I remember very little when I was a child but one thing, intuitively, stuck out for me at a very young age when I heard Robert Kennedy eulogize his brother as a "good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, who saw suffering and tried to heal it, who saw war and tried to stop it." At a very tender age, these words were deeply moving as I watched the funeral on television.
It was not until many years later that I recognized, in those unforgettable words, the precise description of the essence of compassion.
Compassion is the desire to alleviate suffering and it entails the courage to face it, the wisdom to gaze deeply into it, and the resolve to respond to it in a way that brings relief. Compassion is not merely a feeling. More than just sentiment, it is born of a brave consciousness and a strong will. It may arise as a tenderness of the heart, but it requires the support of a tough mind. It is not pity, although the two are sometimes confused.
Pity is simply feeling sorry for someone. It is feeling bad because someone has to endure suffering. But pity keeps its distance from suffering. Pity often sounds like this, "so sorry things are not going well for you, and thank goodness it's not me." Pity can't get past the element of fear. It's really afraid of pain and suffering. It wants to flee from their presence, fast.
Compassion doesn't keep its distance. Compassion literally means "to experience or to endure with." It is unafraid and willing to be with the suffering. To gaze into it. Up close and personal. The compassionate person can do this because it has learned to accept rather than to resist suffering.
People going through hard times can usually tell if they are being treated with pity or compassion. When my mother was in the hospital, dying from cancer, I was often sitting with her as she received visitors. I could tell when guests were uncomfortable seeing my mom, their friend, their loved one in bed. And, I'm sure this did not pass unnoticed by my mother, when she was lucid, because she could read others like a book. Ill-at-ease visitors usually felt compelled to talk, often, about anything other than her illness. If her sickness was brought up, some visitors often spoke hollow words assuring my mother that everything was going to be alright. The uneasy guest occasionally looked at his or her watch during the conversation and sometimes took the first opportunity to depart. And, of course, we all have that one or two family members who avert compassion and "enduring with" by making the whole situation all about themselves. These visitors were not uncaring, they merely found it hard to be in the presence of someone suffering.
On the other hand, those who seemed, to me, to bear the face of compassion did not appear eager to direct the conversation away from my mother's pain and anguish. Yet, they may not have had much to say about it. Words are sometimes used to hide our discomfort and suffering. Sometimes we just don't know what to say, but it's better to be quiet than to utter vacuous words.
The compassionate person does not flee from pain or silence. In many cases, the person who seemed to bring the greatest relief to my mother was one who was willing to stay by her side and listen when necessary. Even without words, one can bring comfort to another by merely being physically present, maybe holding their hand, and being mindfully attentive.
Such gestures can strengthen others by conveying it is possible neither to resist nor to run away from suffering.
Compassion is not something we have to learn. It is what we are. The capacity for compassion is in our deepest natures as human beings. To be sure, some of us manifest the face of compassion more plainly than others. For me, the clearest and most common expression of compassion can be seen as the mother's love for her child. As a recipient of that love as a child, I wasn't always appreciative of my own mother's attention and selflessness. Having usually had them it was always difficult for me to think of life without them, or even imagine what great care was expressed at times. But, I came to understand maternal love more clearly when I had my own child and lost my own mother during the same year. Having my daughter, I've been able to experience, up close, the power of that bond. Amazement is not too strong a word for my reaction.
I am certainly not the only one to consider motherhood as the prime exemplar of compassion. Please don't think I'm romanticizing motherhood in this example. I'm fully aware, me being one, that mother's don't always exhibit compassionate natures. I'm also aware that fathers can be as compassionate as mothers, although, social construction of modern masculinity makes the expression of compassion more difficult for males.
When we fail to act in a compassionate way, as we often do, we've either been conditioned to avert suffering or we have suppressed the desire to relieve it. Our frequent failure to be compassionate does not mean that compassion is not a basic part of who we are. It simply means that our fundamental nature has been obscured and needs to be gently revealed.
