Cultivating Compassion: What Is Compassion? Can It Be Cultivated? If So, How?
Compassion can sometimes be viewed as a challenging value to truly cultivate. It can seem to be a virtue relegated to the lives of saints and mystics. But, what if we discovered and approached compassion as already innate within us, intrinsically linked to love and emanating from our Essential Nature?
In the past decade, I’ve often reflected on these questions and contemplated what compassion means to me. And, I’ve noticed that my understanding of compassion has shifted. Discovering the non-dual Hridaya teachings and the many traditions embracing this truth brought a whole new perspective and understanding.
Compassion Is a Verb
To begin with, I really love what Thich Nhat Han expresses about compassion. Quite simply, he says: “Compassion is a verb.” In other words, we move away from any idea of compassion as being a feeling like pity—which narrowly defines this profound expression of the Heart. To have compassion means to act. But, more than just a specific action or response to a situation, compassion means to be present, to fully embrace whomever is before us in the deepest possible way.
What this means is that, unlike pity, compassion is not about superiority. We don’t look down on someone’s plight and feel sad or bad for them and then decide to help or not. Instead, cultivating compassion is about “feeling with” the person.
There Are No Others
Compassion is an act of empathy, of deeply feeling and being present with others. As its Latin root beautifully reminds us, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” Here, “to suffer with” doesn’t mean to become totally lost in another’s plight and story and be overrun by whatever is being experienced. Rather, it means to be fully present to their suffering. By “presence” I mean to embrace them and their suffering in a space of acceptance, awareness, and recognition. We accept and embrace whatever is. We are present and available to others in the deeper recognition of who we really are. Ultimately, those standing before us are not separate from us, in the most fundamental way and at the deepest level of being—when asked how we should treat others, the great sage Ramana Maharshi answered, “There are no others.” Indeed, compassion is being and loving the other through this one reality of Pure Being.
In a response to a questioner, Nisargadatta Maharaj, the great Advaita Vedanta master, also beautifully expressed this truth: “Know thyself and then you will naturally love others, recognizing them as one with your true nature.” In this way, he expressed so clearly that pure love arises unconditionally as a result of jnana (direct knowledge), the discovery of our essential nature. I’ve found that jnana and love have sprouted mysteriously out of simple meditation and opening to Stillness, especially during longer silent retreats. And, I would say the same for compassion. Indeed, in traditions such as Buddhism, love and compassion are intrinsically linked and inseparable.
How Do We Open to Real Compassion?
Perhaps the question still remains, how do I open to this truth? How can I love and be compassionate when I’m lost in my own identifications, stories, and suffering?
These questions are addressed in many great spiritual traditions, where many practices have been created as a means to arrive at this One Truth. In Tibetan Buddhism, Tonglen (exchanging self for others) is one such practice. This powerful method moves us to embrace the suffering of others and, in exchange, offer love and peace. It becomes a profound practice of letting go of self-cherishing and opening to deeper selflessness. Indeed, this practice invites us to drop our single-minded tendency to be enmeshed in our own little stories and dramas. It opens us to the greater reality of embracing others and, in so doing, recognizing the link that unites us. It is a constant coming back to who we really are and seeing that by embracing another in their suffering, we are ultimately embracing our Self. Thus, even the mere intuition of who we really are becomes the impetus, the driving force, of compassion—for ourselves and for others.