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Exploring Compassion

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This article is, as the title suggests, an exploration. It is an inquiry. Last month’s article was about love. This month—compassion. According to great spiritual teachers, real love is actually much closer to compassion. This begs the question, what is compassion? What does it mean to be compassionate? What is compassionate action? 


If you are reading my newsletter and following my work, chances are you want to help or be helped in some way. You may want to alleviate your own pain and suffering, and/or alleviate the pain and suffering of other people. You may want to help heal the environment, or make a difference in the world. Perhaps you consider yourself incredibly blessed and want to give back and share your good fortune. If you are reading this article, chances are you are someone who lives from the heart, guided very often by your feelings of wanting to help, wanting to make a difference. And these feelings can often seem like compassion. Isn’t helping others, being nice, being giving and generous, taking away pain whenever possible, living compassionately? 


Consider the dictionary’s definition:
“A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”


This definition, in my opinion, is woefully inadequate. It is based on an inherently limited view of reality. It assumes that we, as human beings, are able to judge some else’s misfortune and act appropriately. It also implies that our feelings of wanting to alleviate the sufferings of others are, in and of themselves, compassionate. In my own experience, this is not always the case.


As you come to know your own heart more and more, you can begin to understand more deeply your own motivations. And you may discover that what you thought was a simple desire to help, what you thought was compassion, what you thought was love-in-action, has way more to do with your own wants and needs than with anything else. This is not to say that all feelings of so-called compassion are erroneous, but it does mean that exploring your own motivations, engaging in self-inquiry and exploration, can be useful.




Begin to ask yourself:


How much is my wanting to help an expression of my own wants, needs, and desires?

How much of my wanting to help is based on my own discomfort with other people’s pain?

How much do I identify myself as someone who wants to help make a difference in the world?


Now let me be clear. I am not by any means saying you should not care about other people. I am not in any way implying that it is best to be cold-hearted or indifferent. I am actually assuming that if you are reading this article, you are someone who has a good heart, who is aware of other people, and wants to be kind and generous, spreading love throughout their families and communities.


Which is why I am suggesting that you take your beautiful heart, and begin to understand it more deeply. Begin to explore yourself, your own motivations, more openly.


In order to know yourself, you must be open to the fact that what you think may always be wrong, or at least only a partial perspective. Always be willing for another layer to fall away, so that you may see something that was previously hidden from view. 


It is only as you open yourself to this that you can begin to develop an understanding of true compassion, which, in my own exploration, is far from what most people think of when they think of compassion.  For the more willing you are to know yourself, to see whatever there is to be seen, the greater your chance of letting life live you, of letting love purify your heart, so that you can be used in whatever way the universe deems fit.


As I have personally engaged in this inquiry, I have made some startling discoveries.  Here are just a few of the things that have surprised me:


  • Sometimes compassion doesn’t feel good.
  • Sometimes being compassionate means doing nothing, even when someone else is in pain. In fact, doing nothing may often be the most compassionate choice.
  • Any real compassion is impossible as long as your ego is dictating your behavior.
  • True compassion is not about individual wants, desires, or needs in any way.


This month, let your life be an exploration into yourself, into your own heart. Be open to being surprised, and maybe even dismayed for a moment or two. Discover what motivates you, and be open to whatever is revealed.



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