The notion of practicing compassion for other fellow humans has been with us since the beginning of time. After all, Man is a social creature in need of meaningful social connections in order to grow on all levels of his being.
The concept of compassion however has in recent times been appraised in value. Its importance is starting to be understood under the new light of a drastically changing world where people are getting more connected, economies collapse and new global crisis emerge. Compassion is becoming increasingly tied to the future of humanity. In order for Humanity to keep the balance against the impounding waves of change we need to grow collectively in mind, awareness and in consciousness. One essential ingredient for this growth is cultivating compassion and loving kindness
Compassion compels action and social change
“You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.” Barack Obama
President Obama mentions the empathy deficit but why does he put emphasis on it?
What his words imply is that real concern about the future does not stop around financial and monetary issues. These are important but to stop there is shortsightedly missing the whole point about positive social change.
Yes, the economy is a driver of social well being and change but both well being and social change are also driven by something which runs deeper than the balance books and the cash tills. It is driven by social cohesion, understanding, comprehension, extended cooperation, empathy and compassion.
Compassion is empathizing with other beings that are suffering and left behind. It is exactly “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” and see their predicament with their own eyes through their own perspective.
Compassion is the deep desire to free others from suffering. It is the understanding that we are not alone and that others have exactly the same desire to be happy as we do and the same right to attain it.
Compassion begets positive social change because it compels action. When you empathize with the suffering and pain of others “it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.” This means that when you genuinely open your heart and mind to the problems of others, you shift your perspective in such a way that you are inclined and motivated to help and alleviate their pain and suffering. Action is a natural consequence to compassion.
Action brings about change. Even better, action grounded in compassion, in the awareness and understanding of people’s problems and with the intent to improve their condition brings about positive change and one step closer towards the diminishing of suffering in the world.
Society is a living system. It is a dynamic network through which millions of interactions take place every second and through which ideas, joy, love, energy and compassion can flow between human connections – the nodes of the network.
When empathy and compassion are missing those connections can break and bend. What follows is an ever increasing segregation and detachment between groups of people and individuals giving rise to misunderstanding, inequality, intolerance and unhappiness running from the individual to the social.
Buddhism on Compassion & Loving Kindness
The practice of compassion and loving kindness is central to the Buddhist way of life. The Dalai Lama made it his special mission in this lifetime to spread the teaching of compassion and loving kindness.
I think it is not a coincidence that he chose the teaching of compassion to be his lifetime work in this particular time we are living in. I believe that this is a particularly ripe time for the world to wake up and expand its consciousness, cultivate compassion and sow the seeds of love. There is no better time.
In Buddhist philosophy, compassion is the deep desire and highest motivation to free all sentient beings from suffering. However this notion of compassion is not rooted in subjectivity, judged according to proximity or executed through uncontrolled emotions.
This means that true compassion is unconfined. If I am compassionate about my family but not for those who suffer in far away places or for those whom I dislike then it is not true compassion although it is still a good starting point.
“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy…This is genuine compassion.” The Dalai Lama from ‘The Compassionate Life’
True compassion is not rooted in the ego. Sometimes we feel distraught by some tragic story because we cannot bear the thought or the emotion of what it ought to be like to pass through that experience. We feel sorry but at the same time we want to stay detached because our heart is not strong enough to bear it. This is because we are seeing it from our own ego-centred standpoint which is natural for an untrained mind.
This has happened to me lately. I went to visit my parents one day. The day before a tragic traffic accident happened where the lives of a whole family were lost including a 3 year old girl. The car they were in was smashed beyond recognition. The story was all over the papers. I did not want to look at it nor the photos of the family. It was like my heart couldn’t bear it. I didn’t want to think about it. I must however admit that this is not compassion. It is feeling deeply sorry but with a detached heart.
Compassion is seeing the suffering of the world with an open heart – a strong heart.
“Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear.” Sharon Salzberg
Expanding our consciousness through compassion
The natural questions that springs out of this is “Ok it’s nice to help others when needed but what good does it bring to soak into the sufferings of others?”, “doesn’t this dull your mind or depress you?”, “does compassion has any other value besides being an ethical or moral thing to do?”
I understand that these are legitimate questions and they should be asked freely.
The answer is simple but not straightforward at the same time
When we understand the concept of true compassion as held by Buddhist teaching and hopefully practice it in our daily lives, we are doing something more than just doing the ethically right thing and helping others that are in need. We are doing more than being responsible humans who reach out for other people.
What we are doing is expanding and shifting our consciousness. We are freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the ego-consciousness because when we “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” we are shifting our perspective and center of focus from the self to others. We expand our view and the purpose of our lives.
We start to break away from the self-centered whims and desires that hold us from expanding ourselves. We start breaking the illusion that we are separate from others and the world around us. In fact the Buddhist notion of compassion is intimately tied to the understanding that we are one and the same. Separateness is ultimately an illusion.
When we come to realize more and more of the interconnectedness between all sentient beings, we start to realize that compassion is not only a polite or ethical thing to do. It is the only sensible thing to do. It is the way forward for humanity.
Compassion is a way of realizing ourselves. When we are compassionate and seek to free others from their suffering, we are effectively freeing ourselves. We are part of the grid network. We are connected to it and if we contribute just a little and do our part to expand it by showing compassion and loving kindness to others then we are also expanding ourselves. This is the great web of life.
Cultivating compassion through meditation
There are many ways to practice compassion and loving kindness. Like most things it takes time and commitment but it can be done in small and easy steps.
Meditation is one way through which compassion can be cultivated. It is good to know that scientific research is now starting to discover through various tests that compassion helps the mind to better cope with stress and conditions such as depression. Here is one such article from the science daily.
At this point I am tempted to jot down a few practical tips on practising compassion meditation but that would be a bit pretentious from my part. It’s better to leave that to people who know way more than me about compassion.
Here is a short video of 9:56 mins from Angela Carole Brown in which she gives a guided meditation on Compassion for beginners. It’s a very good place to start.
I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy and may compassion be seeded in your heart.