Feeding the Field
A Sermon to Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
Sunday, November 5, 2017
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
A Universal Spiritual Theme
For those of you who do not know me, my community ministry is a practice of medical hypnotism. A recurring theme in this work is that many people find themselves in a place where they are over-caring about other people. They do more than they should for others and as a result become de-energized, depressed and sick.
I often find myself talking to a frustrated client who says something like, “Well, what am I SUPPOSED to be feeling about other people?” Or, “Every time I try to help someone I end up getting taken. How are we supposed to live if everyone else is trying to take advantage?”
Over the centuries spiritual leaders have attempted to answer questions like that. Some answers have emphasized righteousness and rule-based relating to others. Some have recommended a more subjective approach, talking about “loving” others according to varying definitions of the word “love.”
In my opinion the religious teaching of some of the foremost prophets—people such as Jesus or Buddha—is misunderstood. I’ve spoken before about how their teachings have been mistranslated in an unhealthy way, and that people are taught to perform what I call “acts of self-destructive love.”
So, I’ve long looked for a better answer to the question about how we are supposed to feel and do about others who are not our intimates. While we may choose to help other people, or take care of them, or forgive them, I don’t believe we are ethically obligated to do any of those things.
What Compassion Means
The best and healthiest response I’ve seen is to answer that question with the word “compassion.” We are ethically obligated to treat each other with compassion. But that does not imply rescue or forgiveness. Let me explain.
Compassion merely means responding to the struggles of another with care and warmth. It means you strive to regard everyone with a positive regard. However, it does not imply that you do anything in particular about that positive regard.
In the legends of Jesus and Buddha left to us as examples, they always can be seen to observe that limit.
Compassion is care without over-care. It is positive affirmation of another without setting yourself up for abuse. It’s care with a built-in limit, and that limit is that you are not obligated to forgive or rescue someone from non-physical peril.
Note that qualifier. Of course we all should help someone in physical peril such as drowning, or being caught in a fire or things like that.
There is a story about a Western Buddhist woman was in India that illustrates this nicely. She was riding with another woman friend in a rickshaw-like carriage, when the friend was attacked by a man on the street. In the end, the attacker only succeeded in frightening the women, but the Buddhist woman was quite upset by the event and told her teacher so. She asked him what she should have done - what would have been the appropriate, the Buddhist teacher responded very simply by saying, "You should have very mindfully, and with great compassion, whacked the sucker over the head with your umbrella.”
Of course we should act in such circumstance.
I am talking about the danger of the unhealthy belief that you have an obligation to rescue people from chronic problems and situations they have created for themselves.
Now, I said we are not obligated. If someone is in hardship, you may feel compassion, and because you are in a generous place you may choose to lend a hand, or to forgive or even rescue. But that’s a choice you are making, not an obligation and it is separable from compassion.
The obligation ends once you have regarded someone with the respect and care due another human being. That is all anyone is ethically obligated to do. Compassion.
If you routinely do more—if you are always trying to rescue others, I think you are on an unhealthy path.
When we see someone who has taken on too much and is suffering from what is commonly called “burn out” and what counselors call “compassion fatigue,” that’s the path they’ve been on and they need to get off.
That’s why I said earlier that compassion is care, without over-care. It is the positive affirmation of another without setting yourself up for abuse because of the built in limit. One is not obligated to rescue another from non-physical peril.
Jesus and Buddha
The importance of compassion as the baseline ethical value turns out to be a core message of two of the religious leaders I admire the most, Jesus and Buddha.
In 1999 the late biblical scholar Marcus Borg published a book entitled Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. Just as the title suggests the book has on facing pages a teaching attributed to Jesus and on the opposite page a matching saying from the Buddha.
The striking point is that in most cases the teachings are essentially identical. In fact, it is likely that the image we have of each man may, to some extent, be a composite of stories about other.
Most scholars believe that Buddha was born about six centuries before Jesus, with writing about him appearing about 500 years later—approximately at the time of the life of Jesus.
It is now clear that many of the early Christians knew about Buddha. Both St. Jerome and Clement of Alexandra actually mention Buddha in their writings. It’s also clear that Nestorian Christianity, one of the popular Christian movements that sprung up along the Silk Road, was heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings, and in fact there were Buddhist missionaries all over the Greco-Roman world at the time Christianity was moving from being a Jewish reform movement to a faith open to anyone, and at about the time the Gospels were written.
