In the chaotic world we live, assailed by news stories and images of 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.
If we were to be completely honest with ourselves, we would freely admit that our aptitude to be compassionate is less than ideal.
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 little 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 have everything going for them and never seem to have a bad day. 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.
If Jesus is coming soon, why bother?
Strange as this may sound, some are also inclined to be less compassionate due to their religious beliefs. Some religions teach, for example, that human suffering is a part of God’s plan, and planet earth’s days are numbered. After all, if Jesus may return at any moment why bother? And so it is, 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.
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 the external reality of human suffering in our world, and the internal mental ability to relate to suffering by way of compassion are interdependent upon each another. One must experience and engage in human suffering in order to increase the power of their compassion.
Watching the compassion “play”
As with any meditative subject, one becomes more aware of the quality of his or her own compassion through an attentive and honest assessment of how they have exercised compassion in the past. By mentally rethinking through these memories a person can also observe other emotions and mindsets which either prevented them or compelled them to exercise compassion. In mentally visualizing how compassionate we have been in the past, it’s best to begin close to home through situations that involve family members and friends. Another way to approach the subject is to expand our thought processes to encompass how we witness compassion being exercised in other parts of the world. In other words, the goal is to understand how compassion operates as a fundamental principle of life.
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 choose to think with greater empathy, this usually requires becoming more attuned to the suffering of those close to us such as our friends. How our friends are suffering awakens within us our own emotions. 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 a concrete sidewalk and going without food. It’s necessary, in other words, to imagine what sleeping on concrete feels like and to suffer the pangs of hunger. If and when we can emotionally connect with compassion in this way, then it becomes easier to disregard any aversions we have regarding the suffering of our friends.
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. Oftentimes, people become estranged to certain members of their family, and these feelings of animosity may supersede our feelings of compassion towards them. For the most part, though, when members of our family are suffering or enduring hardships, we are quick to respond with compassion and help as much as we can.
Levels of compassion
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 still, exercising compassion in a manner that achieves the most humane or equitable outcome within a social or political context. And when considering the suffering of our friends and family members, we find ourselves deeply immersed — often drowning — in emotions 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 friends and family, to fellow citizens, and also towards humanity at large. 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.
A spiritually enriching endeavor
Watching how this one subject — this single human attribute we call compassion — play out in our 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 our mind. It’s about discovering how these thoughts influence our behavior, and about getting a sense of what we mentally experience by way of these emotions and mental states. It’s about watching the ways in which our mind turns on any given subject, and how with practice we can control our minds 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 weakens the role of selfishness, pride, and ego, while rewarding the psyche with an inner peace gained through self-sacrifice and altruism. While we might harbor a natural aversion to helping others, we should understand that in so doing we are robbing ourselves from experiencing specific joys; joys which far outweigh the temporary pleasures we experience if we used our time and money for more superficial reasons.