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Cultivating Compassion, Part 2 – What’s “Growing” On Out There?

Sermon by Jen Gillum

Welcome back to Part TWO of Cultivating Compassion here at Harmony. I’m not sure we’ve done many “part two” sermons. Rest assured though, Harmony is probably not moving in the same vein of the mega churches—no digital billboard is about to be revealed with the 6 part Compassion Series. I know, shocking. But what’s perhaps even more shocking is that Jen Gillum is still talking about a New Year’s resolution in JUNE! June, people. That fact alone is pretty groundbreaking. I’m not certain we are even in typical “resolution territory” anymore here, honestly. It’s morphing.

If you were not here for the March 3 sermon, don’t worry about it. I barely scratched the surface of how we might plant small seeds of compassion in our lives. Compassion is embedded within our UU principles. No one here seems to think it’s a sucky idea to have compassion for self and others. But most of my sermon was about how damn hard it is (some days) to even extend compassion to the people we love in our lives. And I’ve noticed that may be, in part, because we often withhold compassion from ourselves.

My nearly 80 year old mother lives in my home and I also have a teenager now. He officially turned 13 on May 11th. I am running the gamut from early dementia to early puberty all wrapped up with my own hotflash bow. It’s like living in 3 different universes all under one roof. But those are just MY details in the plot of MY story line. And no. I haven’t figured out how to be compassionate all of the time. Quite the contrary, in fact. But I am learning on this journey and staying open to the process and trying to view life through a lens of compassion. I’m leaning into a compassion mindset. And maybe THAT is why I am still able to talk about this “resolution” in June. (I put “resolution” in quotation marks.)

Because compassion is so many things: a belief, a value, a great virtue—according to ancient philosophers, THE GOLDEN RULE—the bedrock of every religion. Also, it means nothing unless you actually DO SOMETHING. You must take action! Be nice to people. Just be good. At least, that is (kind of) what people took away from the March 3rd talk. I mean, we are a religion. And we do believe in compassion. I read you the principles word for word from the website last time.

But something wasn’t sitting quite right. Or maybe it didn’t land right? Because although I attempted last time to extend some BIG old SELF-COMPASSION/worthiness DISCLAIMERS, I’m not sure it worked as well as I’d hoped it would. In talking to some women friends after the last go around, I heard (more than once) that these particular women walked away feeling like they were not doing enough to serve. To serve others. To serve humanity. Maybe, like me, to serve their families with doses of high-octane compassion. To BE the embodiment of a compassionate woman…a compassionate ENOUGH human. This hit me so hard. And male people here today, perhaps you felt this way too. I don’t know. I only talk to women, apparently. But I do feel compelled to give this book another shoutout: On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good by journalist Elise Loehnen

Last time I said I was literally “preaching to the choir” about compassion. I look around and I see so many good people in this room. People who value each other and humanity and who hold the virtue of compassion up as one of our core principles. All true. You might be wondering what the 7 Deadly Sins have to do with you. You are a UU! You might be atheist or agnostic or self-actualized enough to have escaped all of this religious propaganda. But this book shows clearly how we’ve ALL been culturally programmed to obey the rules represented by these “sins” and how doing so is what historically qualifies us as “good.” This book is about how these “sins” were codified by the church and ultimately permeated culture. So, YOU may have escaped dogmatic religion (many of us did not), but you have probably NOT escaped the impact of the church over time on culture and morals and “goodness.” The author is focused on women here. And how women equate self-denial with being good. For example, seeing SLOTH as sinful leads women to deny themselves rest. Gotta do more; gotta be more. Does that sound familiar? Women who deny themselves rest? I know men do this too. It’s a cultural epidemic, especially Western culture. And some people literally don’t have enough time to get off the hamster wheel and pause to read this book or even ask this question. They are working hard to survive. This book is about internalized patriarchy and how we can unwittingly reinforce it ourselves. Elisa Loehnen is pretty brilliant, and she puts a voice to so many things I have felt but didn’t fully understand. I highly recommend this book.

