On Aug. 23, 2010, I began an undertaking called The Compassion Project, in which I dedicated an entire year to exploring compassion from many angles and worked to cultivate greater compassion each day. At the time, cynicism was threatening my life. I realized that, over the course of several months and in the face of several adversities, I had moved toward and embraced cynicism in a way that I hadn’t at any other point in my life. As I wrote in one of my early posts for The Compassion Project:
I realize I’ve gotten to the point that I assume the worst in people and see the worst in them. I can’t even leave the house without the negativity I expect from others flooding me. Earlier in the day, when I stood in the driveway, I bristled at the sight of every driver making his or her way along my street. When I got on the road, I was consistently annoyed with other drivers — not their driving but them as people. The rest of the day went on in that vein.
By the end of the day, I am exhausted and completely drained. As I sit on the sofa, I begin crying and wailing as all that self-inflicted suffering makes its way out of me. My husband puts his arm around me and tells me it is going to be OK, though he has no idea what has so abruptly brought on my emotional state.
During my crying spell, I see that, in addition to the situations and people that actually made my day difficult, I had made my day difficult — unbearable in fact — because of the way I was perceiving everyone, including those with whom I have no relationship at all. I cannot possibly know the minds or hearts of those driving down the road or walking through the grocery store, but I had made assessments about them, bristled in their presence, tried to move away from them whenever possible (changing lanes, taking alternate routes, walking down a different aisle in the store).
I had allowed what was eating at me to eat its way through every person I encountered, no matter how inconsequential that encounter. But ultimately my approach to the world and its inhabitants had eaten its way through me.
Committing to compassion for a year changed my focus, as much as moving to a small town in eastern Washington changed my focus. Those shifts in turn affected what I do in the world, giving me not only an obligation of responsibility but the conviction, energy and commitment to follow through on that obligation. I have done more in this community and for this community than I’ve ever attempted to do in any community I’ve lived in prior to this one.
What matters is hearing a call to action and responding to that call.
I am not necessarily saying my attempts have been particularly important or successful or even essential to this place. But that’s not what matters. What matters is hearing a call to action and responding to that call. I could never respond to the call before, at least not in the way I might have liked to, because the seeds of cynicism, which I had been watering for a long time — and which I had seen my family members watering all their lives — were growing and growing, until the day recounted above, in which I realized the seeds had become weeds which were choking me out of my own life and rendering me unable to act in my community or to participate fully in the lives of others, even those I loved.
Even as I undertook The Compassion Project, I was cynical about compassion. I suppose that stance makes sense, given my mindset at the project’s outset. But as time went on, I realized there were changes, both inside me and in how I related to the world. The work I valued most became clearer. Doing the work became easier. Commiting to compassion was never, for me, about making me a better person. Nor was it a theoretical feel-good exercise. It was always an undertaking that, I hoped, would change who (and how) I was in the world. The work I was doing had to translate to work outside of me that was informed by who I was — and who I was becoming. Compassion had to be actualized. And compassion had to keep being actualized over the course of my lifetime.
At the outset of the project, I wrote: “Compassion without engagement is nothing more than theory. We need to overcome our barriers to engagement before we can move compassion from theory to practice, whatever those barriers may be in our own lives and communities.” I still believe this is true, and I am still committed to overcoming my barriers to engagement — both lingering ones that remain in my life like shadows of themselves and new ones that feel as solid and impenetrable as brick buildings.
For this reason, the term “project” always felt wrong to me, though I couldn’t find another way to express what I was doing that year. “Project” not only trivializes the undertaking, it also suggests an end date. Though the project itself was designed to conclude after one year, the work was designed to go on indefinitely. Saying you’ve done all there is to do with compassion in one year is like saying you’ve harvested all the sweet onions after one row, when there are hundreds of rows left to tend to. As I wrote early on in the project:
Cultivating compassion is a lifelong endeavor. I have no illusions that there is any quick path to leading a compassion-based and compassion-filled life. Yet I do think there’s something to dedicating my 39th year to going all out where compassion is concerned and working every day to be mindful, to invite compassion in, and to allow cynicism to make its exit quietly and without fanfare.
Just as I was cynical about The Compassion Project dislodging my cynicism, I was also suspicious of its ability to confer benefits beyond the scope of the project. Looking back today, two years after the project’s launch and one year after its end, I can report that I do still feel those changes inside me, both informing and guiding me. I am certainly not that person who used to go into the world feeling a deep disdain for every human being I saw. I might not be alive today if I were still that person, or perhaps I would be alive but not living in any true sense of the word.
The body has ways of keeping time for us.
Still, knowing this is the work of a lifetime, I feel the desire to recommit to the project in a formal way, especially as changes in my life and my husband’s life will necessitate another move in the coming months. We will be leaving this place — this land — which I have come to admire and respect, this land that humbles me and speaks to me through its character and spirit, this land I have sat on and meditated on and crawled over and dug into, this land I dare say I love, and the spirit I dare say this land has awoken in me.
In making this change, which involves moving back to Kansas City — the place where my husband and I met, courted, married and lived for many years before moving first to Seattle and then to eastern Washington — I want to challenge myself, once again, to make sure my thoughts and actions are strongly grounded in compassion in a way that will ensure compassion is never forgotten or treated as an afterthought.
Last night, something happened. It was one of those inexplicable internal shifts, a calling from within (or from without, depending on your perspective) to come home to compassion, to settle inside its earth and to grow deeper and stronger roots there. I woke with the commitment in my heart. This morning, when I revisited the writing I did for The Compassion Project, I saw that I launched that project two years ago today. The body has ways of keeping time for us and of calling us back to the internal clocks that shape and govern our lives. This is such a moment in my life, or at least that’s how I choose to see it.
This time, I might not write about compassion every day. Or maybe I will. Who knows? I will do whatever I am moved to do in terms of communicating about my experiences and commitment. For me, the focus this time around will be allowing compassion to guide me in all my undertakings, in my speech, in my mindset, in my relationships and in my interactions. I hope this work will lead to compassion becoming my intent — not just what I do but what I am, what I feel and what I desire on a fundamental level.
In the spirit of the ongoing nature of this work, I won’t call this undertaking a “project.” Instead, all writings on the subject of compassion will be labeled “The Compassion Notebook.” I have also resurrected selected writings from The Compassion Project and have added them, with dates, under this same label.
There is no end point for this series. I hope to see it continue indefinitely on my site, just as I hope to see my commitment to compassion continue indefinitely in my life.