Most people agree that our divided country could use some healing. But it’s hard to figure out just how that healing can start.
Matthew Sanford has a few ideas about ways to nurture the national healing process. He’ll share those ideas and others on Dec. 13 at St. Catherine University when he and Krista Tippett, host of “On Being,” meet for Mind Body Dialogues: Embodied Compassion, a free public conversation focusing on compassion and its role in relationships, healing and the experience of daily living. The dialogue is the third in a series of conversations moderated by Cathy Wurzer, host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac.”
Sanford, author of “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence,” yoga instructor and founder of the Minnetonka-based nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, believes that one step toward rebuilding our fractured culture is to practice compassion for others. He has been paralyzed from the chest down since he was injured in a car accident at age 13. At St. Catherine, he and Tippett will talk about nurturing compassion in our everyday lives and how it can build a deeper understanding of the pains and motivations of others.
“Talking about compassion is timely right now,” Sanford said. “Many of us are reacting to world events out of fear and uncertainty. We’re blaming people. We’re taking stands against one another. But I’m suggesting that instead we all try practicing compassion. I don’t care what your political beliefs are: No one can stand up and say, ‘I’m against compassion.’”
Tippett believes that practicing compassion can help Americans of different political persuasions learn to trust one another again.
“Right now in our public lives we are fighting and fearing each other pretty openly,” she said, “but on a cerebral level we are fighting over principle and what we think the other side stands for. We’re often filling in the blanks when we don’t really know what the answers are. The real hard work that is awaiting us is to figure out what common life can mean after this campaign. We have to be attentive to each others’ suffering, and compassion can help with that.”
“If there was ever a time in this country when it is important to live in a way that is compassionate to other human beings,” he said, “it is now.”
The nature of compassion
The word compassion gets thrown around a lot, but what is its best definition?
Much of the conversation will focus on that question, Sanford said, on helping audience members build a working, real-life framework of the nature of true compassion, showing the importance of compassion in real life and how its practice can be accessible for everyone.
“We are bringing compassion out of the clouds,” he said. “We will show how it is something we all can practice.”
Compassion, Tippett said, “is not feeling sorry for someone. It’s more than empathy or sympathy. The literal definition of compassion is feeling with. It’s the image of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. That can be a hard thing to do.”
And in some instances, expressing false compassion can feel disrespectful, Sanford added, offering an example: “As a man, I can never know what it’s like to give birth. So if I say to Krista something about ‘the pain of giving birth,” that’s hollow. Maybe compassion is connection with.”
Tippett and Sanford will share personal stories about their experiences with the practice of compassion, blending anecdotes from Tippett’s many interviews with world spiritual leaders and Sanford’s journey through life with significantly limited mobility.
One way to build compassion is to open oneself to the world, Tippett said, to listen with an open mind to the pain of others and work to understand the pain’s source.
“I think one of the ways to become more compassionate is to understand our wounds and the sources of suffering,” Tippett said. “This includes being present for other people’s suffering, being attentive to it. Just as you can learn to throw a ball better by doing it over and over again, you can also become more compassionate by trying it over and over again.”
One point that both Tippett and Sanford want to make clear is that compassion can be practiced by anyone. It’s not the exclusive territory of a group of exalted people.
“What I’ve learned from my conversations across the years with scientists and all kinds of people of wisdom is, as Matthew said, sometimes compassion gets portrayed as something practiced by saints,” Tippett said. “But compassion is something anyone can practice. It is a virtue, a spiritual practice.”
“Compassion is a practical spiritual technology,” Sanford continued. “By the end of our conversation, we want people to see that compassion isn’t just for saints and heroes. It is something that we all can integrate into our lives.”
The first Mind Body Dialogue was held in 2014 and featured a live conversation between Wurzer and Bruce Kramer, former dean of the University of St. Thomas. Kramer was been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2010 and he and Wurzer wrote a book together. Their discussion focused on living well in a difficult body. Kramer died in 2015.
Last year’s Mind Body Dialogue featured a conversation with author and humorist Kevin Kling and focused on the importance of story in healing the mind and the body.
This year’s conversation will last approximately an hour and a half, and will include some audience participation. “I will show some experiential things that I want people to do,” Sanford explained. “And there will be time for audience questions at the end.”
Tippett said that she and Sanford hope audience members will leave the event with a sense of optimism — and a list of questions to ponder.
“Matthew is one of the wisest people I’ve ever met on this topic,” she said. “I really do think this can be an evening where people come away with tools that they can use in their personal lives.”
“That’s the hope,” Sanford added, “because everybody has a little bit of a broken heart right now.”
Sanford and Tippett’s forum will be held Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. at Rauenhorst Ballroom on St. Catherine University’s St. Paul campus. The event — which is sponsored by HealthPartners, Mind Body Solutions, and St. Catherine University — is free and open to the public.