Compassion: The Love That Embraces Suffering

Jan 30, 2018 Group Meditation Part 2 of 2

This talk happened at the Boundless Love Project’s Group Meditation. Before listening to the talk, we suggest you listen to Pascal Auclair’s Fire of Compassion Meditation, given by Freeman, which preceded the talk.

Compassion: The Love That Embraces Suffering

In June of 1996, near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Klu Klux Klan held an announced rally. Others planned a counter-protest and the police set up a fenced area for them to use to keep them separated from the Klansmen.

During the protest, an activist with a megaphone called the crowds attention to a “Klansman among them,” referring to a middle-aged, white man with an “SS” tattoo, and a T-shirt bearing a confederate flag. The man began to run, but the angry, deeply-egoic mob knocked him down, and began to kick and beat him with their signs.

Protest participant and African-American, Keshia Thomas, dove on top of the man to shield him with her body. She told them all to stop! She told them you “can’t beat goodness into a person.” People calmed down and regained their right minds. Her selfless act stopped the attacks.

In interviews, Thomas said she acted because she, "knew what it was like to be hurt ... The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me." She acted with unconditional compassion on that day.

Since then, she has received a lot of hate mail and death threats from people lost in egoic judgment and hatred, who think that she betrayed her race. But she was clear what race she belonged to: the human race. Even though he was a white-supremacist, Thomas said, “He was still a human being.”

Her act of unconditional compassion has be told in dozens of papers, put into school text books, produced a page on Wikipedia about the incident, and resulted in her being interviewed by Oprah at least twice. Thomas’ heroic actions resonate with us on a deep, felt level because they touch our essential nature. For over two decades now, her bravery has inspired people, because it reminds us of our own potential to show unconditional compassion for all life.

A few months after the incident, Keshia Thomas was approached in a coffee shop by a young man who thanked her for saving his father’s life that day.

Introduction to Compassion

This talk is on the beautiful quality of compassion. Compassion is one of the four kinds of love, and as such it is fundamental to our essence. In absolute terms our compassion is also boundless, all-inclusive, and unconditional.

In this talk we will define compassion, explain how it feels in the body, and what compassion inspires us to do. We will also examine what compassion is not by looking at it’s near enemies of pity and overwhelm, and its far enemy of cruelty.

Then we will look at how to use the intentional stage of pre-compassion to move from our egoic view into an enlightened view of true compassion. In this part of the talk we will give you several practical strategies for helping you experience compassion and live your life from the state of compassion.

Let’s start by defining compassion and explaining its various components.

Compassion Defined

Compassion is the love that embraces suffering. Compassion is willing to be intimate and close with the unwanted. Compassion is the ability to remain open-hearted during difficult times. Compassion, as a state of being, is the heart’s natural response to cruelty of all kinds.

The Buddha helped explain the flavor of compassion with the analogy of a loving mother with a sick child. She does not turn away from his pain, but rather meets it directly. She is willing to be with him and help him in any way she can. She takes him to the doctor, gives him healthy food and pure water to drink. She makes sure he is comfortable, and warm. She gives him the medicines he needs.

At times, there is nothing she can do to take away his pain. In these times, she simply provides him with calm, loving, reassuring company, that lets him know he will not suffer alone.

At other times, she needs to do things that he does not like, such as make him take his medicines, which taste bad or irritate his throat. She does what she can to lessen his discomfort, but is lovingly firm in having him do what will help him recover and be well.

Through this example, several aspects of compassion become clear. Compassion is willing to remain open-hearted during difficult situations, even in those situations where there is nothing we can do. Compassion’s natural response to suffering is to take action to alleviate suffering. When possible, we do what we can to serve those who suffer to alleviate their pain. Most importantly, because compassion arises from the open, spacious mindfulness of wisdom, compassion does not take the suffering personally or become overwhelmed by it, as is shown by the mother being able to take effective action to aid and comfort her son. 

Let’s look a little more at these various aspects now.

Compassion Is Willing to Be Open-Hearted in Difficult Situations

An author, whose truthfulness has been called into question, wrote of his time in a prison camp in Africa during WWII.

