Frank Rogers Jr.
Dr. Frank Rogers Jr. is the Muriel Bernice Roberts Professor of Spiritual Formation and Narrative Pedagogy at the Claremont School of Theology and codirector of the Center for Engaged Compassion. His research and teaching focus is on spiritual formation.
Frank also is a spiritual director and Internal Family Systems practitioner. He earned his spiritual direction certificate of completion through Mercy Center in Burlingame, California and offers IFS therapy in private practice, as a consultant, and through retreats.
Frank is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and lives in Claremont, California, with his wife, Alane, and three sons, Justin, Michael, and Sammy.
Q & A with Frank Rogers Jr.
Jeremy Bakker, scholar in residence at The Upper Room, wrote the interview questions.
The opening sentence of Practicing Compassion grips me: “Compassion is the heartbeat of humanity.” Before reading your book, I would have identified love as the heartbeat of humanity. Do you see a difference between love and compassion?
Love and compassion are closely related. Love, however, has multiple meanings in our culture. I can love my wife, my dog, my baseball team, I can even love ice cream. Sometimes we say we “love” something because we value the pleasure we receive from it, in the way I love the taste of ice cream or I love it when my baseball team wins. Love becomes infused with desire for the pleasure I receive from my connection with the object of my love.
Compassionate love is slightly distinct from romantic love or the love of creaturely pleasure. Compassionate love is a warm regard for another person that yearns for their well-being and takes pleasure in the other’s flourishing. When we are moved by someone’s suffering and yearn for their relief, our heart does beat to a loving energy—not the love of romance or desire—but the spiritual love that beats at the heart of the universe.
Your book guides readers in learning how to practice compassion. How did you come to understand that compassion can be taught?
“Teaching” compassion is slightly misleading. We are compassionate by nature. In our core essence, we are moved by others, and we know how to care and connect. Cultivating compassion is more a process of removing the obstacles that disconnect us from our compassionate core.
During much of my life, I was at war with the emotions and impulses within me that obstructed compassion and care. I was driven by fears, angers, jealousies, and the like—then I would shame myself for feeling these emotions. Trying to force myself to feel something different than I was experiencing—like trying to be less angry—was like trying to scream my way into peace and quiet.
So I started something radical. I began to listen to my warring impulses and befriend them. And something rather miraculous happened. I began to sense that my warring impulses were rooted in suffering. And this opened my heart to compassion—a compassion that relaxed the warring impulses within me.
I noticed that the same thing happens with others. When we take the time to simply behold another person, something of that individual’s suffering and beauty emerges, and compassion flows freely within us. So I began experimenting with practices that intentionally ground and reconnect us with the core of compassion within us.
What are some ways to measure compassion? How can we know whether we have become more or less compassionate than in the past?
Researchers have been asking this question for some time—how do we actually measure compassion? One group I was with said, only half jokingly, that the best way is to talk with the people who live with the person. There is a good deal of truth in this. Do others experience us as being less reactive, less withdrawn, more available, more attentive?
Here are some indications that you are becoming more compassionate:
- You notice other people more through the course of your day.
- You feel freer to smile and offer a kind word.
- You are less shaming and judgmental about what you or others feel.
- You are able to recognize and understand the suffering within yourself or another person.
You mention in your book that “our enemies serve as mirrors—they reflect to us what we have relegated to the shadows of our own inner world.” Explain this a bit. What led you to this discovery?
I am not the first person to make this observation; Carl Jung and Walter Wink have described this as well. We all have parts of ourselves that we relegate to the shadows of our consciousness—dark qualities we feel shame about, wounds too tender to remember, even latent positive qualities we were discouraged to nurture and embody.
The miraculous beauty of the human psyche is that all of these hidden parts of us yearn to know healing, love, and restoration. So they cry out for our attention. They do so, however, indirectly. Since we refuse to be aware of them ourselves, we project those qualities onto others. The qualities within us that repel us are often the same qualities that disgust us when we see them in others. We cannot have compassion for something in another when we refuse to hold it with compassion within ourselves. Our “enemies” are mirrors in that they reveal for us these hidden parts of us.
My repulsion, for example, at a dogmatic bigot may be rooted in the bigot within me that I am loathe to acknowledge. The bigot within me is rooted in fear and pain at being minimized by others. Bringing that pain into the light of compassion not only can heal the pain within me, it can restore me to a core of compassion that can be extended to the person who repels me. In this way, enemies are not only mirrors, they are our greatest spiritual allies.
In chapter 4 you write: “The key diagnostic tool to assess our readiness to cultivate compassion toward another is to ask ourselves, Do I genuinely feel open to a compassionate connection with this person?” What if the answer to this question is no? How do we interact with people we must encounter—a work colleague, for instance—when we are not ready to engage compassionately?
