What Relates Swan Lake and Musical Fountains to Compassion?

Musical Fountain at Festival City Dubai - CompassionCompassion 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.

Musical Fountain at Festival City Dubai - CompassionCompassion 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

  1. what a beautiful post! thank you so much!

    what an interesting way, connection compassion with creativity – and of course you are right. in compassion, we make a choice to remove the walls between ourselves and the “other”.

    thank you so much! i’ll nominate you for winning best article.

    1. Hi Isabella, Thank you! I would probably have never stumbled upon this writing project if not for your tag.

      And thanks for the glowing review. I was quite confused as to how I would shoe-horn the topic of compassion into the kind of things I usually write about, in the beginning. So, I’m glad to know that the final result is effective.

      Best of luck with the competition. I haven’t read any of the entries yet (except yours, which I enjoyed thorougly), but there seem to be some interesting titles in the list. Here’s looking forward to a lot a good reading.

  2. Samir, thank you for this beautiful entry. I’m glad you participated, or I would never have found your blog!

    This quote is really true: “To be truly understanding and compassionate requires a certain level of internal happiness.”

    If we all focus on healing our own wounds and finding our own happiness, compassion will flow naturally as a result. Brilliant insight.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Albert. I’m very glad to hear you approve of both this article and the blog as a whole. Hope to see you around more often.

      I must thank you and your fellow monks for organising this event. Triggers such as this force us to think about topics we might not often ponder. I owe any insights you might find above to being instigated to think about the subject in more depth, and for that I have you to thank.

  3. Hello Samir,

    I came upon your compassion post via your
    comment on Wade’s site….
    The Middle Way

    As I commented to Wade, the reason I was so
    happy to be part of this was to come upon
    new blogs. 🙂

    I loved the message of your post.!!!

    Not only is this connecting me to new folks, but
    to different generations of people. When I read your line that said…. The Star Wars music was something of your childhood, I thought.. hmmm a 20 something like my own children.

    My first exposure to thinking of the New Year arriving at different times to different parts of the world was back in 1999. My hubby was working in an IT department and the entire IT department had to be working that New Years eve. It was the whole Y2K concern.
    So…. the company created a family event out of it.
    They had food, entertainment and even a baby sitting area. Huge TV screens to watch the New Year arrive in different parts of the world. Wow, when I stop and think back on that, it was someone’s compassion and understanding of having family together for the holiday that even allowed such an event to happen.

    Sorry to get strayed away from my comment of saying what a neat message you’ve contributed.

    xo xo
    Deb in Ohio USA

    1. Hi Deb,

      Wonderful! A long comment. Obviously a woman after my own heart. Please, you don’t need to appologize for “straying”, because I like to think of my entire blog as one long perpetually straying journal of thoughts. This is why I have the “Everything I’m doing when I’m not doing everything else” below the title at the top of the page. I think that sums it up nicely.

      In fact, I would like to thank you for sharing that very unique Y2K story. You’ve created beautiful images in my head of diligent programmers toiling away next to large screens showing New Year celebrations, with happy families and running children. That must have been a lot of fun, and it’s certainly a unique experience you had. A brilliant idea. My complements to the people who thought of it.

      It’s strange that you should mention connecting with different generations of people and the Y2K issue in your message, because that makes me realize that “generations” are not as distinctly seperated as we like to think. You an I might be from different generations when it comes to our Star Wars experience, but we share a generation when it comes to the fact that we both lived through “Y2K” at a lucid age. I just realised that anyone born in the last decade would have no personal memories of what Y2K was. It would simply be some obscure historical fact for them. A humbling thought, considering how much of a major part of world consciousness it was at the time, and the lives that were changed by it. Such is the play of history, and the infinitely overlapping generations move on.

      I’m very glad to know you enjoyed my article. Hope to see you around more often, and thank you for contributing such rich material to the ever growing treasury of shared memories.

      Take care,

      1. Hello Samir,

        I’ve subscribed to your site feed via my Google homepage. So…… when you update, you can
        bet I will know about it. wink.

        Great to ‘meet’ you.

        xo xo

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