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.
Related: Cultivating Compassion
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.
We can fool ourselves into thinking we are feeling compassion and yet we might actually be feeling guilt. We might feel, if we see someone suffering while we ourselves are fairly happy or are happy in a way that this person is not, that we in some way don’t deserve our happiness. But that is not quite the same as a sense of compassion. Guilt, in Buddhist psychology, is defined as a kind of self-hatred. It is another form of anger. There are times when we understand that we have acted unskillfully, and we feel some concern and remorse. This can be important and healing. But a distinction needs to be made between such concern and guilt, which is a state of contraction, a state of endlessly going over things that we might have done or said. If we are motivated by guilt at what we feel, it will drain all of our energy; it does not give us the strength to reach out to help others. We ourselves take center stage when we are in the state of guilt.
Compassion is a practice of inclining the mind and of intention. Rather than laying a veneer of idealism on top of reality, we want to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want and do for what they actually are. The mistake that most of us make at one time or another is to try to superimpose something else upon what we are feeling: “I mustn’t feel fear, I must only feel compassion. Because, after all, that is my resolve—to feel compassion.” So we might feel considerable fear or guilt, yet we are trying to deny it and assert, “I’m not fearful, because I am practicing lovingkindness and that’s all I am allowed to feel.” The stability at the heart of compassion comes from wisdom or clear seeing. We don’t have to struggle to be someone we are not, hating ourselves for our fears or our guilt.
One of the things that most nourishes true compassion is clarity—when we know what we are thinking and know what we are feeling. This clarity differentiates compassion from shallow martyrdom, when we are only thinking of others and we are never caring about ourselves. This clarity differentiates compassion from what might be thought of as a conventional kind of self-preoccupation, when we care only about ourselves and not about others. The Buddha said at one point that if we truly loved ourselves we would never harm another, because if we harm another it is in some way diminishing who we are; it is taking away from rather than adding to our lives.
Related: Real Love
It is tempting to undertake a meditation practice or path of development with the same kind of clinging motivation with which we might have undertaken anything else. Perhaps we feel empty inside, we feel bereft in some ways, we feel we are not good enough, and so we undertake spiritual practice to try to ameliorate all of that. But evolving a spiritual practice is not about having and getting; it is about being more and more compassionate toward ourselves and toward others. It is not about assuming a new self-image or manufactured persona; it is about being compassionate naturally, out of what we see, out of what we understand. Compassion is like a mirror into which we can always look. It is like a stream that steadily carries us. It is like a cleansing fire that continually transforms us.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.