What Is Compassion?
It's easy to think about being compassionate while sitting in the safety and comfort of a cozy apartment. What's hard is to actually be compassionate, on an everyday basis, without question or hesitation.
It's hard to have compassion for the guys that live above me, who insist on thumping the bass of their music through all hours of the night while my roommate and I try to sleep. It's hard to have compassion for the homeless people you see on the streets begging for change as they inhale a drag of a cigarette. It's even harder to have compassion for the murderers and rapists we see on television; for all the people who have committed the most violent and evil crimes which most of us deem unfathomable.
But what even is compassion? Is it some sort of spiritual state where unconditional love flows continuously from myself to others? Is it simply a thought or are there actions involved? Is it a careful combination of both?
I know that in my own life, I wonder how I could ever show true compassion for someone who has killed another person in cold blood, with no forgivable motives. However, while reading the Dalai Lama's "The Ethic of Compassion," it became clear to me that compassion requires us to look much beyond the surface of what we see of others in our everyday lives. The Dalai Lama describes the basic elements of compassion by stating:
"(Compassion) is understood mainly in terms of empathy - our ability to enter into and, to some extent, share others' suffering."
He then goes on to explore the deeper intricacies of compassion:
"Because our capacity for empathy is innate, and because the ability to reason is also an innate faculty, compassion shares the characteristics of consciousness itself."
How is this possible? How do compassion and consciousness lay on the same plane of thought, where compassion is, at times, incredible difficult, and consciousness in itself is a completely natural ability? At first glance, this idea seems impossible. However, further exploration reveals many ways in which these two completely different concepts can parallel each other. I believe the Dalai Lama is attempting to express how, if we are able to be conscious of the sufferings of others, we should automatically be able to place ourselves in their shoes, so to speak, and have the strength and clarity to understand how their situation was created, and how their suffering is perpetuated in this world. I think we should then be able to somehow attempt to better their condition, even through the simplest of actions. If we are able to recognize a part of ourselves in others and grant them the respect they deserve, I believe we are being compassionate.
The Dalai Lama recognizes the difficulties in extending this idea of compassion toward others, especially toward those we are not familiar with, and those who we feel are not readily deserving of our compassion. For example, when I hear of something awful on the news, like a mother who has murdered her own children, I immediately jump to a conclusion and assume the woman is a horrible criminal who deserves to live the rest of her life in jail. But by viewing this situation through the Dalai Lama's eyes, one would find that it is important to examine all the factors in the woman's life that could have caused her to come to the tragic decision to kill her own children. She could have been severely mentally ill and deprived of the help she needed, or could have been raised by parents who abused her so terribly that her outlook on life was horrendously distorted.
The Dalai Lama also urges us to remove our feelings of partiality for family members and close friends, and to show compassion especially toward those we do not know. In the highest levels of Buddhist beliefs regarding compassion, the Dalai Lama informs his readers:
"It is believed that we can gradually extend out compassion to the point where the individual feels so moved by even the subtlest suffering of others that they come to have an over-whelming sense of responsibility toward those others."
I believe that compassion should be more than just a feeling. It's a feeling which drives our actions. It should force us to relate to people on an intimate level, granting us the ability to understand other people's lives without judging them. Ultimately, it should prevent negative feelings in our own lives and create positive feelings in the lives of others.
The Dalai Lama's ideas about living compassionately, while difficult, are not impossible. They challenge me to stop jumping to conclusions in my own life about people that I see and meet, and to place myself in their shoes to further understand who they are and how they have become that way. Something which I personally struggle with is the ability to relate to others whose values, morals and religious beliefs differ drastically from my own. I need to recognize that, while what other people think might seem ludicrous to me, they have every right to believe in whatever they choose. I need to learn to respect them and attempt to see the world through their eyes. While this is a daunting task and I may not be able to do this for every person I encounter, it is a healthy beginning toward weaving threads of compassion deep into my own moral fiber.