Last Sunday I went to hear Senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand discuss Booker’s new autobiography United. During a Q and A about the book’s themes Booker used the term “courageous empathy.” This is the ability to recognize the suffering of others and do something about it. He further postulated that the “biggest thing you can do in any day is an act of empathy, kindness, compassion, and love.” He added, “acts of kindness are powerful forces of love.”
This African American vegan senator from New Jersey suggested that we should never settle for tolerance. To tolerate something is to ignore its corrosive influence. The only way to truly change the world is to fully engage through the process of love. Tough talk from a 6’3” former college football star who battles Republicans all day for a living.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika suggests that to achieve moksha a practitioner finds a hermitage in a “well-administered and virtuous kingdom where good alms can be easily attained.”* I think what Booker suggests is that before any of us sets out to achieve spiritual emancipation, we must create that well-administered and virtuous kingdom.
That means to truly understand and share in the feelings of others. Certainly we see this lack of understanding reflected in the current presidential political campaign where the search for otherness and villains is rampant. There is even a phrase used to define our state of malaise: “empathy deficit disorder.”
So how can this sickness be alleviated?
Walking outside on any given day, I can be overwhelmed by the evidence of inequity. Homeless families with ragtag suitcases on the A train, hungry young men and women on Broadway with handwritten signs claiming poverty, increasing lines at Sunday-morning soup kitchens and the squeegee men who are now back on the 96th street exit of the FDR. Instead of just tolerating the problems that created these situations I must begin to see these encounters as opportunities for transformation—both personal and for the betterment of society at large.
Prem Sadasivananda, a teacher and scholar of Vedantic philosophy and Hindu scripture, suggested I keep a spiritual diary. Even though I journal every morning, I don’t keep track of my actions in a spreadsheet sort of way. But Booker inspired me to try.
Today I committed to accomplishing an act of courageous empathy each day; so I wrote to the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee—Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, and John Cornyn—and told them just how disappointed I was in their stance regarding the President nominating a candidate to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Later on, while dozens of others passed him by, I helped a blind man on the corner after he had dropped his glasses and lost his way.
I’ll track these actions in my spiritual diary—not to give myself “brownie points," but to remind myself that, just like asana, meditation and journalin,g this process of “courageous empathy” is a daily practice.
In this way maybe I can help create that virtuous kingdom brick by brick and action by action so that I can dwell peacefully in my hermitage.
*Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Swmai Muktibodhananda translation)