While at the camp, prisoners would routinely and unjustly be sentenced to death, marched to a central yard and shot. Whenever this happened, as an act of compassion and support, all of the other prisoners would go to the fence and watch, so the condemned person knew they were seen, knew they were cared about, knew their injustice was witnessed, and knew they would not suffer these last few degrading and violent moments of life alone.

Whether true or not, this anecdote reflects compassion’s ability to meet suffering and be with it, even when little to nothing that can be done to end that suffering. In some cases, baring witness to suffering with a compassionate, open heart is all that we can do. This happens a lot in our own spiritual practice.

There are many times on our spiritual journey where we are stuck in ego, and we know we are stuck in ego because we are suffering, yet we are so confused that we cannot see our way out of it. When this happens, it is time to be compassionate. We do our best to feel the suffering, investigate our mental and emotional states, and hold the suffering while staying connected and open-hearted.

We don’t run away from the suffering. We don’t try to repress the suffering or escape it through sensual pleasures. We feel these strong, unpleasant emotions, but are not confused by them. We don’t mistake the emotions to be who we are. We don’t use them as an excuse to harm ourselves or others. We see the strong emotions as temporary, fleeting visitors to the heart and body. Nothing more.

We gently hold the suffering and let our heart break if it must. All of this is compassion. Compassion is remaining open-hearted, curious, and interested in our lives even when that life is filled with suffering.

Compassion Moves Us to End Suffering

But let me be clear, compassion is not masochistic. Compassion is not about endlessly wallowing in our suffering, and having a pity party. Compassion befriends suffering in order to understand and transcend it.

There is a saying in the meditation community: The way out of suffering is through. Compassion is the courageous state that is willing to face, meet, and befriend our suffering that we may move through it. Compassion’s natural response to suffering is to do what it skillfully can to alleviate suffering.

Whether that suffering is found in ourselves, in others, or in the wider world, compassion gives us the energy and skillful desire to end that suffering. This selfless desire to end suffering is a hallmark of true compassion. If you are wondering if you are experiencing compassion or not, look and see if this desire to skillfully end suffering is present.

Be Mindful of Your Motives

The motivation behind true compassion is love and compassion for the suffering being, be that being yourself or someone else. The motivation behind compassion is not aversion to the discomfort of suffering, or aversion to being with someone who is suffering. Such aversion is what makes being close to suffering intolerable, and causes us to react in unskillful ways such as: offering “quick fix” advice, judging or blaming someone or something, by wallowing in self-pity, or by checking out by indulging in sensual pleasures.

To an observer, it may be difficult to distinguish if one’s motives to end suffering come from a place of love and compassion, or a place of aversion. Only you, as the witness of your thoughts and internal states and feelings, can know if your motivations are pure. Look to the sensations of your body, heart, and mind to guide you in determining if your motives are skillful. There will be a peace, ease, and calmness to the compassion that is motivated from pure, loving motives. True compassion is grounded in love and wisdom, and lacks all restlessness, irritation, and compulsive aspects.

This leads us to our next discussion, what does compassion feel like?

How Compassion Feels in the Body

Compassion is a state of love, so it has all the usual aspects of love: an open and connected heart, a spacious and balanced mind, and a relaxed and calm body. From there it gets interesting.

When an open, connected heart meets suffering, it feels that suffering fully. It may be a very deep, great, heartbreaking suffering that it feels. Yet compassion is a paradoxical feeling. With true compassion, both suffering, and a freedom from suffering, are present at the same time. It is as if the suffering is allowed to be and move however it needs to move while being embraced and surrounded by a kind, gentle, and peaceful spaciousness or emptiness. True compassion makes for a very profound and poignant experience.

Overall, compassion can be heart-wrenching as well as beautiful, uplifting, and inspiring, all at the same time. Deep insights arise out of moments of true compassion.

The paradoxical nature of compassion makes it a bridge and a gateway between your ego and your true self. Without having great compassion for yourself and your own suffering, you will not be able to move from a place of ego to transcend into the light of awakening.

