We were watching the tsunami coverage on BBC News when we heard the phrase. Jim Leach, Republican Congressman from Iowa, who is part of a Congressional delegation visiting the disaster area, was discussing American aid as a combination of government appropriations, business contributions, and individual contributions through nonprofit organizations and charities. "What we see happening," he said, "is competitive compassion." He continued, "That's the new mantra for public policy."

We looked at each other in amazement. Something about the phrase struck us as unseemly. Yes, it's good that people are responding to this terrible tragedy with compassion — but do we have to make their generosity a competition as if the latest news reports were just the set-up for some new reality show called "Doing Good"?

With all due respect to Congressman Leach (who was probably just trying to emphasize that a tremendous amount of giving is going on these days), "competitive compassion" is an oxymoron. Compassion means to "suffer with." It involves a process of identifying with our neighbors and recognizing our common humanity. Competition pits neighbor against neighbor; it seeks to set one above another. Competition divides; compassion unites.

The week after the tsunami the homepage at SpiritualityHealth.com featured a picture from the movie Hotel Rwanda, which is based on the true story of a hotel manager who shielded more than 1,200 neighbors and strangers during the genocide in 1994 in which 800,000 of his fellow countrymen were murdered. In the photo, he is carrying a child in the rain. That image spoke to us all week as we thought of other parents carrying children out of the ocean, some saved, some already dead. As an icon of compassion, it linked the tsunami, a natural disaster, to a wartime one.

Our world gives us plenty of opportunities to exercise our compassion. We've collected some comments on this practice and some exercises to help you experience what Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield calls "the quivering of the pure heart — when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life."

Book Excerpts

The Dalai Lama on Compassion as a Source of Happiness
"Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful," writes the Dalai Lama in his book on the ethics and spiritual development needed for the twenty-first century. He calls this a matter of common sense. "There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer." Yet "as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy."

Karen Armstrong on Connecting with the World through Compassion
Walking with God in a Fragile World edited by James Langford and Leroy Rouner contains 13 original essays by spiritual writers and theologians reacting to the aftershocks of September 11. In her essay, historian of religion Karen Armstrong notes that compassion is one of the practices emphasized in all the world's religions — and one which now connects Americans with the dispossessed in other parts of the world. Read her comments in light of the outpouring of aid for the tsunami victims.

Philip Simmons on Seeing God in the Suffering
In his remarkable book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, the late Philip Simmons wrote about living with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), finding meaning all around him and "rescuing joy from heartbreak." He wanted us to recognize God's presence in all of life, both light and dark. Seeing /uploads/features/images of the destruction caused by the tsunami, we recalled his statement: "Our greater challenge is to see God not only in the eyes of the suffering child but in the suffering itself."

Rodger Kamenetz on God and the Disaster
The questions arise with every natural disaster: Why did so many die? Why were some spared? What does this mean? But perhaps because the tsunami took so many lives so quickly with no warning, the questions seem particularly forceful and haunting. We can send contributions for the relief effort; we can pray for the survivors, but how do we understand this tragedy? Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus, brings his multifaith perspective (he is a Jew who has studied Buddhism extensively) to bear on this question. He examines some of the metaphysical reasons given for lives lost in disasters and finds them wanting. "I don't believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don't believe in a God who punishes through disaster." Drawing upon both Jewish and Buddhist sources, he comes to another insight: "There is God in the response, in the human hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this. . . . The place it touches in me, touches God."

Spiritual Practices

Pema Chodron on Cultivating Compassion
Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron notes that a nineteenth-century yogi, Patrul Rinpoche, suggested that to arouse your compassion you should imagine beings in torment. This is not difficult in these days of round-the-clock coverage of the tsunami tragedy, daily car bombings in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan, and other troubles in our wartime world. In this excerpt from The Places That Scare You, Chodron acknowledges that this kind of practice requires courage. But it is also important: "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals." We have suggested a way to practice at the end of the excerpt. Try to do it at least once a day.

The Gift of Tears
In the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, a little girl gets lost in an abandoned theme park. She is befriended by a boy who gives her a cake that he says will give her back her strength. When she eats it, she starts crying. There is strength in tears — a truth recognized by spiritual leaders throughout history. The early Christian desert fathers and mothers had the highest regard for what they called "the gift of tears." This article, from our monthly "Spiritual Practices" column in The Lutheran magazine, explores crying as a spiritual practice. Among other examples, we relate our personal experience seeing the film Hotel Rwanda.