Are you compassionate? I’m not.
My heart doesn’t naturally bend toward suffering with other people. My heart bends towards whatever is going to make my life better in that moment. For me, compassion is an often hard choice, that through years of slow practice, I’m learning to make more often.
I started making these choices after a long season of reflection, contemplation, and yes, counseling, under the big fat umbrella of God’s grace. Because only there I can bear to see the true state of my own heart, and my own aching need for others to be compassionate with me.
My friend Sam recently completed an official program for spiritual formation. Once I heard he graduated I pounced and asked if he would share some of the things he learned, and how they could help us all be more compassionate. I’m so thankful he was willing to do it.
In the interview below Sam generously and bravely shares the who, what, when, where, how and why of his journey toward contemplation and action, and how that might help us be more compassionate. Warning: this will stretch you. You will be challenged by some of these ideas, names, and concepts. Please stick with it.
Thank you talking with Family Compassion Focus, Sam. Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Sam Ogles. I’m a writer and editor by profession, and I currently work at Christianity Today [the company, not the flagship magazine]. I’m a white male nearing 30, and I consider myself a feminist and ally to the oppressed in our society. Even so, I have to admit a wealth of ignorance in many areas of compassion, let alone life.
I tend toward being a serious, justice-oriented person, which is why more and more I try to find ways of being that make me “lighter,” more playful, and more able to access joy. I tend toward curiosity and being a “jack of all trades” more than an expert, which is why my interests are constantly shifting and why I couldn’t decide on just one major in college (“I’ll do all four!…”). But what I keep coming back to in order to pursue seriously is a deep interest in spirituality, inner work, and a radical need for transformation.
My Christian faith has been saved through contemplation. I grew up in a Pentecostal, fundamentalist, evangelical church. When I got to college, I experienced something of a spiritual awakening by falling in love with Catholicism. I was the most faithful convert you’d ever seen for about the first five years. Then, slowly, my experiences began to change my view of faith. My faith didn’t unravel, but I began to see how my faith community’s engagement, teachings, and emphases were, in various ways, inadequate for my experiences. And I saw how Christian communities today, on the whole, were not creating transformed people, myself included.
When I became Catholic, I felt like the theology had saved me by giving me something firm to grasp onto. I didn’t realize, however, that God wanted me to go much deeper than the layer of theology. I was called to go into the realm of mystery and a direct experience of God, which is to say, the realm of contemplation. I’m still on that journey, but my inner world of religious turmoil has given way to a serene stillness, even as I become more aware of the myriad problems around me (and within me). That such a stillness has developed is, I know, the result of being in the Living School for Action and Contemplation for the last two years.
What is the Center for Action and Contemplation? How did you hear about it? What attracted you to the Living School?
The Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) is a nonprofit organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. The CAC offers retreats, learning materials (books, CDs, webinars), and now a spiritual formation program called the Living School for Action and Contemplation.
Years ago, my best friend passed on these audio lectures for something called the Enneagram, which is a sort of personality-typing system for spiritual transformation. (That last part is often forgotten.) Those CDs were of Rohr. I listened to the lectures, and I felt like I woke up. It gave me a way of observing myself, something I’d never done before. That started an immense process of inner work, which included me looking into other things Rohr had written and subscribing to his Daily Meditations emails (which I highly recommend, by the way). It was through those emails that I first heard about the Living School. After looking into it briefly, I realized it was the perfect way to continue the process of humbly being transformed. I began the program in 2014 and graduated last month in August 2016.
What was the Living School experience like? How did it compare to college and/or job training?
The Living School is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. On paper, it’s a two-year, part-time program of spiritual formation–a bit like a seminary, but without any sort of degree or job certification. It’s done mostly online with a few in-person gatherings.
Richard envisioned the Living School as an “underground seminary.” It’s purpose isn’t to create pastors or people of privilege but to create ordinary people transformed in extraordinary ways to be Christ’s presence in the world.
There are two components to the program: study and practice. There is a somewhat rigorous curriculum for the study component, though it is a bit fluid and there are no grades or progress reports.
The curriculum is based on the Christian mystical (contemplative) tradition while being open to the authentic mystical heritage of all traditions. We read well-known mystics like St. John of the Cross. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We also read not-so-well-known mystics and were exposed to Jewish, Sufi, and Zen contemplative writers.
The practice component is a personal, daily contemplative practice. You can choose any contemplative practice that suits you: the rosary, yoga, Lectio Divina, transcendental meditation, centering prayer, the Examen, and so on. I use “Christian meditation” as articulated by James Finley. It’s hard to summarize the thrust of “what you learn” in the Living School, but it’s best summarized as contemplation. The program does this through Franciscan spirituality, modern cosmology, ecology, and theology.
The school is founded on what has been called “the alternative orthodoxy.” These are teachings still solidly within the historical orthodox Christian tradition but that have been neglected or de-emphasized by the tradition. For example, Thomas Aquinas thought that without The Fall, there would have been no need for the Incarnation. Duns Scotus, a brilliant Franciscan theologian and contemporary of Aquinas, argued instead that the primary (first) purpose of Christ’s coming into the world was love, not atonement, since the Incarnation was destined to occur even before time began. That’s a monumental shift in emphasis for most Christians, and it has major implications for how we view God. Which means it has major implications for how we regard one another.