Furthermore, once you are awakened, compassion still acts as a bridge and gateway from your true self to those who continue to be stuck in ego. Compassion is what prevents an enlightened being from simply “blissing out” and not doing their part to alleviate the total suffering in the world. Through compassion, enlightened beings remain able to feel another’s suffering, even though they do not actually suffer.

If this does not make sense to you right now, that is fine. You can set what I’ve said to the side for now. You will understand this when you experience it for yourself. For now, feel free to set what I’ve written to the side for now, so that it doesn’t prevent you from taking in the rest of the information in this talk.

What is important to remember for now is that compassion arises from pure loving intentions and it meets suffering with an open heart and a balanced mind. Compassion also inspires us to take action to end the suffering of others. To help understand this unique experience of compassion more fully, it is also important that we also understand what compassion is not.

Compassion's Near Enemies

The ego confuses compassion with several delusional states which can be encapsulate in the umbrella terms of pity and overwhelm. Pity and overwhelm are thus the near enemies of compassion. Let’s examine them more closely one at a time. We start with pity.

Compassion is not Pity

Pity is fake compassion. Pity is fake because the heart is closed and unwilling to truly be intimate with the suffering of others. Because the heart is closed, pity feels very intellectual, cut off, and disconnected.

Pity loves to give advice, blame, or judge others in an effort to look concerned and offer a “quick fix” to the situation. But these acts are often unskillful, neither providing the emotional support or actual change that the situation requires.

The main reason pity closes the heart is because the delusion of self-view is operational. Pity sees others suffer and says, “poor them.” Our true self realizes they are being treated badly, but the ego in us is unwilling to truly feel what they are going through. The way the delusion of self-view manifests varies from situation to situation.

In some situations, the ego feels a false sense of superiority to those who are suffering. This is the self-view delusion of arrogance. Arrogance closes the heart by mistakenly thinking that those who are suffering are less important than us. In this way, the ego keeps us distant, aloof, and apathetic towards their suffering.

In other situations, the ego feels too weak, scared, and incompetent to let in the suffering of others. This is the self-view delusion of self-worth denial. Self-worth denial is a story that you are a beat-down, incapable, suffering person who can’t bear to hold another’s suffering. Self-worth denial fears the possible consequences of letting in others’ suffering. The ego knows that if it felt the other’s suffering fully, it would have to make changes. These changes might be uncomfortable. They might mean voluntarily giving up certain privileges, or changing life-long habits and behaviors that directly or indirectly support the cruelty and violence the other endures. Self-worth denial, fearing it is too weak and broken to make the needed changes, shuts the heart and looks away from those who suffer.

Whether the self-view arises as arrogance or self-worth denial, both are created fictions in the mind that arise from the thoughts and stories you believe about yourself. These thoughts and stories are an illusion. They have as much reality and truth in them as a drawing of a ghost. But, if you believe these thoughts and stories, they control you, limit you, and cause excruciating suffering for yourself and others. Out of love for yourself, use your mindfulness to observe these stories and investigate how they work to imprison you, so that you will have the courage to stop believing them and let them go.

Mindful investigation can help cure self-view. Another antidote to the cold, delusion of pity, is the love of kindness. By caring for the wellbeing of those who are suffering, your heart can help open to their suffering and bring you into true compassion.

Of course, once your heart is open, there is another way that self-view will confuse you into falling back into delusion. This is through the other near enemy of compassion called overwhelm.

Compassion is Not Overwhelm

In overwhelm, our heart is open, but our mind is tight and unbalanced. Overwhelm is also called “compassion fatigue” and “burnout.” In overwhelm, there are feelings of sadness, despair, frustration, grief, and other related emotions. We feel the suffering fully, but the power and intensity of the feelings confuse us. What’s happening is that these deeply unpleasant feelings trigger delusional story lines in our mind. These story lines amplify our unpleasant feelings, which continue to trigger delusional story lines, which amplifies the feelings, and on and on, keeping us stuck in an ever-growing, overwhelming misery.

