Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart in response to the recognition of suffering. To cultivate compassion, we become aware of the suffering in ourselves and others, and we do what we can to alleviate it. It helps to start with ourselves. Responding to our own suffering with compassion not only eases our pain, but gives rise to compassion for others because, as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön said: “Sorrow has the exact same taste for all of us.” And so, when we truly see our own suffering, we’re able to recognize it in others.
Treating others with compassion is a gift you can give of inestimable value. Think of some time in your life when you were suffering and someone reached out to you, showing that he or she understood your pain. Can you recall how it made you feel? I can think of a time this happened for me. A week or so after my father died, I had to return to my sixth grade classroom. I didn’t want to go. I was embarrassed to be the kid whose father had died. I wanted to blend in and be treated like everyone else but was afraid that wouldn’t happen. And I was right. My fellow students were awkward around me, being simultaneously too nice and too distant. I remember wanting to flee in misery.
My best friend, Janie Lakes (later to become Congresswoman Jane Harman), recognized my distress. She pranced right up to me, gave me a big slap on the shoulder and, using her affectionate nickname for me, said: “How ‘ya doin’ meatball?” It immediately relieved everyone’s discomfort. I suddenly felt at home in my classroom, and my classmates felt at home with me. In one bold move, Janie relieved everyone’s suffering and discomfort!
This story illustrates that compassion for others can be expressed in a variety of ways—some of them quite unconventional. So long as your intention is to ease others’ suffering, you’re on the mark.
One of the easiest ways to begin cultivating compassion is to practice it when you’re in a place with people you don’t know personally. It could be an airport or a park or a waiting room. I’ve tried it in all of these places. As I gaze at the people around me, I reflect on how some of them may have health problems and some of them may be mourning the loss of a loved one. Others may be nervous about an upcoming job interview or be worried about their children or an aging parent.
I think about how they, like me, must live as best they can with their ten thousand sorrows. Although the specific facts surrounding what has led to their individual suffering may differ from mine, we’ve all experienced sadness, worry, insecurity, and unhappiness. Having become attuned to their suffering, I evoke compassion for them, knowing that they, like me, want to be happy and at peace. To do this, I silently speak to them with phrases that express my deepest wish that they be free from suffering. Here are some of the phrases I use:
I suggest that you start your compassion practice by focusing on strangers because these are people with whom you’re unlikely to encounter conflict. When you’re ready to expand your practice to those you’re close to, I recommend that you begin by regarding them as you did those strangers—as people with whom you simply share this planet. The best way to do this is to drop the identities you’ve attached to them: mother, father, partner, child, best friend. Let them become people who, just like you, want to be happy and at peace. From this benevolent state of mind, you’ll be better able to hold them with compassion in your heart, wishing that they be free from suffering, even if your relationship with them is imperfect.
The Buddha said that whatever we repeatedly “think and ponder upon” becomes the inclination of our minds. And so, the more we cultivate compassion, the more it becomes our natural response to the world.
From How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Excerpted with permission from Wisdom Publications.