What learning was most impactful for you? What was the hardest part? What was your favorite part? How are you going to use the Living School in your everyday life?
I’m still trying to process my own experience in the program, but the teachings about how we naturally think blew the roof off for me. I never realized how closed, repetitive, self-serving, judgmental, and dualistic I was in my thinking. One of the foundations of the Living School is nondual thinking, meaning the rejection of reality in binaries. This does not mean rejection of morality or fuzzy thinking, but it does mean the rejection of fitting all of reality into categories with simple, polar-opposite labels, the “good” side, of course, always belonging to me and my group. Non-dual thinking means we hold the tension of opposites and open the field of our vision wide enough to take everything in as is, reflecting everything just as it is, like a mirror, without judgment or distortion. It’s an immensely compassionate to view the world this way. It frees you from having to always sit in God’s place of judgment.
The hardest part of the program was that it was online and finding community was very difficult. I tend to feel very out of place in spiritual communities, even the ones I regularly participate in today. The Living School’s in-person events were the first time I felt completely at home with people–all of them strangers–like I knew their hearts even if I didn’t know their names or belong to their same religious community. Knowing that community exists but that we’re all separated by circumstance is really hard. That’s why my favorite part was spending the week in Albuquerque with fellow classmates. It always felt like home.
I carry the Living School’s footprint in most everything I do now. I’m continuing daily meditation, I host Enneagram groups periodically to pass that on, and I’d like to write more based on my experiences.
What is transformation? Can we make it happen? Can we stop it?
I would define “transformation” in terms of a transformation of consciousness. My worry in Christianity is that too many of us think the New Testament’s “dying to self” is a radical transformation of behavior or allegiance, neither of which mean you are at all a different kind of person. Ken Wilber, a brilliant philosopher of religion, says that only about 1 person in 100 is serious about the work of transformation, and even then, we can only change consciousness about 5% at a time, at most. Unfortunately, I think those estimates are accurate. Wilber says “transformation is not a matter of belief, but of the death of a believer.” The Christian hurdle is realizing dying to self isn’t limited to behaviors and allegiance; it extends to even the most cherished and dreaded illusions we have about ourselves. And the tools and experiences to do that are pretty hard to come by. Rohr would say the path of transformation is either through great love or great suffering. (Unfortunately, that holds true for me: I started on my current path through my own great suffering with mental illness.)
So I don’t think we can make transformation happen, but there is something amazing that we can do. We can open ourselves into a posture that is most conducive for hearing the authentically transformative voice of God in our lives. The gateway for this is contemplation–some meditative practice where you open yourself to a direct experience of the divine. We can’t make it happen, but we can position ourselves to receive it. And if it authentically happens, we certainly can’t stop transformation. James Finley says the mystic isn’t someone who says “Look what I’ve accomplished. Look what I’ve become.” The mystic is someone who says, “Look what love has done to me.”
How are action and contemplation braided together?
I think action and contemplation are two complementary components of a transformed life. Contemplation lays the groundwork and provides the basis out of which right action can follow. Our culture is action-oriented, so I think the greater danger is for us to skip over the contemplative dimension to get to the “more important” work of doing. I attend a contemplative church service once a week that teaches different contemplative practices. At the end of many services, someone will ask, “So what do we do with this?” Ours is a culture of doers. I have the same inclination, too, but contemplation is like learning a new language. We can’t expect to take one or two language classes and then have a nearly fluent conversation. I’ve noticed for myself, I often have a much stronger desire to be a contemplative than to actually do the work of sitting quietly with God. But there’s no shortcut to transformation, and actions not based on a transformed way of seeing will not be authentically open, liberating, real, and compassionate.
I think one amazing thing, though, is that you can find people with contemplative mindsets in one area of their lives, even if they aren’t the next great Christian mystic. Take a normal, conservative Christian parent. All of a sudden their teenager comes out as gay, and the parent has to wrestle with what that means and how they’ll view their child now. The parent might be just as untransformed at their office or with friends or in their politics, but in this one area, they will find a way to hold the tension with compassion and equanimity and come to a contemplative/nondual understanding of their child’s sexuality. In this one area, this parent has a transformed consciousness. That God breaks into our lives that way gives me a lot of hope.
What did you learn about compassion through the CAC? Anything surprising?
Interdependence is a huge theme of the Living School. We learn about it through the natural world (ecology, biology, etc.) as well as theology. More and more the world is waking up to the fact that one factory’s emissions in Chicago affect a farmer’s rainfall in India; losing wolves in Yellowstone changes the shapes of rivers; that each person’s story is inherently precious and connected to the inherently precious stories of everyone else. Interdependence and interbeing mean we cannot ignore the other. We are united in real ways beyond just metaphysical connections. I in them and them in me and we in Thou and Thou in them (John 17:23). There’s a unity to all of us and everything that has one very practical result: compassion.