The ego in us mistakes these feelings and the story lines they trigger to be the truth of who and what we are. When we identify with our feelings and stories in this way, we activate their misery-producing potentials, and tend to stew in them. Overwhelm is a deeply miserable state that can feel like it will last forever.

Due to my conditioning, I have become very acquainted with the state of overwhelm. As a long-time animal advocate, one of the false stories my mind told me which I believed was, “If animals are suffering, it is because I am not doing enough.” That’s a very stripped down version of the story that hopefully makes the delusion in it more obvious.

In my own mind, the story was far more complex and believable. This story incorrectly made me responsible for all of factory farming, fur farming, experiments on animals, and numerous other things I had no control over. Just as the law of gravity means water flows downhill, when you take situations you have no control over personally, the law of nature causes you to suffer, and that is what I did. Believing this false, made up story caused me decades of untold misery in the forms of crippling self-hatred, despair, frustration, overwhelm, and burnout.

The mindful, balanced mind of compassion knows that both feelings and thoughts are passing visitors to the body and mind. There is no reason to identify with, or believe the stories of, these fleeting, temporary, guests. With this understanding, compassion can feel the feelings and not be overwhelmed by them.

If the mindfulness of compassion is not present though, you may slip into the delusion of overwhelm. Know that the antidote to overwhelm is joy: the love that celebrates. Joy helps to uplift, enliven, and bring creativity to the mind. It also helps the mind keep perspective on the relative, changing, and insubstantial nature of suffering.

We will talk more in-depth about joy in a later talk. For now, just know that joy is a powerful antidote to the delusion of overwhelm.

Having discussed the near enemies of pity and overwhelm, let’s now turn our attention to compassion’s far enemy of cruelty. 

The Far Enemy of Compassion is Cruelty

Cruelty is the desire to hurt or harm someone. Cruelty is entirely delusional. Only someone in a deeply egoic state can commit cruel acts on a feeling being. The more we welcome compassion into our lives, the more insights we have, and the less that cruelty arises in us as an intention, a thought, or an act.

Summarize Compassion

To recap what we have covered, Compassion is what happens when an open, connected heart and a balanced, spacious mind meets suffering. It feels like a mixture of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences, yet on the whole is a beautiful state. It motivates us to end the suffering in the world.

Compassion is not pity, because pity has a closed heart. Nor is compassion overwhelm, because overwhelm has an unbalanced mind. Compassion is the antidote to cruelty. As we cultivate compassion in our lives, all forms of cruelty drop away.

Now that we have a sense of what compassion is, let’s talk about how to nurture compassion in our life to help us come out of our misery.

Intentional Compassion

Before we experience compassion, we often have to make a commitment to being compassionate. This stage of compassion is known as intentional compassion. Because it often precedes and prepares the arising of true compassion, this state is also called pre-compassion. Pre-compassion is an attitude that we bring into every situation, that will speed our ability to enter, stay in, and maintain true compassion.

During intentional compassion, we commit to feeling what we feel, and getting close to suffering, be it our own, or that of others. We also commit to ending needless suffering. This makes us more aware of the suffering we endure and helps us to mindfully question our suffering: Is this suffering necessary? Is this suffering useful? Is this suffering helpful? What is the source of this suffering? Through this mindful investigation of suffering insights arise.

Pre-compassion also requires us to incline the mind to see these unpleasant sensations of as temporary, fleeting visitors that our heart has the power to hold. By remembering that feelings are “not me, not mine,” the mind will not take these feelings personally, or believe any of the mental stories triggered by these intense feelings. This will help your mind remain balanced, stable, and not confused by these powerful feelings.

This brings me to the next big point: Both compassion and pre-compassion start with yourself.

Compassion Starts with Yourself

You are most intimate with your own thoughts, emotions, intentions, mental states, and sensations. Therefore, if you are going to have deep, penetrating insights about compassion and the nature of suffering, it is going to start on the testing ground of your own experience. If we can’t be genuinely compassionate with our own body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations, it will be challenging to be truly compassionate with others.

