Buddhist compassion is empathy (understanding) AND action. Buddhist compassion is truly understanding another’s suffering or discomfort, with a genuine will to help alleviate suffering. Truly knowing and understanding suffering becomes a positive action that motivates us toward relieving suffering.
We cannot pick and choose who to be compassionate to--it must be applied and directed to all beings universally if it is to be authentic.
Jesus, the Christ, said, “It is easy to love those who love us, and hard to love our enemies.” and a quote from the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians, an early Christian text, says, “You receive no benefit from loving only those who love you. Great benefit comes from loving those who hate you.”
Buddhist compassion is feeling oneness, of understanding intimately, of feeling a welcoming toward others. Often when people are behaving in a way that doesn’t appeal to us, it is a cry for help. They are struggling with an unmet need and are in need of open-hearted compassion.
We must be careful of how we form judgments around the appearance or behavior of another. Our judgments, often subtle, can cause us to act in ways that are not compassionate. We may let fear of the person’s apparent differences cause us to keep our distance. Sometimes that person is mirroring an unmet need in ourselves, which makes us uncomfortable. We project our suffering on them or recognize our suffering in the other. Sometimes we are concerned with how we will be perceived by others in reaching out. Compassion is not people-pleasing, with hope for approval of others or to receive praise, friendship, or gains in reputation. Compassion is feeling oneness, of understanding intimately, of feeling a welcoming toward others, regardless of who that other person might be.
What keeps us from practicing compassion?
Quite simply: stress.
Studies in biochemistry and neuroscience have shown that the practice of compassion rewires the brain in such a way that when we are engaged in compassionate acts the brain and the body cannot distinguish between compassionate acts for others and those for oneself. The boundary between us and them is literally removed. However, if there is stress, our biochemistry sets the body into a flight or fight response, which overrides the brain’s wiring and we are cut off from compassion.
Take a common example: we are feeling stressed, pressed for time, and we are running late and then we find ourselves stuck in busy traffic, suddenly everyone ELSE is traffic. WE are not the traffic, oh no! Stress causes the biochemistry to begin over-riding our compassion for the other drivers, who are likely looking at US as the traffic and not themselves. The us and them thinking emerges. We lose empathy and caring and we stop paying attention. Stress is what disconnects us and blocks compassion.
Cultivating compassion is the frontier of human evolution, it is our capacity as human beings to rise above the dictates of biochemical reactions and further our evolution. To do this, we must set an intention, to make an effort toward this aim. It is habit energy that keeps us from practicing. We get caught up in worry about getting things done, being on time, centering on actions for ourselves, and focusing on ourselves in such a way that there is little to no room for even noticing others, let alone whether they are in distress or not.
We live in a competitive society. We have been told and often believe that there is a contest of winners and losers and only the winners get what they need to have a satisfying life. The growing demands for more, of wanting, of constant production creates a hierarchy. It puts more stress on people and the balance grows more and more uneven. When we act within such a society of growing extremes, we find it more difficult to connect to those above or below us.
We have embodied this primal fear of survival into our lives, into the very structure of our society. We project strength and competence even when we don’t believe we possess them so that we won’t be cut down. The success of those around us magnifies our perceived failures. We hinder ourselves by conforming, choosing to be around, appear, and think like others so that we do not stand out. But who decides what is the right way to think, to act, to exist? We let our fear close down our thinking, our self-examination, and our compassion
So how do we cultivate compassion in our daily lives?
Cultivating compassion is a practice of deepening attention. When we widen our hearts we lose the artificial boundaries that separate us from them.
There are doorways into compassion: grief, addiction, illness, pain are some of those doorways. These are experiences where empathy and action have great powers for healing. It is easier for us to connect when we share with others who are also going through or have gone through similar struggles.
George Washington Carver said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and the strong, because someday you will have been all of these.”
Paying attention, practicing mindfulness is another doorway. It takes slowing down and getting quiet to perceive the sentience and being-ness that lives through all things. Rushing about, living with our minds focused on the past or future keeps us from being connected. When we pay attention, we become more aware of all that is around us. When we pause to reflect we understand that all beings struggle, that even those who trouble us, who we find difficult, experience the same kind of challenges in life that we do.
To have awareness of compassion, we are mindful of others' needs, noticing when they are in distress and what we can do to ease their pain; mindful of our speech and actions, however, small, and even of our inaction and silence, mindful of our ignoring or avoiding someone, mindful of our thoughts, our facial expressions and body language, which can silently convey our thinking. Buddhist compassion is being mindful of our impact on the earth, the environment, and of minimizing harm to others by being resourceful and not wasteful.
The true practice of compassion comes by first being compassionate to yourself. If you cannot be present with your own suffering in an embodied way, you cannot be present with another’s.
To be compassionate to ourselves we must understand ourselves, know the quality of our thinking, the habits of our speech and actions. Do they support compassion to ourselves or are we burdening ourselves and letting our lives be guided by stress and fear?
When we suffer we tend to blame ourselves. However, when we suffer, we must come to understand that there is an unmet need at the root of our struggle (it could be the need to feel safe, to feel loved, to feel healthy, etc.). Understanding the root of suffering is how we can awaken.
So what can we do?
We can get in touch with our senses. You can’t wake up to compassion if you are not fully in your body. With sincerity, contact the suffering you are experiencing and offer loving kindness. Pay attention to how the suffering causes you to pull in, to tighten the body, to close you off from outside. Sense this as an opportunity to be kind. Here is where you can begin to cultivate compassion. Deepen your attention. Understand how this can be difficult for you. Notice what stories emerge in response to your touching this suffering. Let the feelings emerge. Give them presence, unbury them—sense the unmet need that exists. Don’t judge. Instead, offer kindness and love. Say, “I see this pain. May I be free. May I be content. May I be at peace.” Give it breath. Be the space of engaged compassionate presence that you need.
Self-compassion takes practice. You will need to do this over and over. But with continued practice of self-compassion you will find it becomes more familiar and easier to engage. Additionally, the brain’s neuro-net is rewired, and that practice of self-compassion begins to open awareness and widen your heart so that there is room for others who are struggling. We learn how to see through the eyes of another person who is suffering, because we learn that we are no different than that person.
This careful attention, this mindfulness practice allows us to really see who we are so we can begin to be compassionate, know compassion and then look outward toward helping those around us. If we see ourselves through the lens of compassion, we will see all around us through that same lens. We will understand that all beings are us and any suffering must be eased as we would seek to ease suffering in ourselves.
To Come Home to Yourself
by John O’Donohue
May all that is unforgiven in you
May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.
May all that is unloved in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members