Finding Compassion

Posted on March 11, 2011

Today Japan was hit by the biggest earthquake and tsunami of its history. The images of devastation are enormous and no one knows yet the extent of the human and financial toll of the event. At such a moment we instinctively pause and hold our collective breath, as we realize once more the reality of the groundlessness of our existence. And compassion arises spontaneously.

Compassion is one of the noblest of human emotions and yet it is often misunderstood. Even the word ‘compassion,’ which means ‘suffering with,’ is misleading. Our experience is that when we are in the presence of someone who suffers, we tend to suffer with them. This suffering gives us a feeling of kinship, of commonality—but how helpful is it really? Now there are two of us suffering, one directly and the other one by association. And contrary to our understanding, this does not help them, but simply adds our fear and pain to the situation. This is not true compassion.

Compassion is the wish that others be free of suffering. Developing such compassion is a means toward enlightenment. To awaken to the state of enlightenment is the most profound expression of compassion because it demonstrates to others the reality that there is indeed a path out of suffering.

If we want to develop a compassionate heart we must first generate a sense of empathy for others. This empathy is not an emotion, but rather a sense of responsibility and concern. We must realize the depth of people’s suffering, particularly their often hidden anguish of seeking relief and peace in ways that cannot deliver it. Japans’ disaster shows this most clearly. We never know what will happen in the next moment and as long as we do not have an inner security that is based on deep spiritual insight, we will always suffer from fundamental insecurity and fear. Suffering however creates more suffering.

Therefore we must gain insight into the nature of suffering itself. We are surrounded by an ocean of suffering, of alienation and fear. When we stop hiding from this reality and look at it with open eyes, our capacity for compassion grows, and with it our capacity for joy. Our fear of looking directly at the reality of life keeps us asleep not only to the pain that surrounds us, but also to the limitless joy we can find in the core of our being.

The deepest suffering comes from the fact that we are constantly subjected to negative emotions and stressful thoughts. The skills we need to free ourselves from them are available, but we are afraid to look at how we create our own suffering, try to hide from our pain and distract ourselves. This is how we prolong our own suffering and that of humanity as a whole. We remain part of the human pain body. The internal causes of misery keep us bound and moving from one lifetime to the next as a prisoner of our own blindness.

Once we can recognize the causes of our own suffering and find the yearning to be free of it, we are compassionate to ourselves. Then we can find true compassion for others as well. We can realize that we are all ‘in the same boat,’ yearning to be free, and we will notice that as soon as we reach out and help someone else (and not suffer with them), we are uplifted by this act of service. This is a diligent and ongoing practice and it allows us to take the next step to loving-kindness.

Loving-kindness is the wish that others be happy. And what better way is there to help others be happy than to share with them our own happiness? The happiness we have to share comes from our ability to nurture us from the source of happiness in our hearts, which is reinforced and brought to life by our ability to help others. This is how the cycle closes. Compassion begins in our heart, and this heart, it turns out, contains the whole world.


Ram Giri

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