Compassion and Spirituality

The Compassion of Animals

Reading ahead, this book demonstrates several examples of compassion both to and from animals. Even early in the novel Patel explains how, “dogs are sometimes used as foster mothers for lion cubs. Though the cubs grow to become larger than their caregiver, and far more dangerous, they never give their mother trouble and she never loses her placid behavior or her sense of authority over her litter.” (p.85) Late in this first section of the novel.

A dog acting with motherly love towards a lion cub.

Patel recognizes the human like characteristics in animals that most of us would only label as “human traits.” He defines a “need of companionship” and the ability to think and feel, at least to a small extent, in animals. (p. 86) Patel demonstrates a simply amazing desire to do good in his world even at a young age. He is quite the role model. While Pi understands the logistics of his father’s trade, he still sees the “animal equivalent of anthropomorphism: zoomorphism…” (p.84) between the animals he tends for. He goes on to point out the story, “of drowning sailors being pushed up to the surface of the water and held there by dolphins, a characteristic way in which these marine mammals help each other.” (p. 84) Perhaps his desire for spiritual morality has something to do with his awareness of animal compassion.

Here is a video of a dolphin saving a woman from a shark. Ignore the french text, you can still understand the video:

Common Ground in Spirituality
Pi Patel finds happiness through several means as evidenced by the anecdotes given in the first part of the novel. A young Pi cannot help but admire the high standards of morality outlined by the Hindu, Islam and Christian faiths. In the mind of Pi, ” religion is about our dignity, not our depravity.” (p. 71) His view reminds me of a talk I had with a professor here not too long ago. I will leave his name a mystery, but the otherwise cynical and overly rational professor and I had a wonderful talk about spirituality that we shared and the search for spirituality amongst other people. In the course of our talk, we came to the realization that we were both Catholic. We talked only a couple minutes about the search for humility and compassion that the faith searches for through theological means. However, most of our time was spent extending our own faiths to discover more

Pi grasps coexistence better than his older community.

about the general hunt for contentment shared between all living creatures. An agreement was made between us that a common shedding of transitory, or worldly, concerns, is shared between most major religions. Whether it be the Tibetan monks, Catholic nuns, or Islamic devouts, many spend years trying to achieve this “inner peace.” Personally, I feel that the means to do this rests in the one divine concept fully expressed here on our imperfect world. Love. Our culture has made the word a trite, overused explanation for things both good and bad. Nonetheless, the concept of compassion through love is a similarity often ignored to spend time invigorating the differences between people of varying faiths.

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Published in: on January 28, 2010 at 3:52 am  Leave a Comment  


Dass uses the seventh chapter of his novel, “How Can I Help?” to recognize our personal struggles and “burnouts”, as indicated by the title of the chapter. While the book talks about the good that arises out of helping others, Dass is clever to explain how our own difficulties affect our ability to ameliorate the difficulties of others. The idea is best described by an article I read in my Plan II TC, Pathways to Civic Engagement.

The article is titled, “No one knows what could be happening to those kids.” It follows the day to day job of Randy, the head CPS worker in Travis County. The article makes use of several heart wrenching stories including sexually and physically abused toddlers, infants within inches of death, and young adolescents

The large amount of child abuse in Texas overwhelms CPS workers.

struggling in the most despicable of settings. The article spends a lot of time explaining how the mass volume of cases breaks down most of the workers in the CPS. While most of the CPS workers have degrees in social work and have a deep desire to help the helpless, it is easy for them to “burnout.”

Although most of us carry a lighter burden than ensuring the welfare of dozens of abused children, we have endured this kind of fall from our desire to provide service to others. (or at least will one day). It is difficult when “helping out gets heavy. The care of others starts to be real work. A growing burden of personal responsibility leads to exhaustion and frustration.” (p.184)

Another problems lies in the fact that great helpers put themselves in the shoes of those they are helping. Imagine a nurse who cannot only feel sympathy for the patients she treats, but can perfectly relate to them on an empathetic level. The burden is immense, and the toll is even greater. We can see this need for distance in a several professional settings. “Whether we’re professionals working a sixty-hour week or simply family members called upon to care daily for a sick relative, facing suffering continuously is no small task. We learn the value of recognizing our limits, forgiving ourselves our bouts of impatience or guilt, acknowledging our own needs.” (p. 186)

Dass mentions a nurse becoming “sick of sick people.”

I’ve often heard the phrase, “you have to love yourself before you can fully love another.” To some extent, I think this is true. If you are miserable yourself, your skills would not be put to your best use in helping others. It would be wise to compose yourself first, and then, with love and compassion, help others. Dass states that, “as we reach a deeper sense of who we are, we discover how much more we have to give.” (p.187) The difficulty lies in the fact that great service arises out of great passion, yet a great emotional toll arises out the same passion.

Mother Teresa found her passion through her faith, and touched the lives of peoples of varying faiths by doing so. But even so, the countless suffering she saw shook the foundations of her faith and her willingness to serve. Ultimately, she overcame her “fall” and returned to her service centered life:

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 10:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

I Can Hear Clearly Now ♫

Dass approaches listening almost like that of an art. When sculpting, you would not start with a battered stone. When making a mural, you would not start with a graffiti filled wall. When drawing, you would not start on a eraser marked paper. Likewise, Dass calls for a kind of purity of mind and soul when listening. As stated in Siddhartha, “listen with a still heart, with a waiting open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgement, without opinions.”(p.112) While reading the book, I could not help but recognize and admire the religious overtones, especially the Buddhist ones.

