Watching The Compassion Play
In the chaotic world we live, assailed by news stories and images of the suffering, we often feel compelled to turn our heads then hearts away. At times this is for good reason, because no one has the ability to be mindful of the needs of the less fortunate every waking moment of their lives.
Just last week I overheard a young man commenting to another that he wished he were rich so he could in his words, “help a lot more people out.” Most people feel as he does. We’d all help out more if we had the financial means, but then again, we’d just as soon focus on our own happiness. For life is chockfull of wonders and pleasures—and honestly—there is nothing particularly entertaining about striking up a conversation with every homeless person on the street.
If we were to be completely honest with ourselves we would freely admit that our aptitude to be compassionate is less than ideal. Indeed, no one is perfect in exemplifying this human quality. Our aversion to delving into the suffering of others is excusable, but nevertheless, reflects poor thinking.
As examples: We may adhere to the notion that certain individuals bring suffering upon themselves. In which case, we excuse ourselves from being compassionate, because we feel these individuals have made bad choices in life, and these choices have steered them into their misfortune. We may also feel less inclined to help individuals on the other side of the world who are say… anguishing under the brutality of a foreign dictator or regime. We can do little given this scenario, and so feel equal compunction to waste any money or mental energy thinking about these individuals. On the other hand, we may also feel a diminutive amount of empathy towards the less fortunate, because we are dealing with our own distressful situations. No person is immune to suffering, even those whom we think never have a bad day and have much by way of possessions. We all go through tough times, enduring emotional, physical, and psychological hardships. So, we may legitimately feel that we only have just enough energy to deal with our own problems. Strange as this may sound, some are also inclined to be less compassionate due to religious beliefs. Some religions teach, for example, that human suffering is a part of God’s plan, and planet earth’s days are numbered. With a twist of irony believers can thus feel “relieved” from the otherwise humanitarian duty of working towards finding lasting solutions to permanently ending human suffering. Others may take on a pessimistic, philosophical way of thinking, embracing the idea that human suffering is a natural part of life, and there is little they can do about it anyway.
So, the reasons that suffering is tolerated and compassion runs low in this world are varied and expansive. Simply being aware of the obstacles and mental hang-ups we personally have in exercising compassion is the first step towards experiencing our own empathetic awakening. Fortunately, through meditation we can enrich the quality of compassion we have to offer, and also, overcome any aversions we have towards lending a helping hand. The most important thing to understand is that suffering and compassion are interdependent upon one another. One must experience and engage in human suffering to increase the power of his compassion.
“By closing ourselves off from suffering, however, we also close ourselves to our own wellspring of compassion.” Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom.
As with any meditative subject, one becomes more and more aware of the quality of his own compassion through an attentive and honest assessment of his own mind. This is best accomplished by doing a reality check of how one has exercised his compassion through past experiences. In so doing, one can penetrate deeper into all the emotions, mindsets, and thought processes of his brain that relate to the mental workings of compassion. One can than expand his compassionate awareness by moving beyond his sphere of influence, towards raising his awareness of the suffering of humanity at large.
I refer to this as watching compassion play out in the mind. In practical terms, “watching” thoughts and ideas that involve compassion evolve in the mind works like this:
When we think compassionately nine times out of ten images of people pop into our minds. It’s interesting how this happens. Our brains rustle up abstract terms like poverty, hunger, or homelessness, and images of people and places float through our minds. What follows in our thought processes are solidified ideas about how we could have helped, or regrettably, how we failed to help. Yet, if we were to gauge our potential to be compassionate as though we were reading a thermometer, this level of thinking reflects only a low mark on a scale. In other words, we are merely scratching the surface, still thinking in abstract terms about what is involved with exercising compassion.
When we care to think more emotionally and with empathy, this will require becoming attuned to the suffering of those close to us such as our friends. How our friends are suffering awakens within us our own emotions. And we may have to look with interest into our friend’s situations in order to relate to them on a compassionate level. Consider the friend who has lost his job and finds himself homeless because he got kicked out of his apartment. Or think of the friend that is a single mother and cannot afford enough food to feed her children. In these cases we are forced to feel the chill of sleeping on a hard concrete sidewalk and going without food. We’ll have to feel the cold of concrete and suffer the pangs of hunger. When this emotional depth to compassion is actualized, we disregard any aversions we had to our friend’s suffering, and willingly immerse ourselves in experiencing their emotions and mental states. Indeed, it is this capacity to feel what our friends are going through, which crystalizes compassion into the much deeper experience we know as empathy.
In a similar manner, our capacity to feel empathy for our friends also applies to our family members. But, as we all know quite intimately, the suffering of a loved one such as our parents, children, siblings, or other relatives will hit home. We often have no choice, but to become fully engaged in the mental suffering of those we care about. And some times, the suffering of our loved ones can bring on such anguish for us that we would gladly take their place and endure their hardships for them.
As we understand through experience then, there are several areas that typically involve our ability to understand compassion. There is our capability to consider in abstract terms the suffering of all humanity, which we often witness in large campaigns of injustice, genocide, epidemics, and famine. There is also a dynamic to compassion in which we recognize that while the suffering of humanity is great, we must at times think locally, and work to solve the needs of the suffering within our communities. This usually entails being less emotionally engaged, but rather, more politically focused, on the subject of compassion. And when considering the suffering of our friends and family members, or even our own personal anguishes, we find ourselves deeply immersed—often drowning—in emotions and mental states that force us to think close to home about what it means to be compassionate.
For simplicity’s sake, we could say that these areas represent levels that need to be penetrated to both understand and exercise compassion. These levels are clearly discernible as we move from recognizing the emotional engagement required in thinking about our own suffering, to the suffering of our friends, to family members, to fellow citizens, and humanity. There are also layers of emotions such as fear, loneliness, and anguish, as well as mental states such as anxiety, confusion and stress, which we will experience within the context of these levels. What’s fascinating, is that all these levels of thought, and the layers of emotions and mental states that are spawned, engage the mind in this single, human quality we call compassion. And yet, we can be even more mindful, by looking deep within the crevasses of our mind to uncover any religious, philosophical, and cultural beliefs that negatively influence our perceptions about compassion.
Watching how this one subject—this single human attribute we call compassion—play out in mind, is a spiritually enriching endeavor. When engaging the subject of compassion in meditation our minds will play host to a wide range of emotions, mental states, biases, ideologies, and thought processes, to name a few. Negotiating this quagmire of thoughts to gain wisdom regarding compassion (likewise any human quality), is the role of insight meditation. Overall, meditation is the process of watching both the grand and ever-so-subtle movement of thoughts ripple through one’s mind. It’s about discovering how these thoughts influence our behavior, and about getting a sense of what one feels by way of his emotions and mental states. And it’s about watching the ways in which one’s mind turns on any given subject, and how with practice one can take control his mind to function in accordance with greater moral and ethical principles.
Exercising compassion is a virtue, and virtues have a way of satisfying the mind. A growing awareness to the virtue of compassion increases one’s sensitivity to others. It weakens the role of selfishness, pride, and ego, and rewards the psyche with spiritual peace of mind that can only be experienced within the context of self-sacrifice and altruism. While we might harbor a natural aversion to helping those in need, we should understand that in so doing we are robbing ourselves from experiencing specific joys, which far outweigh the temporary pleasures we experience if we used our time and money for more superficial reasons.