far more difficult for me to transfer all of this to the rest of my day and, especially, to how I see my own worth as an eccentric in a “normal” world. When not sitting in active contemplation, I found myself having small bouts of anxiety that were largely due to my not being able to constantly distract my mind with reading and other things I use to make blending into life easier for myself. But it was because of those moments of anxiety that I knew the work was being done. The anxiety was the point! I needed to learn to be with my anxiety, to feel it, to accept it lovingly as what just is, and then allow it to wash over and beyond me. Then, I simply needed to listen and trust.

The interesting thing was that by the time I met with my temporary director on that last day, I had finally found the courage to trust myself and to make a pretty goddamn huge decision. I hadn’t come to the retreat to make the decision. I figured that the decision would be a long time forming, as they usually are. But what I realized on the night before that last meeting with my director was that I had made the decision long before, but that I just hadn’t trusted myself to really own it. Spending time in active contemplation, facing the issue of my distrust head-on, and working to bring the lovingkindness of contemplation to my everyday life had laid bare to me what should have been obvious had I not been busy undermining and distracting myself, trying to prove to myself and others that I am sane and uninteresting.

And now I’m back home. I have noticed just this week that I am much more confident about my ability to order my inner life without the negative judgments and armchair diagnosing of others. It’s going to be a lifelong journey. After all, I have 38 years of these judgments and diagnosis to exorcise.