On these days that I'm giving talks about compassion, I feel a little cautious. I want to be careful in talking about it because I don't want it to be assumed that compassion is only one thing, and that whatever way I talk about it is true or right compassion. Because compassion is such an integral part of many people's lives – it's something that's very important and sometimes lies at the center of what's most valuable for them – I think each person will experience it very personally and in their own way.
So we certainly want to be careful. One way to do that is to appreciate that compassion – whatever it might be for you or for anybody – is not a singular thing. But rather, it's a compound thing. It's made from different aspects. It's possible to tease apart and look at some of the particularly important component parts of compassion. That helps us to look at it more carefully and to find our own way with this important topic.
One of the elements of compassion, I believe, is that it involves contact with suffering. The word "suffering" sometimes seems like a really big word, that only big things count as suffering. But in Buddhism, the word "dukkha" can also refer to the very small forms of discomfort or stress we might feel. Compassion has something to do with being in the presence of suffering. That's one of its component parts. For some people, that's an important part of it. And I say "sometimes," because there might be an exception to this, as you'll see as we go along.
Can we be wise about how we are in the presence of suffering – our own and other people's suffering? And one of the component parts of compassion – at least the karuṇā that comes out of Buddhist meditation practice – is having no resistance to suffering. It doesn't mean we don't strongly protest the suffering of the world, or strongly have the idea that this shouldn't be there, or that these things shouldn't have to happen. But in the heart – in our inner life – there's no resistance to experiencing and feeling that suffering.
This is what happens as a consequence of meditation practice. We learn in meditation practice that the contraction of resistance – the hardness of it, the closed-ness of it – is, itself, a form of suffering. We learn that it's unfortunate to do it. We want to be able to relax it and let go of it. To be able to let go of all the different ways that we cling, and just be present in an open way for suffering, is one of the great gifts.
This is one of the things that I learned in my early years of Buddhist practice when I had a lot of suffering. Meditation practice was a lot about just sitting in the middle of it. Just allowing it to be there. Just being open to it. Not being reactive to it or caught in any way. Just present. It was an unconditional acceptance of the present moment with the suffering.
That was transformational for me. It was hard. But it was like meditation practice was a tenderizer for hard meat. My heart softened and softened by just this showing up to suffer without reacting to it or closing down to it. It might seem counterintuitive to do this because it hurts. It's kind of painful. But it allows something to soften and open. The idea is to have the suffering we experience be something that touches us. Rather than contracting us, closing us down, or making us hard, it actually expands something inside us. Something becomes more open. Something suffuses us.
I often think of this as being tenderness – tenderness, softness – words that I like for this kind of inner feeling. And that tenderness has no boundaries. It has no walls or sharp lines where the "tender" is. We can experience suffering and have this openness suffuse and pervade, without boundaries. This feeling of tenderness – somewhere in the chest, somewhere inside – is a beautiful feeling, a wonderful feeling, even though the suffering hurts at the same time. We can meet suffering without resistance. If we meet it with resistance, then it's easy to be distressed, upset, dismayed, frightened, angry, all kinds of other things. But we can learn to have the capacity to receive it without resistance.
And again, the reference point for this is meditation practice where you're not expected to act on the suffering. You're not expected to go help someone. You're expected just to learn how to sit and be really present. In that context – in that process – you can discover a place of freedom inside, a place of softness and tenderness which gets evoked in the context of suffering.
It's a very strange idea for people who've never experienced it because suffering feels awful. And why should I feel awful and bad? I've known people who've gotten angry when I suggested that they should sit in mindfulness and open to their pain and their suffering – really feeling and knowing it – because their whole life was about getting away from, fixing, and doing something about it. So, part of compassion is a place that's touched inside when there's no resistance – a kind of opening, a tenderness.
Then the second part of compassion is caring for whatever that suffering is – even the suffering itself – or caring for the person or the being who's suffering. The word "care" is kind of a special word. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to act to help them alleviate their suffering, that you're responsible for their suffering. It means that, in some contexts, it's enough that we have the capacity to just care – "Oh. I "care" about your suffering. It's important for me that you're suffering. It's important for me because I care about you. I want to let you know that I care. I sympathize. I'm with you. I'm your companion. I'm your ally. I'm your support. I'm here with you in your suffering."
