The Magic of Compassion
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Compassion for our fellow human being is a cornerstone of many the world’s spiritual traditions. It is one of the great transformative human emotions because in showing compassion we transcend he constraints of our self and embrace a broader, more open-minded view of life that emphasizes human connectedness rather than individuality. This sense of kinship brings insight and healing both to ourselves and to the people toward whom we demonstrate compassion.
The key to compassion is empathy.
Without the ability to feel our way into how life feels like for others, we won’t be able to respond with compassion. Here is how Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer described his experience of empathy:
“Listening to people talking I could enter into their lives, feel their tattered clothes on my back, walk with my feet in their shoes; their desires, their needs, all passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs.”
It is a balm for the soul when someone reaches out to us and tries to tune in to what is going on for us.
I remember a moment last year when I was very worried about financial matters. I tried to bottle up my anxiety and keep my ordinary life going. One day I was sitting at the hairdressers feeling tight and stressed. A young stylist came up behind me an placed her hands gently on my shoulders. Then she asked, “How are things going for you?” I immediately began to cry. Afterwards I felt a great relief. It was as if this simple gesture and question had allowed me to get in touch with what was going on for me.
The difficulty is that we can’t really know exactly what someone’s experience is like. Experience is something unique to each individual and each moment. But if we let go of pre-formed ideas and allow ourselves to be open to what the other person may be feeling, we can get a sense of how they are.
If our ultimate goal is to show compassion to everyone, we might assume that it would be easy to start with the person closest to us - our partner.
It’s often easier to show compassion towards a complete stranger than toward the person we love most.
When we see our partner suffering, we often respond with anxiety or frustration instead of compassion. This is because any suffering we see in our partner can trigger a fear of loss and a sense of helplessness in us. After all, our lives are intimately intertwined and we can be sure that whatever suffering our partner is experiencing will impinge on our own life as well. All these uncomfortable emotions, such as fear and resentment, can get in the way of feeling compassionate toward our partner. And yet it’s vital to practise compassion in relationship because it is the path to forgiveness and can be a lifeline for your partner in times of grief and pain.
Even in the most fortunate lives there will be periods of grief and mourning, when compassion will be requires. If your loved one is suffering, you may find that you are pulled in two different directions: on one hand, you may feel an instinctive aversion to their anguish or pain and wish to turn away from it. On the other hand, you may find yourself wanting almost to embrace their suffering, to take on the burden and “make it better” for your partner.
Think back to an occasion when your partner broke down in mental anguish - for example, on hearing of a bereavement - ore endured severe physical pain. What was your response? If you find such suffering hard to face, remember that breathing - centering yourself through breathing slowly and deeply will give you the strength to show your compassion when it is most needed.
There is a Tibetan Buddhist practice that allows us to connect with our own suffering and that of others. It is called Tonglen. It is a way of awakening the compassion that is in each one of us, no matter how cold or unfeeling we might seem. Teacher Pema Chodron gives the following instructions:
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain…
Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness.
Compassion is not just a luxury that we can afford when our life is going well. To cultivate compassion and empathy is essential for the survival or our species.
© Mary Jaksch
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Goodlife Zen: The Magic of Compassion
An excellent post from Goodlife Zen. One quibble, though -- for me it is much easier to extend compassion to those I love and care about than those who are strangers to me. I suspect this may be true for a lot of people, but I don't know. Any thoughts?