Tilling Rocky Ground to Cultivate Compassion (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Meg Roberts, 30 April 2017

Unitarian church of montreal compassion

I remember it like yesterday: the first Unitarian service I ever attended. It was almost twenty-five years ago: that Victoria Day long weekend, the Canadian Unitarian Council annual meeting was held in Montreal (where I lived at that time). When I arrive, people are friendly---not saccharine-sweet friendly, but authentically friendly. During the service, I enjoy the ritual of lighting the chalice. Charles Eddis’ sermon is inspiring. It seems like a warm, spiritually-growing community. At the end of the service, the brass quintet breaks into a ragtime piece---and people spontaneously get up and start dancing! I think: these are my people. And they have been ever since. Little did I know that eleven years after that, I would be a minister in this spiritual movement. And on top of that, that I would be here serving this particular congregation as a sabbatical replacement minister for six months, while Ray Drennan (your then settled minister) was off on study leave.

I am so happy to join you as you celebrate your 175th anniversary as Canada’s oldest Unitarian congregation. It is fitting that this month’s theme is compassion. Because all those years ago, during my six months with you, I learned a lot about compassion.

I was first introduced to the idea of cultivating compassion by a Buddhist monk who taught the loving kindness meditation. How many of you know it? (hands) For those who don’t, it is called Metta Bharvana: in Pali ‘Metta’ is loving-kindness, and Bharvana is development or cultivation.  The way I was taught it, I could  use words and visualization through five different stages:

1 -  You begin by meditating on developing feelings of compassion for yourself.  
2 - Then focus on someone you who is dear to you.
3 – Next focus on a neutral person
--- someone you have no special feelings towards (say the person who works at the depanneur).
4 – Then focus on cultivating feelings of loving-kindness towards a difficult person –someone who you are presently having challenges with.
5 You begin to expand your awareness to all beings, taking the loving-kindness you have cultivated during your practice and offering it up for the well-being of all.

By regularly practicing how to cultivate compassion for yourself and others during meditation, you are better able to carry those feelings over into your daily life and act compassionately towards those you encounter.  

You’ll see in the order of service that we will sing a song called ‘Filled with Loving Kindness’---with words some use for this meditation:

May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be well. 
May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be whole.

As I think back to my short time here fourteen years ago, I see how seeds were sown for cultivating compassion towards those who are dear to me, those I find difficult, and towards myself. When we are sowing seeds, there are times when we hit rocks in the soil---it can be jarring. But it can be those rocks which, when we take them out and examine them, show us our depths, and in that process, create room for fertile soil to be cultivated. Compassion is the vital nutrient in soil that can nurture a vibrantly diverse garden of community.

I am intrigued by what emotion researchers have found:
Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” … [I]t is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering…
While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people. 

Lucky for me, those deep evolutionary purposes were at work when I landed in Montreal in January 2003. When I arrived, I was a brand-new minister. Your leaders gave me an amazing opportunity to come and learn with you. I wanted so much to do good work here.

Just out of curiosity, how many of you were in the congregation in 2003? And how many have gotten involved since then?

When I land at the airport, Frank and Carol Green are there to meet me. Frank is board president that year, both are longtime leaders in the congregation. They put me up for the night because I can’t yet get into my new apartment. So, we get to their home and have a chat; I want to make a good impression. Then I’m off to sleep; and in the middle of the night, I wake up with a nasty flu bug! They nurse me during its 24-hour duration. It is very humbling: as a new minister, I want to be there to care for them, and here they are caring for me! When I think of cultivating compassion towards those who are dear to me, it is easy to remember their loving-kindness. 

When I talk about someone who is dear to you, who comes to your mind? Inside yourself, without speaking, just say their name in your heart. Surround them with your loving-kindness. 

For many of us, one of the hardest parts of the loving-kindness meditation is to cultivate compassion for someone whom we see as difficult. That can include someone different from myself; because I may not understand those differences, I can find relating difficult. 

When I arrived to work with this congregation, I was particularly interested in how to be welcoming and inclusive of those who come from backgrounds other than the dominant ones in society. As a Euro-Canadian cisgender straight woman, I knew it was my responsibility to educate myself. 

I already knew Ray Drennan and others had created a bilingual worship resources book and a French Unitarian group. And that this congregation had become an official Welcoming Congregation in 1998 (a program developed for Unitarian Universalist congregations wanting to become more inclusive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) people).

Shortly after I arrived, I met Margot Hovey, a member of this congregation who was doing doctoral work on diversity and anti-racism. She facilitated a workshop with the Board in which we explored the perceptual filters through which we look at differences (such as age, race, sex, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and language). When we better understand what is at the heart of our cultural belief system, the better able we are to build bridges, manage conflict, and find common ground with others. 

Member Laura Greggain and I co-facilitated Weaving the Fabric of Diversity. This Unitarian Universalist program “is based on the belief that while each oppressed group has its own history and perspectives, some of the same dynamics are at the core of all oppression” (whether it is sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism).  

We were not the first to bring up issues of diversity, nor are we the last. They are some of the greatest challenges our Unitarian and Universalist movements have faced in our history and continue to face today. I have often seen in our congregations that it takes many attempts to work through these issues before we gain ground. I see many things have happened in these ensuing fourteen years. I’ll mention just a few.

