Before 1993 I enjoyed the luxury of moral certainty. I was pretty good at separating the “good people” from the “bad people.” Good people were kind, loving and generous. They did not lie, steal, kill or break promises. Good people were not jealous, angry, boastful or aggressive, and they never spoke badly of others. It gave me comfort to know that my moral understanding was correct and unshakable. Of course I did not always follow the rules perfectly, but I reasoned that I was trying, and I knew there were legions of other people who weren’t even making an effort. I had no compassion for them when they experienced suffering.
Then, in late 1992 I was laid off from my job. As I was clearing out my desk and filing cabinet, I realized that a treasured musical instrument my father had given me 30 years before had been stolen from the office. Five days later I was involved in a serious accident that totaled my car and caused injury to myself and another person. The accident was my fault. A month later, another accident. Again, my fault.
Navigating the “Dark Night”
In the following months I experienced a ”dark night of the soul.” I no longer remember specific thoughts that made up my mental movies during that time. I only remember my intimate environment—overwhelming anguish and hopelessness, along with anger and blaming.
I lost any sense of groundedness or certainty. Outer comforts—job, relationship, health—and inner comforts—beliefs—had become unreliable, and were in a state of constant dissolution. I recall the concerned looks on the faces of long-time friends, who later told me they had wondered if I would make it. I remember the day I hit the bottom, and the day I turned a tiny corner to begin climbing out of the abyss.
Mindfulness in the Face of Difficulty
Shortly before I lost my job, I had attended a month-long meditation retreat. Because my momentum toward mindfulness was so strong, I was not able to use my familiar coping tools—denial and continuous activity—to turn away. I felt the suffering of my own anger, blaming, hopelessness, desperation and anguish in every cell of my being. While there were many times when I wished dearly that it would all leave and I could feel happy again, I allowed myself to tread this formerly forbidden territory. What I saw was that there were no boundaries to what I was capable of feeling. I also realized that my heart was indeed vast enough to accept it all.
Compassion and the Release of Certainty
As I continued the process of emerging from the dark night, I began to notice how ill-defined my perceptions of myself and others had become. Now there were no good people and no bad people. There were only people, human beings wanting to be happy, and many of them were confused—as I have been for much of my life—about how and where to find it. Certainty and judgment had disappeared, and in its place I enjoyed a feeling of ease in ever-present uncertainty and a new feeling of kinship to everyone I encountered. For the first time, I felt compassion.
Compassion (karuna in the Pali language) is defined as a “quivering of the heart” in response to the suffering of others. It is the second of the four brahma viharas, or divine qualities, outlined by the Buddha. It is a movement of the heart in empathy, and is borne of an intimate understanding of our own suffering.
Suffering and Compassion
Unless you have isolated yourself from media, it is impossible not to be aware of appalling conditions in which many beings live in this world. Homelessness, malnutrition, ecological destruction, extinction of species, deplorable conditions at factory farms, terrorism, war and pollution are just a few examples. Yet, even in a perfect world, where everyone lived in abundance and therefore felt no need to exploit other beings and our environment, would suffering no longer exist? Would we not still suffer disappointments, disease and loss? Pain and suffering are part of life on Earth and are, more often than not, the greatest motivator for growth.
This does not mean we should throw up our hands. We have the means to understand the suffering that we see and experience, and to work to alleviate it. The real task is to learn to love through it all.
Compassion is often misperceived as an inactive quality. Opening to suffering is mistakenly equated with debilitating sadness. It is, however, the deep understanding of suffering, and the compassion that develops as a result, that motivates us to act on behalf of other humans, animals and our environment.
Opening to Difficulty
How can we open our hearts to the immensity of the difficulty in our world? We begin with the intention to investigate our own suffering. Understanding and accepting our own suffering is the door to relating to the suffering of others. There are many ways in which we all have learned to avoid our own daily discomfort. We snack, get lost online, drink, take drugs or lose ourselves in constant activity. Sometimes we acquire possessions or exotic experiences. While these things are neither morally right or wrong, they are ways in which we obscure our ability to see clearly what is happening in our own experience.
It is helpful to identify our coping mechanisms, and when we feel the impulse to indulge them, to stop and feel what we might be trying to escape. What does boredom really feel like? How about restlessness, anger or fear? What is the truth of the discomfort that you feel? In her book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Sharon Salzberg writes, “The truth may be difficult to open to, but it will never hurt us.”
There are many ways to practice compassionate action. What you choose to do does not need not be elaborate. Compassion can take a form as simple as a smile or a kind word. You might share a meal with someone who often eats alone. Or you could choose to invest some of your resources in a cause with which you feel a connection. One of the most profound gifts you can offer is your presence, your willingness to listen to someone.
You can also practice compassion as a meditation.
- Begin by sitting in a comfortable position.
- Call to mind someone you know—an individual or a group of beings—who is experiencing difficulty. Reflect on the nature of their suffering.
- As you feel ready, begin to state silently your wish for their freedom from suffering. Examples are: “May you be free from suffering” or “May you know peace.”
- Feel free to sample other wordings that might resonate more completely for you.
Hurt People Hurt People
You can expand your compassion practice by reflecting on the pain of the perpetrators of injustice and wishing for their peace of mind. Remember that those who cause others to suffer are cultivating suffering for themselves as well. You might focus on a person or people you know, or you might focus on your least favorite political figure. Here, it is helpful to remember that there is no one in this world that is either completely good or completely bad. All of us are composites of an infinite number of qualities. We need not condone one’s harmful actions in order to feel compassion for the person committing them.
A Call for Compassion
The late Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem many years ago that I believe most clearly expresses a profound understanding of the conditions upon which compassion rests. Here it is:
Please Call Me By My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply; I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond,
and I am the grass snake, who approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the Politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm is makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills all four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.