I've been the recipient of that from people. I really felt that, in some ways, they cared for me and my suffering. I didn't feel that they were asking for anything, doing anything, or expecting anything from me. And it wasn't like they were actively involved in trying to fix or take away my suffering. But I just knew that they sympathized. There was this wonderful care, warmth, love and recognition and appreciation of me as I had my suffering. It helped things relax and soften – feeling the human warmth and connection to someone else. So part of suffering is simply caring for someone – the kindness, openness, and sense of shared humanity that are independent of wanting to do something to alleviate it.
But another aspect of compassion is the motivation to do something about the suffering. And this is where we have to be a bit careful, because what kind of motivation is it? I like to think that when we're in contact with suffering, there are two Dharma motivations that can arise out of it. One is, in fact, wishing and wanting to help the person so they don't suffer anymore. We're hoping for them not to suffer. In offering something, we're offering help, support and we're being compassionate. It's a compassionate action.
The other action – response to suffering – is when it doesn't make sense for us to act on the suffering, to help them out, do something to change it, or give a helping hand. The experience of suffering in the world, and our own suffering, can motivate us to practice more diligently, to be inspired to practice and really get to the bottom of our own suffering. We can be motivated to find a deep peace, a deep place of non-resistance and wisdom, and deeper compassion to go on the path of practice. And this is a very important part for me, because there's lots of suffering in the world that breaks my heart. But I'm not going to do anything about that particular kind of suffering – not directly. What I can do is limited.
But I put my energy into another direction. One way is I devote myself more to my practice. And now that I'm a teacher, I also devote myself more to teaching, because I'm not necessarily helping somewhere else in the world. But I'll put more inspired effort into making a difference where I can make a difference.
To have contact with suffering give birth to motivation of different kinds, I think is very respectful for our own hearts. There's something about acting – being motivated by something that moves us a lot. It keeps freeing or developing the heart. Not acting sometimes can cause more suffering and more harm to ourselves.
The bigger the suffering we experience in the world, the more important it is for us to respond, to act, and to do something. But remember, it doesn't have to be that we respond directly to that thing. It might be that we do something different.
For example, 9/11 had a big impact on me. When it happened, I felt: "I have to change. I have to be a different person. I have to be changed by this experience. How do I want to be changed by it"? So I decided to start training people to become Buddhist chaplains. I acted in the world. I felt like I had to do something different. So I created a program that still exists. It's been going on now for about eighteen years or so – this training in Buddhist chaplaincy. The idea is: What can we do, without being burdened by the idea that we have to do something directly related to suffering if it doesn't make sense for us to be involved?
There's tenderness that comes from non-resistance. There's the simple care and caring-ness that doesn't really involve doing anything but to deeply care. And there is being motivated to do something, and being wise about what direction we go in there. But again, the reference point is deep meditation practice.
To have these component parts come forward, they best come out of us without any obligation. We can feel, in meditation, that any sense of obligation is a resistance, a heaviness, a burden, a closing down. It's not really healthy to do it out of a sense of duty – "I'm obligated to be compassionate." You can't be obligated to be compassionate, because, by its very nature, it's something deeper than any obligation. You can't manufacture it and act it out. It's something deeper. Don't feel obligated to be compassionate, but be motivated to be compassionate. Be motivated to develop our compassion, because something deep inside wants us to be a different person – wants us to be someone who can respond to the world in effective and useful ways.
So there's no obligation to be compassionate. For some people, this may be a difficult and very important lesson to learn – I feel at least. Then, the compassion can be clearer, stronger, and come from a deeply-rooted place inside. Hopefully, that makes it more effective and more meaningful for the people whom we encounter and for ourselves.
You might have different component parts of compassion. But, because there are so many different kinds of compassion – different people experience it in different ways – maybe the principle that your compassion is made up of different parts can help you look more deeply into what goes on with you when you have compassion. That's something, I think, that's sometimes very helpful to write about or talk to friends about. Really start teasing apart what goes on for you when you feel or act with compassion. Thank you very much, and I'll see you in a couple of days.