By Tasha Friedman
Before we can say what compassion is, we should understand what it is not.
Compassion is not pity, which comes from fear and avoidance. Compassion is not niceness. Compassion is not letting yourself drown in the suffering of another person or of the world.
Acting in compassion is walking the middle path, with the sensitivity to feel another’s pain without getting lost in it, the discernment to be gentle when gentleness is needed and firm when firmness is needed. It is a capacity of attuning to the call of the present moment, putting aside what your ego wants to do or what you think you should do.
Compassion doesn’t always look like you might think that it should. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for another person is not allow them to continue in their harmful patterns, and this might call for you to take on the face of a wrathful deity. Yet, this fierceness comes from an absolute softness on the inside.
The Tibetan Buddhists teach that wisdom and compassion are like two wings of a bird, acting as one as we fly.
The inevitable result of wisdom is compassion. Seeing that you are nothing, you start to see that same nothingness shining from the eyes of every other being, and the boundaries between self and others drop away. You are no longer bound to a single perspective or a single set of interests.
When you know another being as yourself, how could you do anything but love that being? And when you love another being, how could you allow them to suffer without doing everything in your means to help?
Compassion is love in action, a love that takes us beyond ourselves. And yet, this core of wisdom is where true compassion expands outside the spectrum of ordinary human understanding, taking such a broad and even paradoxical range of forms that the conceptual mind struggles to reconcile them.
Sometimes compassion is a mother bear lunging to grab her cub by the neck before he crosses a busy highway, and her teeth hurt his skin, but his life is saved. Sometimes compassion is saying things that another person doesn’t want to hear or that you don’t want to say. Sometimes it is the gentle rain of steady friendship, a trust and offering of presence over the long unfolding of a lifetime. Sometimes it is just listening without doing anything at all.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Avalokiteshvara is revered as the bodhisattva of compassion, the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas. He is depicted in art with a thousand arms, with hands to reach everywhere in the world simultaneously, offering whatever help is needed for living beings to reach enlightenment, never resting until all beings are free from samsara.
The name Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig in Tibetan, literally means “the one who looks with a loving gaze.” He represents the quality of the Divine that is present for the suffering of the individual and that holds this suffering within an all-healing love even if the individual is too lost in pain to perceive it.
One thousand arms, one thousand hands, and an unwavering gaze of love.
Simple recognition can be the greatest act of compassion—to meet another being just as they are and just as you are, as if to say, “You are here, you are seen, and nothing about you needs changing.”
Suffering is also part of the sacred fabric of life. The paradox is that even while a heart full of compassion springs into action by its very nature at the first sign of suffering, at the same time, this compassion can hold all of the world, suffering and all, without flinching away from anything, without the need to change a single thing.
The heart full of compassion looks at the world and says, “Yes, I can embrace this too.” Even the suffering, even the darkness and ignorance; Yes, I can love this too.