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Human life is a precious opportunity to benefit ourselves and others. Compassion need not be cultivated or developed—it is naturally present. Cultivated compassion is lifeless compared to the potent energy of innate altruism that is available to everyone.
True compassion is not about pity, yet feels everything deeply and responds to everything completely. Natural compassion fuels our responses with beneficial action, skillful means and heart connection, with no need for contrivance.
How to access this spontaneous, natural compassion? When we rest all fixed ideas through the practice of “short moments of open intelligence, many times, until continuous”, a tremendous amount of energy appears. This is the empowering energy of superb helpfulness, and its intent is entirely beneficial.
Just as wisdom covers the intellectual or comprehending side of our nature. Like wisdom, compassion is uniquely human quality. Compassion is made up of two words. ‘co’ meaning together and ‘passion’ meaning a strong feeling. And this is what compassion is. When we see someone is in distress and we feel their pain as if it were our own, and strive to eliminate or lessen their pain, then this is compassion. So all the best in human beings, all the Buddha-like qualities like sharing, readiness to give comfort, sympathy, concern and caring – all are manifestations of compassion. You will notice also that in the compassionate person, care and love towards others has its origins in care and love for oneself. We can really understand others when we really understand ourselves. We will know what’s best for others when we know what’s best for ourselves. We can feel for others when we feel for ourselves. So in Buddhism, one’s own spiritual development blossoms quite naturally into concern for the welfare of others. The Buddha’s life illustrates this very well. He spent six years struggling for his own welfare, after which, he was able to be of benefit to the whole of humankind.
So, what is compassion? Some time ago, I read a definition that I found striking. It came from a book by the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar. According to her, “compassion emphasizes the experience of suffering with those who suffer” and, because of this, “is far from according with a sentimental conception of life.” She says that it “inflicts its knifelike pain only on those who, strong or not, brave or not, intelligent or not (such qualities are beside the point), have been granted the horrible gift of looking the world full in the face and seeing it as it is.” Is this capacity to suffer for others, including not only human beings but also all living things, compassion?
As Yourcenar presents it, compassion has nothing to do with a “sentimental conception of life.” In order to be compassionate one needs courage and inner strength. Going back to my feeling about homeless people, I can see how easy it could be to entertain a distorted notion of social responsibility based on a looking-down-on type of charity. However, a homeless person is simply another human being who, for reasons unknown to me, is in this situation.
I have practiced different things in order to understand my connection to a homeless person, to poverty, and to all types of suffering. For example, I have tried to see a family members face in that person, and in general, when I do so, I have noticed that something happens within myself; something sweeps my indifference away. Even more, it generates a connection with human beings who lack the necessities of life or who suffer in other ways. I am able to incorporate that person into my daily thoughts and actions. This has required that I move beyond the dichotomy of what I can or cannot do to change those people’s lives.
Sparing some quarters is not the answer. I envision a better world. I know there are so many things that need to be changed, but I am also aware that there is no value in preaching to others what I do not put into practice in my own life. I am convinced that in order to understand how I can help other people, I need to observe their suffering without trying to get rid of the sorrow I feel within. This takes a lot of courage and honesty. No theories, no explanations, no justifications, nothing to mitigate that reality. I have to let that suffering permeate my soul, while at the same time not allowing myself to become saddened or depressed. I have to accept the sorrow in the world-an acceptance that is not intellectual, but rather an acknowledgment of and understanding of the human condition. As a human being, I need to acknowledge the sorrow of others in my daily life. When sorrow appears, that sorrow has a brother, a sister, a son, a mother, a father; my sorrow is not alone and, for sure, is by far not the worst.
Having looked directly into the core of suffering and sorrow, while stopping all inner interpretations, I find it easier to choose how to act; I hold the suffering and sorrow of other people in mind as a point of reference for my own existence, and not out of reaction. This reminds me of what Gandhi said, “When in doubt about what action to take, one should think of the most miserable human being in the world. If the action one is considering would help that person in some way, it would be the right choice.”
If I can live that sorrow myself, not in a morbid way, and at the same time become more conscious of what I have received, I may discover what I really want to give back to society. This takes away the desire to get rid of unpleasant feelings-a desire which could interfere with what I would describe as my vocation. My life is no longer separated from the life of other human beings. This does not come as a nice thought, but as a concrete way of living. Simple actions such as preparing food can bring into my mind and heart those who do not have something to eat and can generate hopeful thoughts for a fair and equitable world. As a practical consequence, I surely will not waste any food.
Gradually this practice makes way for a more conscious life. I expand my understanding of what the world needs and my relationship with other human beings, my connections. Perception and judgments about my role in life change. Life acquires a more global scope. So, by not giving away those quarters clinking in my pocket, I have allowed myself to work toward an understanding of what compassion might be. Only by going through this process can I think of how to help a homeless person without acting simply out of reaction.
Compassion is indeed a human event and it is up to each of us to develop it, let it grow and then practice it from our souls and our hearts.