Practicing Compassion For ISIS Members

It was an image that we may never erase from our minds, although we wish we could. We saw men draped in black standing behind a long line of men dressed in orange jumpsuits. The captions and headlines informed us that ISIS members had beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

One of my students brought up this image during a recent Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) class I was leading in San Diego.

Compassion Cultivation Training is an eight-week course created by Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. It is a step-by-step approach designed to help us learn how to practice compassion for ourselves and, ultimately, all other beings. This past week, one of my students shared that he had used the ISIS image during his meditation practice as a way to cultivate compassion for a ‘difficult’ person.

As soon as he brought up the image, the energy in the room shifted. My students and I had seen the image, and we were disturbed by it. The idea of practicing compassion for ISIS members seemed much more intense than cultivating compassion for our loud neighbors or our annoying colleagues. (Not to diminish the difficulty of having compassion for those people. Believe me, it takes courage to practice compassion toward ANYONE that causes us frustration, anger or unhappiness.)

But this is taking compassion to a new level, isn’t it? We’re talking about cultivating compassion for men who barbarically mass executed other men because of their religion. If anyone is looking for an ideal example of courage, I’d say this is it.

Some natural questions arose during this class discussion. How can we possibly cultivate compassion for those ISIS members? What would compassion for them look like? And why would we bother?

Let’s start with the how. In the CCT curriculum, we learn that there are no bad people, only bad (or unskilled) behaviors. My students and I discussed the fact that it is important to separate a person from their behavior. Deep down inside, those ISIS members are just like us. They want to be happy and free from suffering, and so do the rest of us. They were born as tiny, innocent babies, just like we were.

I try to practice empathy by putting myself in their shoes. I think to myself, “If I had been born to their parents, in their country and brought up in their environment, who can say that I wouldn’t act in a similar way?”

The behavior of these ISIS members is absolutely bone-chilling and atrocious, and we do not want them to continue with their killing sprees. Compassion does NOT mean we are condoning their behavior. Of course, we want them to stop. So what would compassion look like in this situation?

In this very moment, we can send them a wish for peace by saying or thinking, “May you find peace. May you be free from suffering.” IIt might be worthwhile to begin by settling the mind with a few moments of breathing. Then we can use our full attention to visualize the ISIS members as we send them compassion.

But, you may be asking…WHY? Why would we spend time and energy wishing for members of ISIS to find peace? How would their inner-peace help the situation? Isn’t this just letting them off the hook?

I invite you to take a moment and consider this thought: If a person feels truly peaceful, would he or she wish to harm anyone else?

I would argue that people at peace with themselves and with the world would not harm others. Whether it is members of ISIS, the cashier at Trader Joe’s or my energetic eight-year-old daughter, I wish for them to find peace.

You may say, “But sending compassionate wishes…that’s not actually DOING anything.”

I disagree. In my experience, by wishing that others find peace, I am opening my own heart and cultivating peace within myself. That IS doing something, because it is changing my own view of the world and my interactions with all others.

My students have heard me say numerous times that compassion takes courage and that it is a practice. We won’t sit through one compassion meditation (or read one blog) and suddenly feel compassionate toward everyone. It just doesn’t work that way. But we can set an intention to look at the world through a compassionate lens. If we do that, we CAN achieve peace…within ourselves.

So, to those of you reading this, and to all beings, here is my wish for you:

May you find peace.

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