Much in our culture works to separate us from our compassion and, hence, alienate one another and from ourselves. Our love of competition, our fear of pain and suffering, our quest for pleasure and our endless forms of distraction all function to enshroud compassion. But, if we continue with a daily meditation practice and if we practice presence in everything we do then we can subtly counteract those aspects of our culture.
Being able to see suffering is the pre-requisite to deeper compassion. For anyone with a television or access to the internet it's easy to see the overt manifestations of suffering. But perceiving the deeper expressions of suffering isn't easy and requires the skills of attentiveness that the practice of presence sharpens. Seeing the subtle and extensive nature of suffering permits us to be more adept at identifying it and becoming more familiar with it.
That familiarity, in turn, helps us accept it as a present moment experience which we need not run from nor resist. Compassion requires the willingness to look at suffering, tragedy, and pain without aversion or attachment.
Recognizing the subtle nature of suffering also enables us to see how its clearly evident manifestations, like war and conflict, are interrelated with its less apparent forms such as greed, fear, and disappointment. Common to all experiences of suffering, are self-centered desires that often outstrip the capacity for reality to satisfy them. Insight into the conditions that give rise to suffering is necessary to being able to respond to the suffering constructively.
Recognizing suffering in our own experience is critical to seeing it in the lives of others. Unless I understand the nature of my own suffering I can do little to help you with yours. Paradoxically, then I can take my own conditioned tendency to focus on me and use it to turn outward to others in compassion. As we practice compassionate presence, we begin to see this is hardly a paradox at all. As we come to understand there is not my suffering and your suffering - there is only suffering.
Being compassionate toward others is based on empathy. This is when we put ourselves in the place of others. Knowing that I want to be happy and free from suffering, I can infer that other beings want this as well. Knowing that about others, I ought to treat them accordingly.
The first step in being compassionate toward others thus involves imaginatively involving into the interiority of another person sharing his or her inner life, in a profound way, by recognizing that they are like me. This basic empathetic principle is hardly a revelation to any of us. The world's religions and philosophies almost uniformly endorse this precept and make it the cornerstone of their ethics. It's the basis of what we in the west call the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Despite its ubiquity most of us find it difficult to remember to be empathetic which may be a clue why the principle is so repeatedly articulated in religious traditions. I don't think it's necessarily because empathy is particularly hard for us, sometimes it arises in us spontaneously, perhaps moe than we ordinarily recognize...unless we are practicing presence. But, just as often, we neglect to practice empathy because the illusion of self gets in the way. In other words, my conditioned tendency to regard the Universe as revolving around me makes it easy to forget that the rest of you thinks that the Universe revolves around you.
When I am absorbed, seeking my own happiness by the usual frantic and misguided methods, I'm too preoccupied to appreciate that you're seeking the same freedom from suffering that I am.
Throughout my life I've had occasion to be sitting in hospital waiting rooms and to observe families of patients who were in intensive care units as family members anticipated word on their loved one's condition. As the patient lay in critical condition, quartered away elsewhere in the ICU, anxious relatives waited in uncertainty, never knowing if the doctor would be walking through the door with news of improvement or decline. Or, perhaps even death. The days could be long and waiting often seemed endless. Yet, although they can be grim places to visit, I sometimes saw things in these waiting rooms that inspired me immensely.
These were the times, and they were not rare, when I observed how the medical crisis would draw family members and loved ones closer to one another. In the space created by grave situations that they shared, members of a family seem to become more sensitive and kinder to one another - offering to get a cup of coffee for one, recommending another go home for some much needed rest, speaking in soft and gentle tones to one another. I even witnessed how two or three different family members, all total strangers, but united by trying circumstances, suddenly overcame any awkwardness to talk and commiserate with one another. I can well-imagine that in other circumstances these individuals will have remained within the safe confines of their own family, without reaching beyond it. Sometimes, families of course, stayed isolated from one another. But, just as often, their common lot, freed them to cross the imaginary barriers separating them. I often saw solidarity emerge between different families as members of one would share the joy or good news received by another. Or, share the grief when the news was unwelcome.
