Compassion is Challenging

I often write about the importance of cultivating love as a spiritual practice. This is natural. I was raised in a Christian household in a dominantly Christian country. Love is the spiritual value at the heart of Christianity. It informs how we interact with those around around us —Love of neighbor. It dictates how Christians relate to God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” It also defines Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. He is continually pointing us beyond our limited and parochial love towards the vastness of divine love.

Love, however, is primarily an outward flowing thing. We can love others without being transformed by them or gaining an appreciation for their situation and struggles. In some Christian theologies, therefore, it is possible for God to love us completely without being changed or affected by our sufferings and joys.

Compassion_GraphicCompassion is a different matter. Compassion means to “suffer-with.” Having compassion means understanding and sharing in the suffering of another. Even our most hated enemy, for example, doesn’t want to get sick. Like us they experience emotional ups and downs, get frustrated, experience anger and happiness, and generally share in the entire panoply of life. While we may disagree with or even oppose their actions, compassion allows us to recognize that they, our enemy, are not fundamentally other.

Compassion is the spiritual expression of our interconnectedness. We are connected to and therefore affected by the people and beings around us. Compassion affirms this interconnected reality through our courageous willingness to enter into mutually transforming relationships with others. Compassion is responsive. Our compassion responds to the people and situations we encounter. Since those situations are not of our making, compassion opens us up to new possibilities, new understandings, and new ways of living in the world.

When we “suffer-with” others, we instinctively want to alleviate the pain and suffering of the other person. The familiar analogy is that of our own bodies. If we touch a hot stove, we instantly take action. We recoil! If we have been burned, then we seek medical attention or apply a soothing ointment.

Often, unfortunately, there is little we can do to alleviate another’s pain. If they are hungry, we can, of course, try to feed them. But in the relatively affluent West, suffering is often less concrete and more existential. In these situations the best we can usually do is recognize another’s “pain.” We can see them for who they are: precious beings struggling to do the best they can.

Compassion is challenging for many of us today. We are caught up in the outrage and anger of the current political environment. We tend to objectifying political opponents as “fundamentally other.” This objectification is both un-true and lacking in compassion. If we truly live in an interconnected world, then our political opponents cannot be intrinsically or objectively bad (evil). They may have a different vision for the future. Their ideology may be diametrically opposed to ours. They may be woefully misguided. The may act in harmful ways. But they are still human. Their lives are filled with many of the same sufferings and joys that we ourselves experience.

Because politicians often have power and privilege, we can be resistant to allowing ourselves to feel compassion for them. It is much easier to generate compassion for the downtrodden and persecuted who lack even the basics of life. It is hard to be compassionate towards the powerful, who have material security and luxury. Nevertheless, the rich and powerful are suffering as well. They have succeeded materially but still experience discontent and dis-ease.

As with the practice of love, it is important to practice extending compassion to specific people in specific situations. We need to use our hearts, imaginations, and life experiences to help us appreciate the reality of another’s difficulties.

The most natural place to cultivate compassion is in our own daily lives. We can open ourselves to the joys and sorrows of the people and beings we encounter everyday. We do not need to “like” or “agree-with” a person in order to have compassion for them and their particular situation. We simply need to recognize that they too are suffering.

Compassion takes courage. Once we have seen into another’s life and tasted their sufferings, we are forever changed. We respond to them and to the world differently. Over time this transforms the way we live and how we view our work. Specific goals are contained within the much bigger goal of: Ending suffering in all its forms! In the rough and tumble world of politics, our goal is to alleviate suffering, even for those individuals whose words, policies, and actions create and perpetuate suffering in the world.

Peace, Paul

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6 Responses to “Compassion is Challenging”

  1. melhpine Says:

    Important message for our time, as well as for any other.

  2. Pieter Says:

    i agree with melphine

    compassion really helps us to focus on the whole picture without getting lost in minor differences. As the Dalai Lama says: We’re all same human being
    simple and profound as it pulls the mind away from learned habits and points out to the truth of our interconnectedness

    btw great post Paul, great to read as the start of the day 🙂

    • Peace Paul Says:

      Aloha Pieter, I am a big fan of HHDL. I agree what you are saying. However, I feel that Buddhists often skip the “empathy” step in compassion. We understand that we are all equal in wanting happiness and avoiding suffering. We also see that others suffer because of avidya. What we miss are the specifics of a particular individual’s suffering. Their suffering is real and unique to them. This is important, because seeing the specific instances of suffering can change us. It can motivate us to take action or give us a fresh perspective on the world. In Shantideva’s way of the Bodhisattva, he lists a variety of forms that we should take to help suffering beings: food, medicine, a boat, a servant, a light, etc. All of these are responses to specific sufferings. As practitioners, are we willing to see specific instances of suffering, or are we content to just maintain a more global and intellectual understanding of the universality of Dukkha?

      • Pieter Says:

        Thanks for your reply Paul! Very good thing you point out about everyday compassion in action. There is so much we can do. It requires an openness towards the world. I don’t always see the opportunities that are there or not always act on what I feel is right, so your reminder is very helpful to be ready. Even if it’s as simply as smiling to a stranger..

      • Pieter Says:

        “What we miss are the specifics of a particular individual’s suffering. Their suffering is real and unique to them. This is important, because seeing the specific instances of suffering can change us.”
        and this is the great reminder I mentioned in the comment. Something to contemplate about – and put into practice 🙂

  3. Bobbing Around Volume 16 Number 11 | Bobbing Around Says:

    […] Peace Paul has written another wonderful essay, this time about how to go about giving compassion. […]

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