Compassion in action is paradoxical and mysterious. It is absolute, yet continually changing. It accepts that everything is happening exactly as it should, and it works with a full-hearted commitment to change.
It sets goals, but knows that the process is all there is. It is joyful in the midst of suffering and hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds. It is simple in a world of complexity and confusion. It is done for others, but it nurtures the self. It shields in order to be strong. It intends to eliminate suffering, knowing that suffering is limitless. It is action arising from emptiness.
When we look at the vast sadness and suffering in the world, we often experience intense pain in our hearts. The suffering so often seems cruel, unnecessary, and unjustified—reflecting a heartless universe. The human greed and fear that are causing much of the suffering seem out of control. But when our hearts open in the midst of this, we want to help. This is the experience of compassion.
Compassion is the tender opening of our hearts to pain and suffering. When compassion arises in us, we see and acknowledge what we often push away—the parts of life that cause us sadness, anger, or outrage. The powerful awakening of our own compassion can tune us not just to the nurturing and sustaining forces of the world, but also to the oppressive and destructive ones as well.
When we open to these forces directly and become familiar with them, instead of avoiding them as we often do, we are more likely to hear ways to respond with love and support to relieve the suffering. When the pain is our own, we want to end it. If we can’t do this by ourselves, we long for help. When it is not our cry, but someone else’s, compassion allows us to feel it as our own, to feel the same longing, to hear our hearts calling us to help.
The Dalai Lama has said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. With them, we can make a joint effort to solve the problems of the whole of humankind.”
Acting with compassion is not doing good because we think we ought to. It is being drawn to action by heartfelt passion. It is giving ourselves into what we are doing, being present in the moment—no matter how difficult, sad, or even boring it feels, no matter how much it demands. It is acting from our deepest understanding of what life is, listening intently for the skillful means in each situation, and not compromising the truth. It is working with others in a selfless way, in a spirit of mutual respect.
Compassion is the basis of all truthful relationships: It means being present with love—for ourselves and for all life, including animals, fish, birds, and trees. Compassion is bringing our deepest truth into our actions, no matter how much the world seems to resist, because that is ultimately what we have to give this world and one another.
Suffering exists, pain exists, cruelty and injustice exist. We can’t deny that, and we can’t eliminate it all, no matter how hard we try. What we can do is bring truth and lovingkindness into each situation in which we find ourselves. We can use suffering as an opportunity for expressing love.
When others are suffering, we can’t always make them happy, no matter how much we want to, but we can create an environment in which wholesome choices are more likely, and we can support one another in our attempts toward more fulfilling lives. We can’t “fix” one another’s lives, but we can help one another gain insight and skill so that we all have more control over our lives, so that we are not more dependent, but are more free. What we can give one another is support—from tender care to the temporary fulfillment of basic human needs.
Life on earth, diverse and wonderful, includes our human community of interconnected people, all of us carrying the spirit, all of us with the ability to respond effectively to our own problems if we have the proper resources. For complex reasons, many of us do not have those resources now and need the support and help of others to shift the balance. There are ways for each of us to participate in this shift…
Compassion begins with ourselves. When we are kind and caring toward ourselves, we are nurturing our spiritual growth and cultivating compassion for others.
Gandhi, whose life was committed to the relief of suffering for others, understood this; he said, “I believe in the essential unity of all people and for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one person gains spiritually, the whole world gains, and if one person falls, the whole world falls to that extent.”
What we have to give is who we are; when we are kind and forgiving toward ourselves, we are more relaxed and happy and better able to be loving toward others. Compassionate action is a path on which we grow in awareness and insight. As we grow, we become purer instruments for change. We become hollow reeds for the healing music of life.
We all frequently act with compassion toward people familiar to us and the ground on which we live; we teach our children, listen to our friends, tend our gardens. But we also need to take steps toward another kind of compassionate action, the kind we may need help in discovering, the kind that extends further than our immediate arms’ reach. We need to explore possibilities for acting with love, care, truth, and passion toward those who are calling from a distance.
Excerpted from Compassion in Action by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush. Copyright © 1992 by Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush. Used with permission.