Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.
We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?
Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.
Feeling sad and bad about others?
Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:
Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.
One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now
It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.
I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.
I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.
Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.
And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.
Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.
How can I help everyone?!
To help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.
So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:
His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.
Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.
The 2 ingredients of compassion
Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.
Compassion increases our opportunities to help
The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.
Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:
Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion
Compassion increases our capacity to help
Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:
It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.
For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.
To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.
The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.
Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?