The Contemplative Approach to Compassion
How to develop compassion in a contemplative way, free from suffering
The best approach to compassion is probably through love. Love takes us out of ourselves and opens our hearts to others. And when we develop love—the wish that others have happiness and the causes of happiness—we experience joy. With love, we become cheerful, resilient people and can further open our hearts in compassion. So when I think of a contemplative approach to compassion, for most of us it’s best to start with a foundation of love—there’s a saying that compassion flows through the channel created by love.
In this context, we define love as the wish to see others established in happiness and well-being. Compassion is similar, but it focuses on alleviating suffering, and so contemplations that develop compassion include this additional element of awareness of suffering. Let’s talk about how we might develop compassion in a contemplative way.
If you’re familiar with meditations on lovingkindness, this will be familiar. The best method is to begin small or “local,” that is, begin with somebody close to you. It could be your mother, or both your parents, or any other people who have shown you selfless concern. You call them to mind and think, “Well, they’ve got to face many forms of suffering. At the very least, they can expect the normal sufferings of aging, sickness and death, or they may even have passed on. How do I feel about that? Well, naturally, my heart feels something in response to that: I profoundly regret that suffering and I wish they didn’t have to endure it.”
That’s how compassion begins: with the wish that others be free from suffering. There’s an intelligence about it because it begs the question, well, what is the cause of suffering? How can we be sure that they’ll be free from suffering in the future? And we realize that the basic way that happiness and suffering work is through cause and effect—that the way everything in this world works is based on cause and effect. This kind of intelligence, this wise view informs our understanding of compassion. And what really locks us into suffering—we know this from personal experience—is selfishness, plus the negative emotions like greed, aggression, and confusion that give rise to actions that harm others. We want those we love to be free from those kinds of negativities and the suffering they entail, and we want them to have everything they need to maintain that freedom from suffering. We want them to live good, caring, compassionate lives.
Once we’ve adequately developed this contemplative approach towards those close to us —when it has become strong, sustainable and stable—we can begin to include others. Sometimes people think, “Well, I have only so much love, so much compassion to go around,” or they think, “Well, if I focus on my family, I simply can’t focus on anybody else.” It’s not true. Let’s just think about this. If I want my parents to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, all I need to do to stretch that a little bit further. “Well, other people have showed me selfless concern, so in a way, they’re my parents too. May they also have freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering. And my friends and teachers, the people who have helped me in life, I’ll bring them in now too.” So what am I doing here? I’m bringing more people into my family! It gets me out of the “my family or others,” “my family or the world,” or “the world and not my family” mindset. These false dichotomies are a complete mistake! Family is where we begin, and gradually we can enlarge our family.
So let’s start with the local, with our parents, then bring other people into our meditation, contemplating what it would be like if they were free from suffering and the causes of suffering. And then let’s bring in strangers—people in our town, our city, our country. And then the tough cases can also become the objects of our compassion. “They must be facing difficulties, they’re surely just like me, my parents and all the others: they want to be free from difficulties and sufferings. Even if I labeled them ‘enemies’ in the past, they deserve my concern and compassion just as much as anyone else. May my enemies be free from suffering and the causes of suffering!”
In the end, I can bring every living being into the environment of strong, steady compassion that I’ve developed. And it’s authentic because it isn’t just a mere word or slogan. It something that my heart is sincerely engaged in. I started small and local with a parent because it felt real, and it has continued to be real as I’ve brought more and more people into my family.
In the beginning we might think, “If I take on or worry about other people’s troubles, if I try to have this selfless concern for everybody, my own troubles will multiply.” But it just doesn’t work that way. Most of our suffering comes from self-obsession. Even when we’ve got physical problems, a good portion of the suffering that accompanies them arises from self-pity, a kind of closing up on ourselves.
What does compassion do for me? For one thing, the neuroses I’ve been carrying around for so long about how important my difficulties are, how they’re so big they block out the sun, how life has been so unkind to me, and so on and so forth, simply disappear. How? Because seen in the light of others’ needs, there’s no denying that there’s countless “them” and just one “me.” And my heart is heavy and tight, and life is a claustrophobic burden, when the focus is all about me. Everyone else’s needs and worries are just as important as mine—why wouldn’t they be? And the more regard I have for others, for their difficulties and wishes, the lighter my own heart becomes.
When we open up to others we develop resilience and live more cheerfully. Compassion isn’t about martyrdom—in fact, that kind of martyr-like attitude is quite self-obsessive, and it’s pure poison for real compassion. Compassion wants no recognition, even for self-abnegation, because it’s such a joyful way to live. Compassion is its own reward. As we open up and our hearts fill with love and compassion, we become joyful, happy people. And that, I think, is how we should regard compassion: as a path to true happiness.