But this talk is about cultivating compassion. Why does this matter? I guess in getting back to those responses that people shared, I feel firmly committed to addressing worthiness first. If you feel compelled to act in compassionate ways to be considered good or good enough by yourself or others, your compassion balance might be a bit off. We are worthy. We ALL are worthy just for breathing air and being here. And it is exceptionally hard to remember that living in the comparison culture that we do with present-day influences, as well as historical ones. The reason this book matters so much is because in order for ME to live a life of authenticity and integrity and wholeness—to live MY values—I have to become self-aware enough, socially-aware enough, and culturally-aware ENOUGH to know what MY values even are. Screw good enough. Good enough for whom?

What I’ve learned is that the world will answer that question for you over and over again if you do not interrogate your life and truly answer it for yourself from a place of deep integrity. At any and every point in my life, I certainly would have SAID that compassion was a value of mine, but that would have just been what I knew I was supposed to say. To be a good girl. You see the difference? It’s a pivotal one.

I started the year wanting to actually live my value—to cultivate more compassion, starting in my own home. It’s actually my hardest place. Perhaps you have reflected upon your hardest person or your hardest place to cultivate compassion. Maybe it is a community or political or global issue that makes you see red and fly off the handle. Maybe it is a person or a group of people who represent that issue for you. Maybe you never cut yourself a break and have the hardest time with self-compassion. I started this journey by truly just wanting more feelings of peace/calm/clarity surrounding my relationship with my mom because we are under the same roof. But really…where to begin? HOW to proceed? There is no step by step guide here. But when I tried to investigate HOW to be more compassionate, one of the first people who popped up to lead the way was Brene Brown. Of course she was.

This quote made serious sense to me:

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to. And when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

I guess I had never quite thought about the link between compassion and boundaries. Maybe at some point in our relationship I had tried to be clear and set boundaries? Maybe not. Communication was NOT a strength of anyone in my family. I did not have a role model for how to set boundaries! With us, there was always a big fat zit of emotion just festering under the skin, and eventually someone would cross a line and the anger and resentment would explode outward. And the guilt /shame cycle would begin again. I really don’t think there is any relationship more complex than mother/daughter relationship. I was a child when this all began, of course.

Anyway, I can see how boundaries might work if you have them. We did not. But what I did learn is WHERE my anger was coming from! WHERE my resentment stemmed from. This helped me understand WHY it was so freaking hard to be/feel/show compassion. Imaginary/uncommunicated boundaries were crossed all of the time in our relationship. But why should I continue to be hurt/disappointed today over something that neither one of us even knew how to do so long ago. So much water under the bridge; we learn and grow in hindsight most of the time. But it can be tremendously hard to break patterns of relating that were formed so long ago.

That all being said, when you know better/you do better. Or you try to, at least.

Brene says:

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

And what is worse than disappointing your mother, right? For me at that time, it wasn’t about “daring” to set boundaries though. I literally didn’t have the power in that relationship OR the skills to do it. But now, I can try (sometimes) to set boundaries when I really need to. I have the courage to accept the past. Allow it to be what it is. AND…and love myself in spite of it. And forgive myself too. That has been a HUGE part of my healing journey. Truly KNOWING and LOVING ourselves is what gets us to self-compassion. Learning to no longer disappoint ourselves is so foundational to self-care/self-love/self-compassion. It all goes together. And the less I let myself down. The less angry and resentful I am. I more I am able to love and care for myself. The more I am able to love and care for others. It all works together.

Turns out there ARE some steps to follow. I like these steps (also from Brene Brown) and find them easy to remember and useful in cultivating compassion. Using the acronym B.I.G….

1. B – What boundaries do I need to have in place
2. I – So that I can keep in my integrity (not change who I am or what I need)
3. G – And make the most generous assumptions about you

When I have my needs met and I am living with integrity, it is SO MUCH easier to make generous assumptions about others. I think that’s just a nice way of saying I’m less of a judgmental bitch. I can wish you well with my thoughts, not shoot daggers out of my eyeballs. I can feel genuinely happy for you, not envious or less than/not enough. I can be the “compassionate witness” to someone else’s struggle/tantrum without getting pulled into the chaos. I can hold space for them and with them, while staying true to myself. In Brene’s research she found that the most compassionate people are the most boundaried. Boundaries are key to having self-love and treating others with loving-kindness. It’s about progress, NOT perfection. Cultivation and growth over time.

Things will just continue to be a work in progress with my mom. I love her the best I can. She loves me the best she can. It certainly isn’t the expression of love that the other person needs all of the time. But it is still love. And through my lens of compassion, I AM BETTER ABLE to make the most generous assumptions about her more often than I used to. And that has made a difference. For the most part, I believe people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got in the moment. It’s compassion in action to make the most generous assumptions about others.