In the art of the period this overlap is seen. Both men were said to have miraculous conceptions. In the slide on the right you see a depiction of the “miraculous impregnation” of Mary the mother of Jesus by the Holy Spirit symbolized as a white light.
On the left you see a depiction of the dream of Queen Maya, the mother of the Buddha, on the night she conceived, where according to the legend:
“In her dream, she heard the angels tell her to lie down on the couch to rest. Presently, she saw a pure white elephant (a symbol of greatness in that culture) quietly enter the room. Gentle as an angel he seemed as he came up to her couch and stood beside her. On the end of his trunk he carried a large lotus flower, white as the cleanest snow, and he gave it to the Queen…That very moment when the Queen took the flower, the room was filled with a heavenly light.”
There are many similarities in the legends as well.
- Both went to their temples at 12 years of age and astonished the elders with their knowledge.
- Both fasted in solitude before spiritual maturity. Jesus for 40 days, Buddha for 47.
- Both were about the same age when they began their public ministry.
- Both were said to be tempted by evil spirits at the beginning of their ministry.
- Buddha said he was the latest in a long line of enlightened spiritual teachers. Jesus said he had not come to overturn the previous prophets but to fulfill them.
- When Buddha died it is said the covering of his body unrolled and the lid of his coffin rose because of supernatural power so his followers could view him. When Jesus died it is said that his tomb was opened by a spiritual power, his shroud fell away and be came forth so others could see him.
And on, and on and on.
No scholar believes that Jesus and Buddha were actually the same person, but increasingly it is obvious that the stories and legends about them that were rattling around the ancient Near East got tangled up together. The reason this happened is because while there are enormous metaphysical differences in the theology of Jesus and Buddha, there is almost an identical match in their practical teachings. They both urged that we be compassionate to others as the core of their ethical teachings.
Jesus called it Agape, meaning un-self interested affection. The term Buddha used is usually translated as “loving kindness.” Both very similar concepts.
Or, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” The core value is compassion, not rescue, not forgiveness and not self-destructive love.
However, there is a recommendation in the teaching of both of these great people that there is one sort of action which is implied by the feeling of compassion, and it may be the purest form of action the arises from compassion. Both Jesus and Buddha recommend doing random act of kindness—acts of compassion for no particular reason not with any expectation of recognition. I agree.
The Science Involved
Whenever you find similar practices in different cultures there is usually a rational reason for them that you can ferret out. In the case of compassion, there has been a lot of psychological and anthropological research done. Compassion is good for you in a way over-care is not. We thrive when we are compassionate—following that built in limit of not rescuing except in cases of physical peril.
First, when you engage in an act of compassion, your body changes for the better. Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin has found that the brain responds differently when we do something for compassionate reasons than for hedonistic reasons. Both produce positive emotions, but the positive emotions from pleasure are fleeting whereas the positive emotions from compassionate behavior lasts. (You can read more about that here.)
Moreover, those emotions stimulate your body’s production of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” a hormone that makes us feel wanted and secure. The physical result of this hormone is to boost cardiovascular function and health. It protects again heartbreak, both in the emotional sense and in the sense of medical heart failure.
Nicole Karlis, author of a recent New York Times article “Why Doing Good is Good for the Do-Gooder” writes of an anxiety attack experienced while in India. She paid for a consultation with a Vedic Astrologer and received an unusual prescription. She was told to buy a black and white checkered blanket and then to visit a leper colony and to give the blanket to the first person she saw. Then, she was to buy a six-pound bag of lentils, spin it around her head while reciting a mantra and then give it to a homeless person. That astrologer treated her anxiety by telling her to engage in random acts of kindness.
There is even something that is being called “the helper’s high,” an actual physical sensation associated with being kind. Half the participants in a major study reported themselves feeling stronger, calmer and happier after engaging in a few random acts of kindness. Such acts appear to trigger the brain’s reward center and creates a literal “dopamine-mediaed euphoria.” (You can read more about that here.)
The Compassion Field
In my opinion the best research into mind-body interactions is being done by the HeartMath Institute of Bolder, California (full disclosure, I hold credentials with them).