When we are not open to a compassionate connection toward another, the invitation is to take the U-turn and tend to the resistance within us. That resistance is rooted in a cry within us that is screaming for care and reassurance. It may be some deep need that feels threatened, or an old wound that is as sensitive as a bone bruise. These internal cries must be tended before compassion toward another is possible. If we have to be around this person, say at work, we need to prepare ourselves ahead of time: to practice staying grounded when we are reactive, taking a breath before we respond, and being strategic about how to engage them calmly and civilly before compassion is possible.
Your book is full of compelling stories about people demonstrating compassion. How do stories help cultivate the practice of compassion?
Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (no relation!) once said that he could never hate a person whose story he had heard. Compassion emerges when our hearts are moved by the longings, fears, struggles, and joys of another. This is what stories reveal. A person’s story is a piece of their soul. Their story offers a glimpse of the deep yearnings that motivate them, and the very human experiences that touch them. Stories are the language of the heart. Hearing a story softens our own hearts.
Do we ever “arrive” at being compassionate persons? If not, how can we continue to become more compassionate?
Compassion is not a summit that we scale and then remain on from that point evermore. Compassion is something we can taste throughout the course of any day. Often, when we see a neighbor grieving a loss, or we pause to gaze at our child who is ill, our hearts are moved and we feel compassion. In that moment, we have “arrived.” We are grounded in our truest self, which is naturally compassionate.
Of course, on other occasions, we see the same neighbor or child, and weariness or busyness leaves us unmoved or sighing with annoyance. At such times, we need a practice like the Compassion Practice that helps us catch our breath, relax our reactivities, and reconnect with the person before us. Compassion is not about arriving once and for all; it is about becoming more adept at simple connection within the myriad of passions and preoccupations that drive us through the day.
Do you think we can have genuine compassion for another person if we radically disagree with him or her?
Absolutely. Compassion is about having an empathic understanding of the fears, longings, wounds, and joys underneath a person’s views or actions. One can have such understanding without necessarily agreeing with that person. In fact, this kind of mutual respect and appreciation can help persons who radically disagree live civilly with each other, perhaps even with bemused affection.The Public Conversations Project cultivates precisely this kind of appreciative compassion between persons who hold diametrically opposed positions on the polarizing social issues of our time.* More than agreeing to disagree, these persons are moved by the experiences and concerns that give rise to each others’ views. Sometimes they even become friends.
*For more information about The Public Conversations Project, visit publicconversations.org.
You teach and write about compassion. You mentioned one situation in which you struggled to have compassion for your son. As you grow more adept in practicing compassion, does compassion come more quickly for you than it used to, or it is just as difficult as when you began studying the practice?
Yes, with practice and commitment, it is possible to become more adept at connecting compassionately with others and at relaxing the reactivities within us that make such connections a challenge. At the same time, no matter how deeply we have internalized these habits and dispositions, we all have moments and particular situations that trigger us, sometimes even severely. The gift is that, in such situations, we have a way of settling back into the caring people we long to be.
What would you say about the tension between knowledge about compassion and the actual practice?
The distance between our head and our heart is only six inches, but it is the longest six inches in our world. We can know intellectually that we are beloved but feel in our hearts that we are worthless; we can know in our head that another is in pain but feel infuriated out of fatigue or at being overwhelmed ourselves. Compassion is a movement of the heart, not the head. We cannot think our way into loving connection; we can, however, cultivate compassion by tending to its pulse.
Think about situations where you find it difficult to demonstrate compassion. How do you maintain compassion for yourself when you find yourself struggling to be compassionate?
At the core of our approach to compassion is the recognition that the difficult emotions within us that resist compassion are present within us for a reason. They are cries that emerge from life needs that feel threatened or aching wounds that are still tender. Taking the U-turn and listening to the cries within us can soften our hearts toward ourselves and tend them in ways that restore us to our caring core. Our resistances are not the problem; they are the path to our restoration.
Physiological imagery pervades your book. You ask us to take our PULSE, for instance. And on page 138 you write, “The life force of the universe beats to the pulse of compassion. When we settle into our caring and connected cores, we move in time with the divine. Our hearts beat as one with the heartbeat of eternity.” Can you talk a little about the connection between physical and spiritual health?
Our bodies and souls are intimately connected. When the pulse of our spirit is beating erratically with anger or drivenness, our bodies are affected. Our physical heart beats to erratic patterns, our blood pressure escalates, stress hormones increase.
Likewise, cultivating spiritual states of calm and compassionate care stabilizes our heartbeats, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress hormones that sabotage our physical health. Scientific studies have confirmed this. Like meditation and mindfulness, compassion practices are good for us. They restore us spiritually, and they keep us healthy.