bleak compassion

Another fine day, but caught in smog that has moved in from the continent, so maybe no long trips out today. But even though I am retired, I still like Fridays.

Many mornings I wake up with a slight sense of dread or unease. No specific reason, I think it is just part of life, and you feel better as you wake up and get into your day. But I like to meditate on the feeling, and why I am feeling it (or anything else), in that time immediately after waking. Not analysing it, but feeling back to its associations.

I have a quite bleak view of life, which is to say part wonder and sheer immersion in the beauty of embodied existence, and part bleakness as to any of the moral and spiritual narratives we invent and choose to believe (though I have nothing against make believe in itself, I can assure you). It’s good if you make it good, but no, you’re not hanging there, suckling on God’s tit, and I really don’t think it’s a “school” of any sort. If existence were moral, it would be the creation of an immensely skilled psychopath, but I don’t think there was any “creator”, so we don’t have to bother with that too much. It’s in that sense that I still appreciate parts of Buddhism, for its appreciation of the ubiquity of suffering. I used to be very taken with the whole “bodhisattva” principle, deferring a posited liberation for when all beings could be liberated¹; but I have to say now that I just want people to have as much choice as possible. Be free to learn your own truth, and live accordingly. Though I would not subscribe to it in its fullness, Theravada Buddhism still has some appeal, in its stripped down unsentimentality:

“Theravada Buddhism emphasises attaining self-liberation through one’s own efforts. Meditation and concentration are vital elements of the way to enlightenment”

entry on the BBC Religions page

I might not go by the teachings, but I like the “life is suffering – here’s how you stop it – all up to you” approach. It’s like Exit for the human condition.

As you get used to the bleakness of things (which doesn’t preclude pleasure, enjoyment and creativity), you actually find people, society, life, easier to put up with. No point whining, and they’re all suffering anyway. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to put “trigger warnings” on my life, or “check my privilege” (get a grip people, the situation is much much worse than that), but seeing as the game is over and it’s all up to you, you notice more.

Compassion is not an absolute virtue, and certainly not an emotional one in the way we often imagine. In the qabalah the two sides of the tree of life are termed the pillar of severity and the pillar of mercy. It is possible to be merciful from a position of strength, and it is the strength (or severity) that defines the possibility of mercy. This is what people forget when they talk about “religions of peace and mercy” – they’re not talking Godspell (so don’t be surprised when they turn out to also be violent*). Compassion is not born of good intentions and gentleness, and if it is ineffective, then it is an emotional or intellectual indulgence. But there is such a thing as unsentimental empathy, and it can make life considerably more at peace with its reality, which is to say make us more at peace, which also makes us rather more effective.

Blissed out it ain’t, but it is aware of the bottom line, and just somewhat clearer.

National Museum of Crime and Punishmen – Hangman Rope from Don Jail 1915 – by David from Washington, DC (_MG_5867) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

¹ There is actually a broader definition of the bodhisattva, but the meaning I learnt when I was younger had greater reference to the vow to reincarnate until all beings were liberated, probably I think from the Mahayana school.

* I’m not saying people should accept religious violence, quite the opposite, just don’t get taken in by the rhetoric of religious “peace”.


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