For more than twenty years the Institute has explored the physical aspects of the emotional connection between people. In a study published in 1998 titled “The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People” the researchers showed that electromagnetic energy produced in the human body when the subject was engaged in acts of kindness could be detected in the bodies of others in the area, calling forth like behavior from them. (You can read more here.)
Your neurological system generates electrical energy, in HeartMath lingo, a local field energy that can be measured with magnetometer technology (I have such a device in my office). The field measured is created is by the heart, as that field is one hundred times the strength of the field created by the brain. To measure the field produced by the brain it is necessary to attach electrodes directly to the skull, while the field of the heart can be measured at least a meter out from the body.
This means that acts of kindness and compassion are actually contagious. When you engage in random acts of kindness with no expectation of personal reward, you call forth similar behavior from others. This is done not only by social example (“monkey see, monkey do”) but you are actually broadcasting a measurable signal from your body’s own electromagnetic energy that others detect and may respond to.
This is perhaps why we feel better when in the company of like minded people. It’s why some people can transform the feeling of a room simply by being there. It’s why people will travel for hours to listen to a spiritual leader or artistic performer in person, rather than just watching on YouTube.
The energy of the speaker, picked up and amplified by the others in the area can become almost intoxicating.
Perhaps that’s why many of us feel less depressed during holidays or sacred seasons, because we are surrounded by other people who feel joyous or strong. The energy is contagious.
The Good News
As researchers have poured over these studies speculation has grown that their might be a larger energetic phenomena involved. Perhaps we can think of our world as has a “compassion field” generated by the acts of compassion by people the world over. Each time one of us does something compassionate we “feed the field” and make it a little bit easier for other people to also be compassionate.
I’ve adopted this in my own inner narrative and when I do something I feel good about I think of it as “feeding the field” and perhaps helping to make the whole world a little bit better.
The Dark Side
But, as in Star Wars, there is a dark side. If you have ever seen the 1935 propaganda movie Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl which glorified the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, attended by more than 700,000 supporters of Adolph Hitler, you get a sense how unkind and dominating energy can also be contagious.
When you instinctively moderate what you say or do out of consideration for the impact it has on others, you do this because you recognize that other people are not robots and your words, energy and behaviors will have an impact on then. That’s compassion.
When our President moderates what he says to deliberately humiliate the people who disagree with him, he chooses his words as weapons. The size of his base shows us that petty nationalism is also contagious.
We are responsible for the energy we create, for it feeds an emotional field larger than ourselves and changes the world.
Be careful. Sometimes the emotional field generated by another person can suck one in.
Last month in the four free clinics I offer around Chicagoland for people living with cancer and their loved ones my topic was “Overcoming an Emotional Vampire.” I was amazed at the resonance this topic had with almost every one of the cancer patients I worked with.
An emotional vampire is a manipulative person who manipulates through passive aggression. Typically their lives are one long crisis state and their life goal is to share their drama with you—over and over again. If you do not play along they let you know that you are disappointing them and they attempt to shame you into giving them your time, energy, effort and often money.
Overcoming an emotional vampire requires not falling for their con. It means not being sucked in by the emotional atmosphere they project around them. One can be compassionate—that is, one can listen with warmth and care. But compassion never implies a duty to fix. The emotional vampire very much wants you to fix them by attempting to rescue, support or do the work for them. As poet John Ciardi puts it in his poem "In Place of a Curse:"
Let them all into Heaven -- I abolish Hell --
but let it be read over them as they enter:
"Beware the calculations of the meek, who gambled nothing,
gave nothing, and could never receive enough."
A Practical Spiritual Discipline
A lot of people tell me they would like to be more spiritual but don’t have the time to practice a specific spiritual method. It takes time to learn to meditate in order to feel calm. It takes practice to pray without boredom. It took me years to learn how to keep an effective journal.
But there is a simple spiritual discipline everyone has time to do, and the upcoming holiday season is a great time to do it. Practice random acts of kindness. Do something nice for another without expecting anything in return. Put a buck in the Salvation Army Kettle, let the cashier round up your purchase to send some money off to a good cause.
Feed the positive energetic field around you, and help others do that same. If some sort of planetary field exists, then you make that stronger. It doesn’t take any time at all, and Jesus and Buddha would be proud of you.
And that’s my sermon.