Almost all of us feel a sense of empathy when we see someone in the throes of suffering. This natural sense of empathy is the basis for genuine compassion. But, genuine compassion is more than a transitory feeling.
“What is compassion? It is not simply a sense of sympathy or caring for the person suffering, not simply a warmth of heart toward the person before you, or a sharp clarity of recognition of their needs and pain, it is also a sustained and practical determination to do whatever is possible and necessary to help alleviate their suffering.” – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.
This is the third article in a once-a-month series on the Four Boundless Attitudes, which together form genuine compassion: Love, Compassion, Joy and Impartiality. You can read the first two articles here:
- Cultivating Genuine Compassion: Begin with Impartiality
- Add An Infusion of Love, Cultivating Genuine Compassion, Part 2
Now that we have established, in the first two articles, that all beings are equally deserving of our love, compassion, and joy – the essence of impartiality – and have defined love as the wish for others to have happiness, and the causes of happiness, we’ll move on to exploring the third boundless attitude: compassion.
Cultivating An Enduring Compassion
Compassion is based on the realization that we are all the same: we all want happiness and none of us wish to suffer. Mingyur Rinpoche defines compassion in this way:
“It’s basic meaning is ‘feeling with,’ a recognition that what you feel, I feel. Anything that hurts you hurts me. Anything that helps you, helps me. Compassion…is a complete identification with others and an active readiness to help them in any way. – The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness.”
Genuine compassion is the wish for all beings to be free not just from suffering, but also from the causes of suffering – negative emotions and negative actions.
You might wonder why compassion is so important. As long as our thoughts, words, and actions are motivated by self-cherishing and self-grasping, only suffering will follow for us. Compassion is actually the best medicine for eradicating our attachment to self.
Compassion isn’t just a strategy though, it’s a deep-felt identification with others rooted in a profound understanding of the truth of how things really are, and the basis for actualizing our full potential on the spiritual path.
To overcome our self-obsession, and transform empathy from a passing feeling into an enduring state of compassion, it’s necessary to actually meditate on the suffering of others. The following steps constitute a basic meditation on compassion.
- Begin by imagining someone who is suffering. It could be a close friend with a debilitating illness, someone who is impoverished, or an animal being brought to slaughter. Now, imagine that you are undergoing this very same suffering. Envision in vivid detail exactly how terrible this suffering would be, and how powerless and hopeless you might feel.
- Then, consider how all this suffering is the effect of harmful actions from the past. That doesn’t mean anyone deserves to suffer. Negative actions usually come about as a confused way of seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering.
- Next, reflect on the fact that all beings who are engaging in harmful actions now are creating the causes of suffering for themselves in the future. It’s an endless cycle of suffering.
- Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all beings were freed from their negative tendencies, and actualized their full potential of compassion and wisdom instead of being stuck in this circle of suffering? With all your heart, wish for all beings to be free from the causes and effects of suffering.
When you first begin meditating on compassion, focus on one suffering individual or being at a time. Then, slowly expand your circle of compassion so that it includes not only those you love, but also those you feel neutral toward, and eventually even those you consider enemies. In the end, extend your love and compassion to all beings, everywhere. If you begin to feel downcast while meditating on compassion, intersperse it with meditating on love or sympathetic joy, which we will discuss next month.
It takes time to reverse our tendency to cherish and protect the self, and to widen our circle of compassion. Go slowly. By gradually stretching your comfort zone just a bit eventually you will be able to feel compassion for everyone without overwhelming or burning yourself out in the process.
In addition to meditating on compassion, there are countless ways you can express your compassionate heart during daily life like listening to someone in need, visiting the infirm, donating to charity, or caring for the environment.
The Dalai Lama reminds us,
“Love is the absence of judgment. Any love or compassion which entails looking down on the other is not genuine compassion. Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. “
Growing your compassionate heart will transform your being, and will be like a drop of nectar soothing the suffering of this world.
In this monthly series, I write about one of Four Boundless Attitudes on the first Sunday of every month. Then, if you wish, you’ll have a whole month to practice it before we move to the next one. Next up at the beginning of September is boundless sympathetic joy, the ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.
Did you practice love last month? How do you cultivate compassion in your life?
I’m so glad you’re here! If you liked this article, please consider subscribing for free updates by email. With love, Sandra