© Rami Efal
© Rami Efal

Compassion is known in Buddhist teaching as the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering. Finding the right relationship to pain, both ours and that of others, is very complex, because pain can be a tremendously powerful teacher and an opening. It can also be the cause of terrible anger and separation. We can be filled with loneliness and resentment because we’re in pain; we can feel very isolated because we’re in pain; we can feel a lot of guilt in a state of grief, blaming ourselves for something we did or something we didn’t do or something we didn’t say. We can blame ourselves for seemingly being ineffectual in a world that needs so much help.

Compassion allows us to use our own pain and the pain of others as a vehicle for connection. This is a delicate and profound path. We may be averse to seeing our own suffering because it tends to ignite a blaze of self-blame and regret. And we may be averse to seeing suffering in others because we find it unbearable or distasteful, or we find it threatening to our own happiness. All of these possible reactions to the suffering in the world make us want to turn away from life.

In contrast, compassion manifests in us as the offering of kindness rather than withdrawal. Because compassion is a state of mind that is itself open, abundant, and inclusive, it allows us to meet pain more directly. With direct seeing, we know that we are not alone in our suffering and that no one need feel alone when in pain. Seeing our oneness is the beginning of our compassion, and it allows us to reach beyond aversion and separation.

We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are feeling compassion when in fact what we are feeling is fear. Perhaps we are afraid that we could never do enough, and so we prefer to do nothing; perhaps we are afraid that our resolve will not see us through our efforts, and so we replace compassion with acquiescence. Perhaps we have slipped from compassion to hopelessness, and everything seems just way too much to deal with.

We might be afraid to take an action, we might be afraid to confront, we might be afraid to be forceful, we might be afraid to reach out. From the Buddhist perspective, lack of effort is lack of courage. But this is not an easy thing to see about oneself, so we prefer to think we’re being kind or compassionate rather than simply afraid.

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