Compassion is a deep awareness of, and a sympathy with, someone else’s suffering. That is the traditional definition, but really compassion is much broader than that. Compassion is an innate sense of empathy with things and people outside of ourselves — not just their suffering but their feelings, their thinking, and their situation. To be compassionate is to see, feel, and sense beyond yourself. It is this broader sense of compassion that truly makes us human. What would such a thing have to do with the ballet of Swan Lake and musical fountains? I thought you’d never ask.
On New Year’s eve, I was at the Festival City mall in Dubai. There was revelry in the cold winter air and good cheer amongst the hundreds who had chosen to bring in the New Year in the outdoor areas of that complex, on the banks of the creek. After staring into the distant glimmer of fireworks that exploded over the city at the stroke of midnight, we walked along the little canal that is woven into the promenade, by the many busy restaurants there. We found a new sight to greet us at the central area outside the main atrium. There, next to the water of the canal, was a beautiful fountain bathed in light and colour. Its million spinnerets wove a fleeting web of water that clung longingly to the night air before falling to the Earth, and all of them danced to the tune of music that filled the air. A hundred dazzled pairs of eyes looked on in amazement. I was one of them. Then the fountain went quiet and as it sprang back into colour, the Swan’s Theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake swelled through the gathering.
For some reason I was never particularly fond of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Swans, the piece’s original title. Not that I hated it, mind you, but I felt for it with the same sense of distance as I felt for all the other classical music that crossed my path. Perhaps it was all because of Star Wars. I can’t be sure now whether I was exposed to the music of Swan lake or the wonders of Star Wars first as a child, but it was the latter that did have a great impact on me. I never wore any costumes, learnt any alien tongues, or joined any cults, but the mythos of those films were an important part of my education in the possibilities of creation. The music in those movies was as important as their visual presence, and John Williams’s score contained a melancholy refrain that was used in scene transitions what was quite likely inspired by Tchaikovsky’s composition. For those who know the piece of music I’m talking about, you will remember that there was a silent tragedy to that piece, a sense of great times past that shall never return, and a sense of dread for the chaos to come. Perhaps it was that subconsciously connection that put me off Tchaikovsky. I will never know.
But as I stood before the ethereal glow of the musical fountain that night, as the music swelled, the waters erupted with a million hues, and the huddled people looked on in awe at the spectacle, I heard something I had never heard before. I was riveted not so much by the dancing streams of red, and green, and yellow, but by what they danced to. I danced with them for the first time, to a piece of music I had heard hundreds of times before. It’s one thing to know a piece of music, but a whole lot more powerful to understand it. I understood the Swan’s Theme that day, its nuances of emotion, its grandness of scale, it’s subtleties of movement. Ask me now exactly what I felt in retrospect, and I might not be able to describe it with clarity, but what is important is that I understood it then, in the moment, completely.
That spontaneous and almost prescient awareness of someone else’s point of view is what true compassion is. For what is any work of art if not a little crystallised mote of human emotion and thought, uprooted and externalised by the artist for all to feel? Compassion is not a cold post mortem dissection of facts and statements, it is a deep animal feeling with the rawness and strength of the entire spectrum of our emotions at its fingertips.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s good for you as a human being and even better for you as a creative person. If you could come up with 10 ideas thinking like yourself, image how many more ideas you could conjure up thinking like each of the 6 billion other souls out there. Everyone has a unique personality and a unique pont of view. Live it, breathe it, and use what you have learnt in the process.
There are ways to encourage this experience of compassion and they are present, if not apparent, in my story with the musical fountain.
1] Change the context
I saw things differently because I was introduced to the Dance of the Swans in a completely different and unfamiliar context for the first time. In the past I might have come across it in movies, or the odd televised ballet recital, but never quite like this. In this case the change of environment was a coincidence, but there is nothing stopping you from forcing this change when you need to understand something in more depth. Look around, be receptive, and you will find a way.
2] Change the medium
You might see a ballet in some badly shot video of a stage taken from a distance, or you might hear a tune as an ironic choice of music in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I never saw a live performance of Swan Lake, so I don’t know if that medium would have had a different effect on me. We all respond to different stimuli under different circumstances. Some of us are very visual, some aural, and yet others are more sensitive to touch. As you ask questions of yourself and challenge yourself with new summits to conquer you will be the best judge of your strengths and weaknesses in these matters. Use what you know and let the material or situation be presented to your mind in the most suitable form. For me and Swan Lake, it would seem that was the shimmering and every changing colours of a water fountain. Now this has made me quite curious to see the balletic performance at some point.
3] Change the attitude
Finally it all comes down to our internal environment, our moods, our attitudes. That is what finally decides our reactions to things, and perhaps a happy, celebratory mood is essential to compassion. Many see empathy in a melancholy light. To be compassionate seems to have become an act filled with pathos. Why? To feel is human. To share what another feels or thinks is the ultimate celebration of being human. Why would you choose to celebrate with sadness? You could boil this down to saying that being compassionate to both people and ideas requires a positive attitude, but that’s business talk and I’m trying to illustrate a human experience. To be truly understanding and compassionate requires a certain level of internal happiness. It is in this state that our hearts are the most open and our minds the most free to what there is to be felt.
Compassion is one of the strangest of our human traits. So powerful and instinctual is its effect on our psyche that most of us either choose to over-indulge in its pathos, or we completely sanitize ourselves from compassion’s pull. Moderation is key here, as in many others aspects of the human condition. Compassion is not only an essential of your humanity, but it is also at the very core of your creativity. Perhaps that is because we have not yet recognised that creativity and humanity are one and the same, and compassion is simply their active element.
This article is in response to an invitation by Isabella Mori to participate in a group writing competition on the topic of compassion organised by The Middle Way, Zen-Inspired Self Development, and UrbanMonk.Net