Compassion and Facing “These Challenging Times”

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By Jessica Soares

“In these challenging times”…

These four words seem to have become a refrain of sorts over the past few years. And while yes, there is much research that points towards this actually being the most peaceful time on the planet, it cannot be denied that the reality many are experiencing ‘feels’ more tumultuous than ever before. With the rise in social media, digital connectivity, and increased globalization (whereas even 50 years ago, the suffering taking place in another nation often went unnoticed) in 2023, it can often feel like we are drowning in pain and suffering. And not just our own. Every day we are exposed to the suffering taking place on all corners of the globe. As a collective veil is lifted, we are being invited to ponder why so many are hurting so much? And how have we become so disconnected from love? 

As someone who often prefers to live in the larger reality of existence, this year I found myself grappling with the realities of the microcosm. For those of us who are more spiritually inclined, it can be easy to contextualize and attempt to understand the suffering and injustice of the world as part of the dance of the universe. The existence of polarities and the remembrance that life is unfolding the way it was always meant to unfold, and we are simply along for the ride. And, while these perspectives may be true, they can also lend themselves to a disconnection from the lived experiences of millions on the planet and to a bypassing or numbing of sorts.

The truth is – these are challenging times. These are painful times fraught with so much suffering. Perspectives are becoming increasingly polarized, and sometimes it seems like we are more focused on battling one another than actually coming to a sense of peace. So what then is the answer? What do we do in the face of “these challenging times”?

Turning to Compassion for Courage and Comfort

This year, I personally found the answer, or rather an answer, in rooting in Compassion, the second of the Hridaya attitudes. In Tibetan Buddhism, compassion is seen as one of the highest qualities, as one of the most powerful ways to cultivate bodhicitta or “the mind of enlightenment”. In fact, within the tradition, there are several rituals that are dedicated to releasing demons from suffering. Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have even converted the local demons into protectors of the dharma. What this shows us is that when we are anchored in compassion, we begin to see that there really is no bad or evil, no enemies. There are simply beings that have been so separated from love and are in desperate need of understanding. Practicing compassion is a practice of extending that love and understanding. 

Intentionally cultivating compassion and remembering that it is indeed a practice and an action has been what I have needed in the face of feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. It is what has allowed me to stay devoted to my practice in times when I have questioned: what even is the point? The way that I view it is that compassion is a prerequisite for understanding, which always leads to an opening of the heart. When I allow myself to be with another in their suffering, when I allow myself to be touched by their pain beyond the concept of an enemy or someone being good or bad, I can feel myself soften. And from that softness, the capacity to listen arises. The capacity to understand becomes more available. Rather than defaulting to blame and shame and labeling someone as an “enemy”, I become curious as to what has led to their suffering. And from this place, we can share our stories. Not to solidify identification, but in fact through the sharing and witnessing of stories, we begin to see the repetition of certain universal themes and we can begin disidentifying with something as “my” pain or suffering and see it as something that is here, present, and shared. Thus, this must also mean that the opposite qualities of healing, peace, and relief are also here, present, shared, and available to all of us when we open ourselves to it. This is one way I have been cultivating compassion, by being with, listening, and allowing myself to be touched by someone else’s truth. Through this practice, we can realize that there are often far more things that unite us, than those that keep us separate. 

From this place of an open heart, it becomes much easier to release the armor of self-righteousness and become available to empathy and connection. In Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle writes, “If her past were your past, her pain your pain, her level of consciousness your level of consciousness, you would think and act exactly as she does.” I came back to this quote so much this year, I even had it as my phone wallpaper for a few months. This idea allows us to become open to forgiveness, understanding, and compassion. The ability to be with another, exactly as they are, without judgment. The ego may not like this, but it is a truth that can allow us to continue cultivating and practicing compassion. 

Balancing Compassion and Necessary Action

On the other hand, when sitting and contemplating compassion, what often arises is the question of how to actively practice compassion in the face of large-scale systemic injustices and crimes or repeated acts of abuse? How do we practice compassion and self-love at the same time? The practice of Compassion is not intended to make one a pushover, languidly accepting all behaviors without discernment, but rather it is about allowing intention to come from compassion. The Dalai Lama was once asked this question and shared a powerful response: “Being compassionate towards such people…does not mean that you allow the other person to do whatever the other person…wishes to do, inflicting suffering upon you and so on. Rather, compassionately dealing with such a situation has a different meaning.” He goes on to remind us that motivation matters. One can confront from a place of hatred or from a place of compassion. And while the action “may be of the same force and strength,” when we’re rooted in compassion we realize that “if you allow the other person, the perpetrator of the crime, to indulge his or her own negative habits then, in the long run, the other person or group is going to suffer the consequences of that negative action.”-His Holiness Dalai Lama Ultimately, it is not about the action itself, but the intention from which it is born. Again, it is about realizing that we are all one, and if we allow negative actions to continue, when we know better, then that is in fact not a practice of compassion. The most compassionate response is that which will reduce the greatest amount of suffering in the long run. 

In this way, we can see how cultivating compassion allows us to be with the more zoomed in, everyday struggles and pains of being human, while still remaining connected to our larger spiritual goals and vision. At Hridaya, compassion is understood as yes, a desire to help another, but beyond that a realization that the true help is that of releasing beings from the burden of suffering by awakening them to their true nature. And in order to effectively do this, we must ourselves be awakened to our true nature. This does not mean that we should not practice compassion or extend help until we have attained Self-realization. But it does mean that one of the most effective ways we can truly help is by remaining devoted to our path and developing perseverance toward our practice. Realizing that the aspiration for Self-realization is in itself an act of compassion, as it benefits all beings.

Compassion as the Medicine

Practicing compassion in this way has both allowed me to foster empathy for others and build connections with those I may have deemed “my enemy” in the past as well as reinforce my conviction to my practice and the spiritual path. If you are struggling with righteous anger and finding it a challenge to find empathy for the people you view as enemies or perpetrators, if you too are feeling lost and untethered “in these challenging times”, I encourage you to explore compassion. To turn towards it as a practice, an action, an overall attitude and approach towards life and the suffering that surrounds you. You can do this by:

  • Allowing compassion to create understanding and empathy between you and another through the sharing and witnessing of another’s truth.
  • Putting yourself in another’s shoes and realizing that we are all doing the best we can with what we know and have. 
  • Remembering that compassion is not an excuse for inaction and passivity and that you can still take forceful action as long as your intention is rooted in compassion and not anger. 
  • Dedicating and devoting yourself to your path and your practice above all. Trusting that your aspiration towards Self-realization does in fact benefit all beings. 

As the world continues to globalize and our realities become more shared via the internet and other forms of digital communication, it is imperative that we give equal if not more effort and attention towards that which allows us to stay open-hearted, rooted, and directed towards our spiritual paths. Ultimately, one of the most powerful and accessible ways we can all do this is by choosing compassion as our lens, our ally, and our north star. 

Jessica is a Hridaya Yoga student and contributor to the blog.

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