The story of the agent in Thailand who became a monk and devoted his life to rehabilitating addicted drug abusers spoke of a kind of powerful, “good” presence. The ambassador in the anecdote described meeting him as “shaking hands with an oak tree. His presence…immensely powerful and solid.”

The monk's presence was like that of an oak tree.

(p. 95) After reading the story, I spent over an hour informally researching the superhuman heat producing capabilities of the Tibetan monks, the insanely powerful movements of the Shaolin monks, and the movement of qi (chi) that in Chinese culture, is the energy flow in all living things that provides such power. For a split second, I recalled Goku’s spirit bomb creation in the Dragonball Z series, but I quickly refocused my attention to the possibility of embracing this energy ands its positive effects on my mind, body, and soul. I actually put down the book, closed my laptop, got out of my chair and sat on the floor. I then proceeded to place my awkwardly inflexible body in a cross-legged position, closed my eyes, and brought myself to a kind of simple meditation. It seems weird, but who was I to question the techniques of the ancient traditions of the great Tibetan monks.

The meditation of Tibetan Monks:

At this point, I could at the very least, recognize the benefit in clearing away all transitory and personal thoughts. Although clearing one’s mind helps lay a foundation for becoming a good listener, Dass also points to other important steps in doing so: “First, we have to appreciate the value of such qualities of mind and desire to develop them. Next, we have to have faith in the possibility that we can indeed make progress. Finally, we have to explore and practice appropriate techniques.”(p. 109) All in all, I feel that letting go of our ego and our own concerns is the hardest part in creating a clear heart and allowing yourself to fully serve others.

While contemplating this, I considered the job of a psychologist. How can I psychologist truly help you, if they are silently thinking about dinner hours later. It can be argued that the psychologist must step in the shoes of the person they are diagnosing. In fact, they must do more. They must walk around in their shoes, interact with the people they encounter every day, read their mind-from their own first person perspective! The idea of seeing someone’s life from their own point of view is already a hard task. However, to not only see this perspective, but to understand somebody’s perspective on their own being, requires perhaps more wisdom than knowledge. It requires one to “sense the totality of situations and allow insight to come into play.” (p. 117) The task required to become a good listener can be worded simply: “clear your mind and heart,” but to do so requires so much more.

When it comes to listening, Psychologists have a hard job.

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Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  

The Formation of Unity and the Elimination of Suffering

Unity and Self-image

Spiritual teacher and leader Ram Dass uses the second chapter to define our own self image and how it affects our relationships with others. While Dass admits that our own titles and egos allow us to connect better to the experiences of those similar to us, Dass argues that our egos ultimately hamper our ability to serve others. Personally, I have seen this issue arise on several occasions. Consider our class discussions regarding empathy towards non-human beings. Whether we were discussing the rights of fictional humanoid androids, or the rights of animals, we could, at the very least, acknowledge the failure of people to act on compassion based on differences. It is hard to ignore the overwhelming amount of people unwilling to serve because they are unwilling to resolve differences and aim for unity. Unity…it was a major goal Dass believed all people should aim for. Dass explains the purpose of egos when he pointedly argues that “with increasing perspective,

In "The Bucket List," Freeman, like the patient in the anecdote, finds happiness even nearing death.

we can see that all of our ego identities, models, and self-images can be useful, but need not be entrapping. We gain this perspective very slowly but the direction is clear.” (p. 34) The story of a young doctor who treats “a black man in his sixties-very cute,very mischievous, and very sick.” As the doctor grows closer to the patient, he ultimately dissolves the “confinement as narrow, limited, isolated entities.” The doctor cleverly expresses such disintegration when he states, “for years, I’d trained to be a physician, and I almost got lost in it.” (p.31) Dass makes an excellent point by referencing the Marx Brothers. Groucho and Harpo laugh off “portrayals of humanfoolishness,” and recognize the importance of “com[ing] off self-image.” (p. 33) Besides tossing of the chains of self declaration, Dass even touches on spirituality as he talks about some “essence of Being which is in all things-call it God, Life, Energy Consciousness-as open to all that as we are in ourselves, so we have it to share with one another.” (p. 50) By tapping into this divine energy, we can step away from the road blocks of self concern and achieve a sense of unity by which we can all help each other.

It may seem like an odd reference, but Dass uses the Marx Brothers to teach us to laugh at our own egos.


In his third chapter, Dass analyzes the interaction between the mind and the heart regarding mankind’s responses to the suffering of others.  Dass believes that “Denial, abstraction, pity, professional warmth, compulsive hyperactivity: these are a few of the ways in which the mind reacts to suffering and attempts to restrict or direct the natural compassio

We too often weight too many of our decisions using logic rather than our heart.

n of the heart.” (p. 64) To some extent, Dass has hit the nail on the head. For most intellects, the mind is the key to all knowledge, wisdom, and even happiness. For many scientific people, everything and everyone can be explained by means of logic and observation. However, just as we too often ignore the emotional intelligence, we also tend to ignore the callings of the heart. Our mind uses these distractions to hack away at our heart’s natural instincts. Dass also explains situations in which we cannot ameliorate the suffering of others. In these saddening situations, “we can only be, and be with the person in his or her pain, attending to the quality of our own consciousness.” (p. 88) I find this quote to serve as further evidence concerning the importance of empathy in dealing with suffering.

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 12:47 am  Leave a Comment