I so appreciate how Diane and others have been integrating French in the services in various ways. When I was here fourteen years ago, I rarely heard French in coffee hour (unless two Francophones were speaking to each other). What I noticed was how often Francophone speakers would switch to English. How easy it would have been to hold it as an Anglophone oasis. And I can see how many of you really didn’t want to be part of that silo, and work to further break down those walls. Now, I hear English and French spoken here—in the sanctuary and in the hall. Ca, c’est magnifique!

Your congregation stood up to support the rights of other religious groups in 2014, when the provincial government wanted to ban those in public positions from wearing religious dress. I remember Diane’s letter about their Charter of Quebec Values being published in La Presse and The Gazette. Supporting your leaders to speak out is vital so the larger community knows what you stand for. When your congregation takes such a risk, you are a beacon for others across this land. The banner hanging out front of your building is a strong message of inclusivity: “Vivre Ensemble. Live in Harmony.”
I understand next Sunday’s service, you will be joining 500 Unitarian Universalist congregations across North America by having a teach-in on “Race, Diversity and Inclusion” in your case, followed by a workshop in the afternoon. It is an amazing opportunity that I hope you will participate in. 

Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield explains: “There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. This is said not out of hate but out of an unwavering care.” 

When I speak of someone who you are having difficulties with, who comes to your mind? Reach out to them with these words: “
May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be well. 
May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be whole.” 

The last part of reflecting about compassion is cultivating it towards myself---which I must say, I find the hardest stage. 

When I came to Montreal that January, I was experiencing a situational depression---the first I’d ever had. I had some heartache from the ending of a relationship in Edmonton, and it brought up unresolved grief about losing my mother from breast cancer when I was finishing high school. I also come from a long line of people who use work to avoid our emotions. (I’ve discovered that it actually doesn’t work that well! How many of you know what I’m talking about? Yeah….)

I wanted so much to do well in my ministry. I was afraid that if people knew I was suffering from depression, they would judge me negatively. Doubt my abilities. Second guess my choices. I was still getting use to the antidepressants I was on, and until my brain chemistry balanced out more, I was quite tired and needed to sleep a lot. But there was so much to do. I worked very hard, and played very little. 

I also admit that I felt shame: I took on the prejudices of the dominant culture, from my own British cultural heritage, that I should just be able to pull up my socks and get on with things. Interesting that I could easily feel compassion for others who were experiencing depression, but I couldn’t find that same compassion for myself.

I did have good support from friends, a wonderful counsellor, and colleagues. As I’ve heard said, ‘Better living through chemistry!’ The antidepressants helped. I also had wonderful role models who embodied compassion, such as Eleanor Beattie, a congregation member who was instrumental in L’Abri en Ville. I know this congregation has a long history supporting this organization which “provides a stable and fulfilling environment for persons with a mental illness through safe, affordable housing and inclusion in a community that supports their social, material and spiritual needs.” 

Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön says “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”  

Since that time in Montreal, I continue to work through my feelings of denial, shame and being hyper-critical of myself. The most important work I did with my counsellor has been growing the seeds of compassion in myself---I think of it as turning up the volume of the compassionate voice inside me so that I can hear it (and turning down the volume of the voice inside me that judges me harshly). Experiencing depression allowed me to come to know my own darkness and therefore be better able to be present for others’---sharing our common humanity. 

I imagine I am not alone in feeling the challenges of bringing compassion to myself. How many of you can relate to that? 
As we each would hold someone dear to us in our hearts, let us allow that care to flow towards ourselves:
May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well. 
May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be whol

The rocks we hit can show us our depths and create fertile soil for compassion. Fourteen years have gone by. I am not the minister I was. You are not the congregation you were. It is my belief we have both grown spiritually.

Compassion is based on relationship: with ourselves, with each other, with all beings. When we can feel in our very hearts, minds, bodies and souls how interdependent we are in this web of existence, when we can commit to our human diversity, then we can grow that beautiful garden of healthy community.
May we all be filled with loving kindness. May we be well. 
May we be peaceful and at ease. May we be whole.

[1] Pali is one of the languages from the Indian subcontinent and is the language used in some of the earliest existing Buddhist scriptures.  It is about cultivating benevolence toward all beings, without discrimination, that is free of selfish attachment. It is a strong, sincere wish for the well-being of all. 

[1]  Taken from :Compassion” on the website “Greater Good:  The Science of a Meaningful Life,” from the University of California at Berkeley.  http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition 2016-01-02.

[1] Weaving the Fabric of Diversity: An Anti-Bias Program for Adults, By Jacqui James, Judith Frediani, José A. Ballester y Marquez, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1996, page 2.

[1]  Taken from “How To Find Compassion In Your Most Difficult Moments,” a guest post by Elana Miller, MD who is a psychiatry resident and founder of Zen Psychiatry, a space to talk about integrative strategies be happy, live well, and fulfill your greatest potential. The quote by Jack Kornfield is from The Wise Heart.

Found at http://goodlifezen.com/how-to-find-compassion-in-your-most-difficult-moments/

[1] The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön. Quote from http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/13661

Download Tilling Rocky Ground to Cultivate Compassion