This was vitally important in my own spiritual journey. Through meditation and mindfulness I realized how cruel my conditioned, egoic thoughts were toward myself. This was not surprising. The ego is created through our own conditioning. Given the extensive bullying I received in school, while most others around me watched and did nothing, it was no surprise that my ego held a story that I was “weak,” “good-for-nothing,” and “worthless.”

When the real-life bullies receded into my past, my ego picked up the slack for them, emotionally beating myself up on a regular basis. Pre-compassion uses mental jiu-jitsu to turn cruel thoughts into compassionate ones. In the martial art of jiu-jitsu, you use your opponents’ strength against themselves so that even if you are smaller and weaker than them, you can still defeat them. In mental jiu-jitsu, pre-compassion does the same thing by transforming egoic attacks into teachable moments of truth and self-compassion.

Having made the commitment to treat myself with compassion, I entered the pre-compassion stage. During this time, when I saw a cruel though arise against myself, I did three things. First, I needed to be mindful enough to see it: “Ah, a cruel thought has arisen.” Second, I would investigate the thought to see what delusions it had in it. This helped me see all of the ways in which this thought was false and why it was not to be believed. Third and finally, I would respond to the falsehood calmly, from a place of compassion and truth.

Let’s go over a few examples, to make this process clearer. A cruel thought would arise such as: “I am lazy.” I’d notice the thought and investigate it to see what delusions were in it. (Check out our "What To Be Mindful Of" page to see a list of delusions and their definitions.) This one contained all-or-nothing thinking, labeling, judgment, blaming, cruelty, and, if believed, fixed-view. Then I would respond to this falsehood with love and truth: “I actually do a lot of work, and have accomplished a lot. I’m not doing anything productive right now, but everyone needs time to rest and recuperate.”

Another common story that would arise: “I am a hypocrite.” Investigating it reveals this thought to contain the same delusions of all-or-nothing thinking, labeling, judgment, blaming, cruelty, and, if believed, fixed-view.  A truthful and compassionate response could be: “I have high standards, which means they are challenging and difficult to meet. My behavior often falls shot of my aspirations, but these high aspirations help me grow, mature, and rise above my conditioning. I’d rather fail at achieving high standards and grow from the effort, than always succeed at meeting low standards and stagnate.”

Deep emotional storms would trigger the thought, “I hate my life. I wish I was dead.” Investigating this story finds the delusions of aversion, hatred, cruelty, and, if the story is believed, fixed-view. A compassionate and honest response includes: “There are many times when I enjoy and appreciate my life. Right now, I am sad, apathetic, and confused about what is skillful to do. This situation is unpleasant and hard. I wish I knew how to deal with it skillfully, yet I do know it is temporary and will pass. Based on previous observations, I also know that this situation will be easier and pass over sooner if I don’t entertain or believe these false and destructive thoughts. Most importantly, all life is worthy of love and compassion, and as a part of life, I am worthy of love and compassion too.”

In this way, I learned to be compassionate with myself. Through mental jiu-jitsu of pre-compassion, I learned to befriend my demons and turn them into teachers who helped lead me out of dark times filled with self-hatred, self-loathing, and self-bullying, into a life of love, compassion, kindness, and care.

Take Action with Intentional Compassion

Here are three things you can do to make intentional compassion part of your every moment:

1. Make a commitment to stop being cruel to yourself and others. Be mindful of all judging, blaming, and name-calling thoughts that arise directed towards yourself or others. Use the mental jiu-jitsu of intentional compassion to transform these arrows of cruelty into flowers of love and kindness.

Our ego might scream, “So-and-so politician is a liar, a cheat, and a greedy bastard!” Notice the cruelty and ill will in that thought. Name the delusions in it: All-or-nothing thinking, labeling, judgment, blaming, and possibly hatred and cruelty. Then respond with truth and love, “So-and-so is lost in their egoic conditioning, which is causing them to lie, cheat, and hoard material wealth for themselves. Their basic essence is the same love, truth, and goodness that is the basic essence of all life. To be trapped by egoic delusion is to suffer. May I offer them compassion, love, and well-wishes that they may come out of their misery, and into alignment with their true nature of truth and love.”

