What is true, unconditional, genuine compassion?
Sometimes, when we witness a person or animal in a difficult situation, we feel magnanimous and imagine that this feeling is compassion. But in fact, this is not what we should consider genuine compassion. Why? First of all, it’s relative, it’s based on a specific situation. Would we feel the same way toward somebody who’s smiling and apparently happy? Or toward someone we dislike?
True compassion is unconditional. It isn’t selective, as in “I’ll have compassion for him but not for her.” And it is absolutely not based on feeling superior to others. It arises because we are actually the same—not the same as in identical, but the same because we all share something. Whether we call it suffering or discomfort or pain, this empathetic feeling that we share with the object of our compassion is the very thing that unites us all.
Oddly enough, when a person is experiencing suffering, they tend to feel isolated and alone. But everyone has difficulties. Everyone gets what they don’t want, and doesn’t get what they do want. Everyone. You can’t find a single person anywhere in the world who hasn’t had these experiences. By accepting the truth of this and seeing how it functions, you can recognize what it makes you do when you’re in that kind of state—you don’t always act the way you would like to, do you? There are times when you may not have a lot of options; when you don’t feel well, you can’t always be nice. Sometimes you get impatient, sometimes you react harshly to things.
Understanding your own functioning means that when you see someone else in a similar situation, rather than reacting to or judging them, you see them as family. If somebody’s angry with you and you realize how tense and unwell they feel, you’re not as likely to react negatively. Compassion arises from the understanding that you’re actually no different in essence; it helps you respond in a sane, skillful way. You understand the reasons behind their emotions and you don’t feel compelled to add fuel to the fire and trouble them even more.
Once, when I was in retreat, one of my retreat sisters and I were really very upset with one another—we were pretty much shouting at each other. Then at one point I looked at her face, not with my ideas or anger or anything like that, but objectively, like looking in the mirror. I saw how tense and hard her face was, and suddenly I understood her state of mind and how much suffering she was experiencing at that moment. And when I saw that, I just dropped it. I couldn’t hold on to any more anger towards her because I knew exactly what that felt like. There was a common bond between us at that moment, a feeling of kinship, and it completely dissipated the anger. Afterwards we just laughed, like, “Wait, what was that argument about? What exactly were we so upset about?”
Ego gets in the way of compassion
The more ego gets involved with “compassion,” the less likely it is that the compassion is real. Our examples of compassion are often attempts to make suffering go away so we don’t have to deal with it. For instance, if I give money to somebody who’s begging just so they leave me alone, that’s not the meaning of true compassion. I might try to tell myself it is, but if I look at my motivation with honesty, it’s because I don’t want them to be in my face for the rest of the train journey; I want them to go away.
Relative or incomplete compassion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to be generous. But we should also understand that there’s more to compassion than an ego-based relationship with another being—human or animal—can impart.
Compassion meditation gives us tools that lead to different kinds of awareness. As we practice, we begin to be aware of how we function and why we act the way we do. We realize that we can’t have judgment and compassion in the mind at the same time; they’re incompatible. A room can’t be light and dark simultaneously. In the same way, you can’t have the light of compassion without first letting go of ill will towards others.
The importance of self-awareness
Because practice tends to give rise to the kind of self-awareness that leads you to see things about yourself that you would rather avoid, there may be feelings of rejection that go along with that. You may not like seeing certain traits in yourself, but if you understand that recognizing and working with them is exactly what enables true compassion to arise, you’re encouraged to be more accepting of your shortcomings and more willing to tackle them. In a sense, you can only set about cultivating compassion by getting your hands dirty. If you do it theoretically, it stays theoretical. You really have to roll up your sleeves and look long and hard at what’s there. Instead of rejecting any unappealing aspects of yourself, you look at them and try to understand how they function. And why would you do this? Because you know that it will help you understand how other people function as well. Only then can you relate to others as they really are, and not as you want them to be.
Again, this kind of awareness comes from meditation. And the more we meditate, the more we realize that the kryptonite of compassion is actually ego-clinging: it’s the feeling of separation from others that gets in the way. Once we’ve seen this, we naturally begin to let go of ego-clinging—it simply doesn’t have the strength it used to have. Thanks to our practice, the barrier between self and others begins to dissolve as well. When this happens, we’re able to enjoy a different relationship, a real openness, with others. And true compassion begins to dawn.