Members of Compassionate City Belfast stand with Mayor Mairtin O’ Muilleoir at the Belfast City Hall where the Charter for Compassion was signed on June 2. Photo: Compassionate City Belfast
On June 2, the city of Belfast, Ireland, signed the Charter for Compassion, an initiative launched by 2008 TED Prize winner Karen Armstrong, making it the 40th city to adopt the Charter. Given Northern Ireland’s history of sectarian violence, this was a major breakthrough. More than 100 people, including representatives from all political parties, attended the official announcement which took place at the Belfast City Hall.
We thought we would check in with Frank Liddy, a Charter for Compassion organizer in the city. A Belfast native, Liddy has spent more than 25 years counseling trauma victims through the Belfast Mindfulness Centre, many of them traumatized by “The Troubles,” the colloquial term given to the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland that claimed more than 3,600 lives between the 1960s and 1980s. Read on to hear how that experience led him to Karen Armstrong’s TED Prize wish.
Was there any particular incident in your life that spurred your interest in learning more about compassion?
I was born and bred in Belfast, brought up through The Troubles. During the 1970s, when I was about 20-years-old, I witnessed a horrific bomb blast in Belfast and I was one of the first to rush in to rescue people. I was horrified and shocked after that, and I knew it was trauma. Trauma has a good way of bringing about denial. I didn’t want to talk about it at first, but I knew something was wrong. I thought, “Violence can’t be the answer; there has to be another way.” The only thing I came across in the 1970s, during my search for a non-violent way, was His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which then took me on a search to find out more about Buddhism.
How did studying Buddhism and mindfulness change you?
I found that “frozen Frankie” began to thaw. I slowly got my feelings and my emotions back. When you’re traumatized, you freeze up and you can’t really participate. I studied with Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche [a high-ranking Tibetan lama] for a while, and then His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Belfast in 2000, at which point I was asked to be his assistant. Being in His Holiness’s presence had an equally great impact. Did you know that “Dalai Lama” actually means “ocean of compassion?” It oozes from him, and because there is that love, there is no fear—you get a sense of loving kindness, a kind of warmth. I was able to ask him many of the questions I’d been harboring for years and one was about all the anger I’d felt about what’d happened and about not being able to do anything about the violence. He told me that the way forward is through forgiveness and that forgiveness comes through compassion. He said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Did experiencing the trauma of the bomb blast change your life?
The bomb for me was an awakening—a rude awakening, but one that catapulted me into that challenge of what’s going on, and what can be done about it. I applied my background in counseling to working with trauma victims. Trauma can have a cumulative effect—almost like layers—and being brought up in Belfast through The Troubles, one has to be troubled. For me, it was about engaging in a practice that was of value and benefit and that’s when I would say I began to “wake up.” I wanted to share this with others by spreading the ideas of compassion and mindfulness.
Given your personal experience, do you think there’s a relationship between suffering and compassion?
Back in the 1970s, Mother Teresa was in Belfast and she was asked by TV presenter: “When do you think there will be peace in Ireland?” And she replied: “When people have suffered enough.” For me and the rest of Belfast, that was the last thing we wanted to hear. Had we not suffered enough? Truth be told, that really stuck with me. Unfortunately, trauma wants us to stay away from suffering; trauma wants us to create some Wizard of Oz experience where it’s disassociated. But it’s only when you engage the trauma, and push through the suffering that you then find kindness and compassion.
Do you think that compassion is an “idea worth spreading” in Northern Ireland?
Yes, because compassion transcends religious dogma. No one can be excluded. The Charter for Compassion is going to open a lot of doors, at least for people to start conversing. Dialogue is a great place to start—I think it will bring about an awareness and a gradual awakening. I do believe that compassion will be a great reach from where we are right now. Ireland is a land of Saints and Scholars so, for me, if compassion is born out of the back of The Troubles then nothing has been wasted. I believe that compassion is the ointment that we need as a people in order to be able to move forward.
What is the significance of this charter, given Northern Ireland’s history?
It will bring us hope. Things are better in Belfast, but there is also a sense of emptiness sometimes. The Charter for Compassion will almost be like a raft to get us through what we are going through now and to bring us into the new territory, like a blank canvas. We as a people have never been here before. Over the last hundreds of years, there’s always been a struggle, but I really believe now that we are looking for a way forward. If you drop the “I-O-N” from compassion, we get the word “compass.” So there is something about a “compass” within compassion that will reset us towards our true nature. I believe our true nature is that of kindness.