When doing mental jiu-jitsu at first, it may be helpful to use a journal to dissect and investigate recurring thoughts and stories that frequently deceive you. As you get more skillful at investigating them, and know the delusions well, you will be able to do mental jiu-jitsu on the fly. As always, do what works best for you.

2. Contemplate this simple truth always: All beings suffer, and all beings want to be free from suffering. This simple truth inspires us to be compassionate and to act skillfully in ways that benefit all life. Be sure to bring this truth to mind whenever you are dealing with difficulty and need compassion to arise in your life.

3. Stop needing to be anything other that who you are right now. On an absolute level, you are already worthy, complete, and whole. You are already pure, boundless, unconditional love, truth, and compassion. Live from this absolute level, and your relative level of body and conditioned behavior will persistently grow and mature to catch up and be in alignment with your true self.

What Insights Will Compassion Teach Us?

The more you mindfully and sincerely hold intentional compassion in your life, the more quickly you will experience true compassion, and the more insights you will gain. Some of those insights include the following:

1. All suffering arises from delusions. People do not cause suffering. It is the delusion that is found in all of us that causes suffering. Therefore, we need to stop attacking one another, and start getting to know and understand delusion, that we may overcome it.

2. All delusions arise from our conditioning. If a person has had good fortune in their life, they have relatively fewer delusions, but if they had bad fortune, they have a lot of delusion. Either way, it is not their fault. It is simply nature being its lawful, conditioned self. This brings us to our next insight.

3. No people or person is to blame for any of the cruelty in the world. No person does the cruelty, rather it is the delusion in them that does the cruelty.

Compassion sees that when we are trapped inside of our delusions, we are at the mercy of our conditioning. When we are lost in ego, we are acting lawfully based on our conditioning. The only way we can rise above our egoic conditioning is through mindful awareness. But our exposure to the teachings of mindful awareness is also based on good luck, and fortuitous conditioning that makes us open to practice mindfulness.

No matter how you slice it, no one is to blame for anything. This insight reveals the lie behind all judgment, hatred, and cruelty. Once this is seen clearly, you will know these delusions to be as needless and useless as carrying around a backpack full of bricks. Seeing this, you will put them down, and feel more light and free than you have felt in a long time.

4. All suffering is an illusion and is thus unnecessary. The more compassion investigates suffering, the more it realizes that there is nothing solid or real to it. Compassion sees that all suffering is a mirage, and that it is all unnecessary. Seeing this, compassion is inspired to eliminate suffering in itself and in others. 

These are a few of the powerful insights that compassion is waiting to show you, if you just fully commit to being compassionate towards yourself and all life.

Summary and Conclusion

What have we learned? We have learned that compassion is the love that is willing to meet and embrace suffering. Compassion confronts suffering with an open heart and a balanced mind, just as a loving mother cares for her sick child. Compassion moves us to take skillful actions that reduce suffering in the world. Compassion feels like a beautiful sensation that is a mixture of both suffering and freedom from suffering.

Compassion is neither pity, which has a closed heart, nor overwhelm, which has an unbalanced mind. Kindness is the antidote to pity, and joy is the antidote to overwhelm.

Before we experience true compassion in all of its full glory, we have to commit to being compassionate and enter the state of intentional compassion or pre-compassion. During pre-compassion, we open our heart to feeling suffering, while keeping our mind spacious and balanced and aware that feelings are temporary visitors who are “not me, not mine,” and thus nothing to take personally.

During pre-compassion, we use mental jiu-jitsu to transform the hateful, cruel, and judgmental stories in our minds into love and truth. By working with pre-compassion we see the lie in all kinds of cruel thoughts, and set them down like a useless bag of bricks.

Because compassion is one aspect of love, compassion is part of our essential nature. It is who we are and it is boundless, inclusive, and unconditional in nature. Compassion can be given to everyone and everything, including those who might be perceived to be our enemies, just as Keshia Thomas compassionately put herself in harms way to protect a man who had fallen prey to the egoic delusion of white supremacy.

May we all know the truth and power of compassion, that we too, may release our own inner Keshia Tomases.