Thomas Merton, at a conference with Buddhists just before he died, said “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” If we can realize this oneness with each other then your problems stop being just “yours.” My problems stop being just “mine.” We’re responsible to and for one another because we’re not intrinsically separate; we’re intrinsically linked in a field that is entirely level. “Compassion” means “to suffer together.” This unity brings both a sense of suffering together and a thirst for true justice.
The program also demands a great deal of inner work. You might say the whole program is working on your inner self, exposing the false self and revealing the true self. The more work I do on myself, the more compassion I have for other people.
When you read the mystics and saints, you find a surprising thing: they were more aware of their shortcomings and failures than you or I am aware of ours, even though we hold up their lives as shining examples or morality and near-perfection. I think the more mature we are and the more we know ourselves, the more compassion we have for others because we know just how hard it is to be a human with entrenched, habitual, damning shortcomings we just can’t seem to shake. It’s probably similar to liking someone because you see yourself in them.
If you truly explore your inner world, a lot of it isn’t pretty. But you also find the ground of your true self in God. Both will make you love and respect other people without first needing to determine culpability or putting them through your own litmus test of the types of problems you can forgive or live with. With God there are no categories for compassion, warranted or unwarranted; there’s just infinite compassion. That’s our model.
What ideas do you have for how children and families can grow in action and contemplation? What questions, prayers, and/or practices can set our hearts in new directions, to equip us as world-changers?
Simple techniques and actions are best for kids and parents of all stripes. It’s best not to be too ambitious in trying to pass on a spiritual exercise or method that you yourself are not well-versed in. You can’t pour from an empty cup. You also can’t expect a child, even a teen, to get very serious about deep inner work, which is why something like the Enneagram is virtually useless as a tool for children; they haven’t progressed enough spiritually to even see their egoic self, let alone wish to transcend it. I think with kids, keeping it simple is best.
The action component of a child’s formation is simple to understand, even if it’s hard for them to do. Social service is a wonderful way to teach people compassion and community. In the 4th grade, my school teacher paired all of her students with a person living at the local nursing home. We’d visit them regularly and do activities. I was paired with Dorothy, a woman who had suffered a stroke. She couldn’t speak and could only write a few scribbled words on a pad of paper. Halfway through the school year, she passed away. I learned so much about tenderness and compassion from that experience. I can’t tell you one thing I learned in class in the 4th grade, but I’ll never forget my time with Dorothy.
On the contemplative side, if I ever have children, I plan to teach them a few things. One of them is koans, the Zen practice of riddles without an answer. We seem to teach children that every problem has an answer, which is partly why we all grow up to be so judgmental of people whose problems are on display to us. Many problems like suffering don’t have easy answers. I like the idea of raising my children to see nondually through koans.
I also think we need to teach children (and adults) mindfulness. It’s another great nondual method. At Plum Village, the Buddhist community of Thich Nhat Hanh in southern France, children are given oranges and told to peel the fruit very slowly and intentionally, taking in the tactile sensations on their fingers, the fragrance in their noses, the beautiful colors through their eyes. There’s no theology lesson. No doctrine is taught. The purpose is simply to experience that orange. Learning how to be present opens the contemplative dimension to us and gets us out of both reliving the past and worrying about the future, which are both dualistic. Something like the orange practice for kids would be wonderful.
Last, I think everyone, including children, should meditate, even if it can only take the form of two minutes of silent time. In fact, some under-resourced San Francisco schools have implemented mandatory, twice-daily meditation for their students. They saw a rise in attendance, a decrease in fights, a decrease of 75% in suspensions, and a rise in academic performance. Why? Because meditation gets kids (and adults) in touch with what’s going on inside themselves. Are they feeling angry? Frustrated? Happy? Observing feelings is not itself a feeling. Noticing you are angry is not itself anger.
Meditation allows a safe way to observe ourselves and not to identify with feelings by thinking we are our feelings. I wish every child could have quiet, reflective, meditative time, especially considering the tendency toward stimulation today. If you’re an adult and thinking of meditating, shoot for just 20 minutes a day. Just sit quietly and focus on your breathing will help immensely. Work up to it if you have to, but find some regular time. You’ll soon find your cup filling up. And then you’ll be able to pour for others.
What resources would you recommend for people interested in action and contemplation?
- The Living School for Action and Contemplation
- The Center for Action and Contemplation
- The Naked Now by Richard Rohr
Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr
- Jesus and Buddha: Paths to Awakening by James Finley and Richard Rohr
- Surrender to Love by David Benner
- Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
- The Forgiveness Challenge by Desmond and Mpho Tutu
Thank you so much, Sam, for sharing your heart and your thoughts!
Okay friends, this was a lot of information and big ideas. I love it.
- What ideas are calling out to you?
- What here encourages and inspires you?
- What makes you feel cautious, suspicious, or angry?
- What did you learn about compassion?
- How do you prepare you heart before you take action now? What new ideas would you like to try?
You are loved.
Related FCF Links:
- For a free resource to help your family pursue justice and mercy through contemplation and action check out the Family Tool Kit – Slow Kingdom Coming.
- To read about all different kinds of World Changers, check out our list of previously interviewed friends here.
©Aimee Fritz & Family Compassion Focus, 2016.