While observing this outpouring of compassion and kindness in the hospital waiting room was encouraging for me, I was also a bit saddened that it required such a liminal experience to bring it out. Why couldn't we be this way all the time - caring for one another as if we were always in the waiting room of the hospital? After all, life isn't that much different from such places. We are all subject to sickness and death, we are all liable to receive bad news about a loved one at any time. We all spend a great deal of time in uncertainty.
Fortunately, there are ways to encourage a deeper empathy with others even when our circumstances are less dire than in the hospital. When you're not feeling particularly empathetic with some of your fellow human beings, here's a simple practice to remind you of the common humanity we all share beneath the labels and identifications that divide us. Any time you find yourself annoyed or alienated from someone, recite these words, "just like me."
Here's an example: Let's say you are at the airport. Which, by the way, is one of the greatest places on earth to practice mindfulness. Where else do you have such wonderful opportunities to experience the subtle manifestations of suffering? To practice patience, anger management? To observe other people and even meditate? If you are seeking an ideal place for testing your progress on the mindfulness path, there is no better place than an airport. The bigger and busier the better! Thank your lucky stars when your flight has been delayed or even cancelled. Now you have an unrivaled opportunity to attend to what's really important in life.
So, you find yourself waiting in one of these several airport queues you have to go through to get to where you are going. Just ahead of you, as you are rushing to get through security, is a bumbling passenger who has no clue how to negotiate this procedure quickly. You know the one...the man or woman who forgets to empty their pockets and sets off the scanner. The one who leisurely removes his shoes and belt, completely oblivious that others have planes to catch in the next ten minutes. Or, consider the passenger behind you who's in such a hurry, she's practically pushing you and your stuff out of the way, cursing under her breath. Need I say more? Now is the time to practice your skills of empathy. As you watch the bumbling passenger, you say to yourself, "just like me." Here's a person who forgot to pack travel-sized containers and you can say, "I could've done that." How many times have you been in such a hurry that you've forgotten things while packing? Or the fella who forgets to empty his pockets? You can say, "just like me."
It is easy to get frustrated going through stressful queues that you can understand how someone could overlook that step. And the guy who takes his time with his shoes and belt, "just like me." Perhaps he suffers from such physical pain that he can't move any faster. You can say, "I too, have struggled with debilitating pain."
And the pushy woman behind you? "Just like me." Perhaps she is late for a flight and eager to get home to her sick child. I've been late for flights, and I know I'd be in a rush if my sick daughter were waiting for me. Ok, true you don't know if the pushy lady actually has a sick child waiting for her at home, or if the slow fella has arthritis, maybe. Maybe not. You don't know.
What you do know is that they are seeking happiness just like you. And, probably doing so in the same misguided ways as you. And, by the way, each of these examples I've cited come from my own experiences. Not only have I been personally annoyed by the pushy woman and the bumbling man, I have actually been the pushy woman and the bumbling man, becoming nuisance to someone else.
The "just like me" can be practiced anywhere. It can be practiced when you are watching the news on TV, taking a moment to ponder why others behave the way they do, trying to imagine how you would react to such a situation. Reflecting on ways we share a common humanity. It can be practice when you drive, wait in line at the grocery store, or endure poor restaurant service.
This tool is extremely effective for establishing empathy with others. Particularly those we find difficult to like. Empathy and compassion do not require that we feel affection for one another. We can have compassion for our worst enemies. Ultimately, the full pursuit of compassion practice requires that we cultivate empathy for some very tough characters, including those who we know to be perpetrators of horrendous violence or abuse. Compassion cannot be selective. For most of us, the skill to be compassionate of such persons comes at the end of a very long road. For now, though, let us try to work with the easier cases and gradually progress to the harder ones.
There is, however, one very tough character that you will have to work with before you can go away further with this practice. Yourself. For some of us, it may be harder to muster compassion for ourselves than others. And, there is a saying attributed to the Buddha, "you can search throughout the entire Universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and compassion than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anyone, deserve your love and compassion."
Author Lori Lines
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