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Compassion: The Key to Happiness
Be Actively Compassionate
"We are all in the same cart, going to execution; how can I hate anyone or wish anyone harm?"--Sir Thomas More
Perhaps all of what I have written on the Hub so far can be summed up in two words: Love and Compassion. What is compassion? Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, "It is not simply a sense of sympathy or caring for the person suffering, not simply a warmth of the 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."
Compassion is not true compassion unless it is active. But in actively working toward another's betterment, it is also necessary to recognize that alleviating is not the same as eliminating. We cannot take another's suffering fully as our own because that assumes that we are absolutely responsible for another's life experiences. Their life is not our life entirely, but what we can do is act in ways of support, love, security and understanding in a way that fully helps another sentient being to know that they are not having to struggle entirely on his or her own.
It is fascinating to me that human beings are most compassionate when witnessing the struggles of an animal that is hurt or dying, but we seldom see each other in the same light. Children suffer the worst worldwide from this kind of "compassion-blindness," as well as those who are at the end of their lives. Hospice care is crucial, and the need to show compassion throughout the end of one's life maintains human dignity is absolutely necessary--not only for those who are dying, but also for the living family and those who care for those who are dying. And even more amazingly, we are least likely to treat ourselves with compassion before we act in ways that are compassionate toward others.
Ramana Maharshi said it best: When asked, "How do you treat others?" his short but poignant reply was, "there are no others." When we can see ourselves in each other, that's where it starts. When we are in pain, when we feel isolated, when we feel loss, or the shock and numbness of trauma giving way to a broken dam of extreme emotions, we know what that feels like. We do not know what it is like to die; the dying do not come back from the realm of the dead and say, "This is what I experienced..." But I remember my grandmother saying on her death bed to her chaplain, "I am so afraid." And this was a woman who had prepared herself in every single emotional, physical, and spiritual way for death. She admitted she was afraid. Her chaplain held her hand and said, "Of course you are. You have never done this before."
We may not know what dying is like, but we all have experienced fear. To support ourselves and others in times of absolute terror is the greatest act of compassion.
So how can we start by acting compassionately toward ourselves? This is the absolute foundation of self-care, and is also probably the most elusive. It is easy to think that when we are hungry we should eat, or when we are tired we should sleep. But when we are emotionally overwhelmed, or feel incapacitated by sadness, what can we do?
One thing we can do is to picture ourselves as "the other." If we were in the presence of a person who is stressed and reacting almost angrily due to stress, what would we do for that person? Maybe we would say something like, "You know, perhaps a change of environment can do you some good," and offer to take a walk with that person or sit with a cup of tea or coffee. Then perhaps, even by ourselves, we can go for a walk or drive to our favorite coffee house with a pad of paper and a pen to hash out ideas or prioritize tasks that need to be done; we can treat ourselves like our best friends treat us.
It is challenging to give ourselves hugs that feel as connective and powerful as they do coming from others. But when we are balled up with sadness, or staring out into space from the absolute numbing of our senses, if we can close our eyes and feel a deep connection to our emotions, and fill that space with love, we can say to ourselves, "This is a horrible thing. I am so sorry that I am feeling this, but I am feeling this way because I have suffered a great loss (and losses come in many forms--loss of health, loss of a job, loss of a friendship, loss of a sense of accomplishment, loss from divorce, loss of a pet that has run away or died, loss of a human death, loss from a move, etc). I feel empty. And I feel the deep love that is at the heart of this sadness." In that moment, it is then easier to connect with someone we trust so that we don't have to carry the burden of such overwhelming emotion on our own shoulders. But when we can reach within ourselves first, it is easier to hold onto the support that another person can bring us.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to bring acts of compassion into your everyday life: with yourself and with others. Remember to put your oxygen mask on before assisting those sitting next to you in a plane when the cabin has lost pressure. We cannot eliminate or cure suffering, but we can absolutely alleviate its negative effects. When your heart breaks, may it break wide open.
There are no others. And there is love.