“The moment you realize your self-worth, you’ll stop giving people discounts.”

—Karen Salmansohn

Oh to go back in time and share this quote with the girl I was in my teens and twenties, hell, even thirties. It is just a wistful thought—not a fully regretful one. Every moment in time, every experience—ALL of them—have brought me here. I am grateful that the long and winding road has led to a place more firmly rooted in self-worth. Roots ground us and hold us steady. I will always try to return to self-worth when I feel shaky. And feeling shaky is just part of the deal sometimes. BUT…if it is true (and I absolutely believe it is) that we are worthy just for breathing. And I’m no longer trying to prove my worth or value (to others AND to myself) by what I have or what I do. Then WHY cultivate compassion at all? Why try to live my values? Why do we care about our UU Principles? Why have ANY goal or aspiration at all for that matter? What’s the point?

I believe it is in our nature as human beings. By our very nature, we are here to create and craft ourselves and the world around us as we would like it to be—as we would like to be and to become. It is a CREATIVE act to cultivate anything, including compassion. To grow, change, express, mold and manipulate. It is transformative. It is evolution in action.
So, then. What’s been “GROWING” on out there?????

In January this year I actually had TWO New Year’s resolutions. Number 1) to live from a place of more compassion and Number 2) to work on my health. I mean, no one should be shocked by number 2, right? Tale as old as time in the resolution department. And I was specifically talking about my physical health, by the way. Nothing more. Standard resolution shizzle. I only tell you this because by February some interesting and unexpected things were starting to emerge. As I was actively working on compassion and trying to see through a lens of compassion, everything sort of started to LOOK like compassion to me.

Lens of compassion

I didn’t notice right away. But connections were happening. In early February, I had an appointment with a potential new doctor that I was hoping I would like. I did like her and since resolution number two (my health) was still fresh, I courageously asked her about weight loss. I don’t know if she was cautious of not shaming me or if time was just up and she had to go, but she sort of mumbled a half-sentence about “research” and “plant-based diet.” And then she was out the door. But that opened a door for me.

Just a week or two later, still February/same building, I had to go for a scheduled echocardiogram due to a family history of a hereditary bi-cuspid valve thingy. I don’t have the valve thingy, thankfully. However, I now believe that EVERYONE should get the opportunity to routinely have an echocardiogram. It takes a little bit of time because they want pictures and measurements of your heart from every conceivable angle. But during that entire time, I was facing the machine. It was right there in my clear line of vision. I could see and hear my own heart beating. My technician was sweetly explaining to me what I was witnessing. Each valve, ventricle, and atrium. I had an unexpected emotional response to this situation. I felt so much gratitude for my heart! That sucker was working so hard in there. Relentlessly. For me. What a freaking miracle. The timing of this procedure was not coincidental. I know that. I feel that. It was perfectly timed.

Compassion for body/health

So, my resolution regarding health became linked to compassion. Compassion for my body, first and foremost. I was reading about and listening to podcasts and watching videos about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Some of these sources I had even read before. But the time was different. I was different. I realize that everyone is on their own, unique health journey. It’s important. We cannot help ourselves or others unless we are in good health. I found some sources that I trusted. And I really started to carefully consider the nutrient-density of my foods, seeing food more as medicine. I think over the years, the health journey had gotten so overwhelming. So many adamant and conflicting voices. So many opinions. And products! Ways to lose money, mostly. I did not have the bandwidth for it anymore, honestly. But this felt different. At the core, it was so basic. Eat plant food in its full and beautiful rainbow of colors. Eat it whole and unprocessed. The science was convincing. I wanted to learn more. And instead of feeling guilty or ashamed of past food and alcohol transgressions, I found myself full of compassion for myself and everyone else trying to live and thrive with toxic and addictive foods all around us. Food-like products intentionally created to hurt us. I started to nourish myself more compassionately. I even cultivated my compassion for CARBS again! The ones full of nutrients, at least. My heart was taking care of me without missing a freaking beat. I wanted to take care of it too. This was NOT how I had dieted in any version of my past. And I was feeling good—connected to my actual, physical heart.

