The Craft of Compassion
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COMPASSION FOR OTHERS
The Buddha defines compassion with such clarity. Compassion, he says, is sympathetic joy and sympathetic sorrow – sorrow over anotherís sorrow and delight over anotherís delight.
This is the stuff of profound teaching. It is sacred for its homely truth.
These ancient understandings can seem abstract but when we live by them they are vivid, warm, sometimes intimate.
"How far you go in this life," writes George Washington Carver, "depends on you being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong, because one day you will have been all of these."
Sympathy is grounded in the fact that we, or someone we love, did or will experience the same thing as those we take care of. Itís just a matter of time before you or a loved one is ill, perhaps hospitalized. One out of two men and one in three women will die of cancer. We know, donít we, itís just a matter of time before you or someone you dearly loves dies.
We diminish our own hearts if we deny the jeopardy that is the common truth of being human and mortal.
Sorrow and joy are the fabric of the everyday, renewed with each new life experience. "Joy and woe are woven fine / A clothing for the soul divine" writes William Blake. They are the raw material out of which a compassionate life is discovered and lived.
If we live our lives consciously – that is to say with the intent of extending compassion to ourselves and everyone we meet – then all that we are and do is the act of weaving.
This weaving is an act of joy as is opening to anotherís sorrow.
Meeting sorrow we are freed from our self-preoccupation which is where our suffering renews itself.
Compassion is, in fact, joy.
We hold our experiences of sorrow and joy as stories and these stories instruct our souls in the range of experience that makes every human life a common and blessed thing.
The work of anyone who seeks to awaken compassion involves gathering his or her own stories like seeds. They hold the possibility of sprouting and in time perhaps bear fruit for nourishment or flowers for beauty.
We all know sympathetic joy.
Your friends HIV test comes back clean, your sister had her first child and sheís a doll, the lump in your auntís breast turns out to be benign, your cousin finally got out of a very bad marriage and sheís starting to smile again.
I emphasize suffering not to deny the sheer blessed fact of being alive but because we would rather deny suffering. But the denial of suffering is a machine that itself generates such suffering!
Joy that relies on the denial of suffering is a superficial and fragile fiction. Eventually it will be undone. Misery can be hidden away in the shadow of an overly optimistic culture, but when it is brought out into the open as the common ground of suffering, it can awaken compassion.
In this sense, linking your personal suffering to that of others becomes a gift to you and through you, a gift to them.
A few examples.
Roland has AIDS, and will likely die soon. Heís only thirty-five.
I lost my friend Charlie, a Vietnam vet who worked with the criminally insane, to AIDS when he was the same age. My friend Alberto had AIDS too. A month before Alberto died I did a Tarot reading for him and of course he picked up the Death card. He was so relieved to talk about it openly. All of his friends in his large gay community had lost loved ones and it was unbearable to them that it was Albertos turn. "Itís time," he said.
When I bathe Roland, I think of Charlie and Alberto.
My youngest brother, Paul, was psychotic. Mad, he wandered off into the New Mexico mountains and died there. Every young psychotic could be my brother.
Carl is homeless, in his early thirties, an addict and diabetic, cellulitis oozing on his left foot, soon to be an amputee. What broke him so? I was homeless for three years as a teenager. Iíll know how to love him remembering how fierce and cold it can get.
Each of these stories of my friends and loved ones is intimately real to me, but when linked to anotherís suffering it is no longer mine. They are now not a burden but an opportunity for connection, which offers a kind of freedom. A naÔve individualism infects the Western world, so much so that we imagine freedom to be a lonely, even alienated thing. The kind of freedom I speak of here is not independence but interdependence, the vibrant community of we who sustain one another and sometimes set one another free beyond the edge of our own precious but small life.
Clutching at personal suffering amplifies and distorts it.
Sympathetic joy and sorrow delivers us into a lived understanding of living in the human community.
We walk through the life that weíve lived even as we walk through whatever comes our way, the two meeting each other in a field of sympathetic sorrow and joy. Here we can see sorrow and joy as the possibility of compassion that lives within the stories of our lives and the lives we bear witness to.
The spirit of kindness is deathless. Perhaps youíve met it in moments but it existed long before your birth and will persist long after your gone. It is the bedrock from which we all spring, the
God that is love and the love that is God.
Those who can meet anotherís joy with joy, those who have transformed a portion of their suffering into compassion are walking a very old path.
Many have walked this way.
Below is a video of sympathetic joy, a common story of the reconciliation between loved ones after a long separation. All of us have experienced this and because of that we participate in the joy of compassion.
Copyright © Michael Ortiz Hill. All rights reserved.