I didn’t want to slide backward into some of my unhealthy eating habits, so I had an idea for a summer project. I called an elderly friend who now lives at Otterbein. She had taken us on a tour in her Cadillac golf cart several times. I knew they had a community garden there. I asked her if we could contribute labor and help her with her garden plot and be paid in vegetables. I signed my 13 year old up for hard labor! Our friend, Betts, is 81 years old, and full of life. Our garden was planted in May!

Gardening is hard work. I view produce differently in the grocery store now. It didn’t get there by magic. I love our compassion garden. It is a labor of love. We may end up simply feeding the forest animals and getting completely choked out by weeds. Who knows? But we are learning and growing ourselves as we grow our own food. We are outside, breathing fresh air. We are working in community. We are sharing time together and cultivating the earth! My relentlessly beating heart is full. I just want my belly to be next! Come on, tomatoes!

Also new to me, I have developed deep, deep compassion for the 39 trillion, yes I said TRILLION, microbes living in my gut. I’m ashamed at how I’ve treated them in the past and I’m trying to make amends. With fiber. So, so, so much of our health starts here. It’s all connected. Our guts to our beautifully beating hearts to our over-thinking brains. It’s all connected! I have a strong GUT instinct that you will feel compassionately toward bacteria after reading this book! And all of our snacks today at Harmony are plant-based. Megan Lednik and I partnered on that. So, your gut microbiome will be singing and harmonizing together today after our service.

Brene Brown says that compassion is a deeply held belief, rooted in the fact that we are all connected to one another.

In March, we reflected upon compassion as it relates to our 1st and 2nd UU principles. And honestly, the principles are also ALL connected! It is hard to talk about one without overlapping with a few more! But today I want to highlight the 7th Principle, in regard to compassion.

UU 7th Principle 

Typically, we think about the 7th Principle as “the environmental principle.” Take a look at these summations. The first one is ours here at Harmony. The other two are from the UUA but condensed. We can certainly think about our compassion for the environment. I can tell you I love nature, but it is very easy to be disconnected from it—to take it all for granted. I have no right to talk about animals, so I won’t. I’ve enjoyed eating them for my whole life. Let’s be clear. But it was curious how finding compassion for my body and going plant-based for 4 months was aligning with the 7th Principle and making me feel better. More clear and focused. Able to make more generous assumptions. And trying to grow my own food in dirt has added a new layer to it all. I am more connected to the earth and to the earth worms and full of gratitude for the rain when it comes. (Like today.) A symbiosis was taking place. Looking at life through a lens of compassion helped me remember to SEE with clear eyes how I am served (have always been served) by the world around me. And how I wish to serve it back.

I wanted to take a closer look at the 7th Principle. Here it is from the UUA website:

“Our seventh Principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.”

On the UUA website it said that the 7th Principle was about more than the environment. I guess so!

That’s a big one. But I do know that as I have attempted to view life through a lens of compassion, everything has started to seem more connected. I felt more connected, too—a part of that interdependent web. I wanted to embrace compassion as something greater than myself, but it ironically ended up returning me TO myself and helping me understand myself and my needs better. I think compassion is bringing me to a healthier version of myself—which, ultimately, heals everyone and the planet too, since we are all connected as one.

Compassion is more widely discussed in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism. The Dalai Lama connects compassion practices to happiness. Science is now showing that self-compassion, in conjunction with compassion for others, is a key transformative and protective mindset for decreasing anxiety and depression.

Tara Brach always tells the story of an enormous, solidly golden Buddha that was in jeopardy of being pilfered during some tumultuous historical time. She shares this story often in her talks, so I’m paraphrasing. In order to keep the golden statue safe, the people covered it over with mud. The mud hid the gold for years until even the people living with the statue forgot about the gold inside. The mud is a symbol of our protective coverings in this world. How we hide to stay safe, disconnected from the truth of the gold inside each one of us. Tara Brach would say the gold is our spirit. And our spiritual path is to re-discover our gold—to remember and awaken what’s inside of each one of us. So, when I happened upon the John Prine song that Dale got us all going with today, it reminded me so much of this story. “You’ve got gold, gold inside of you. I’ve got some, gold inside me too.” The gold is our goodness. And I think that cultivating compassion is just like mining for gold. It’s a creative act. Unique to you. And when we crack off our own mud, it gladly shines on those around us—lighting the way. That’s compassion in action.

So, uncover and mine your gold. It’s there. Just waiting for you.