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Exploring Compassion: Part One

In lots of different circles, we talk about compassion. A lot. Compassion for ourselves. Compassion for each other. But are we just… talking?

Personally, I like the Merriam-Webster definition of compassion: "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."

Other words for distress? Suffering. Pain. Hardship. Problems. 

Other words for “desire to alleviate”? Wanting the best for someone. Helping. Kindness. Taking time to consider others.

When I teach loving-kindness meditation (also known as metta), we talk about the power of even speaking words for others with the desire to alleviate their suffering. May you be happy… May you be healthy… May you be safe… May you be loved… May you live with ease.  We talk about different people that you can do the practice for. Usually we start out with ourselves, move on to loved ones, neutral people, and then the “difficult” people in our lives. This practice can be really hard, but sometimes it’s still easier than some more active ways of showing compassion.

It’s become really clear to me that compassion is hard to come by. We could all probably say that it’s been missing for a long time, but the divisiveness we’ve seen really cement on a grand scale in America and around the world, the us vs them attitude, the disregard for others… There’s that picture of the couple in Trump shirts that say “fuck your feelings.” That about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

So how do we counter that? How do we try to bridge divides whether they be on that large scale of politics or in the more personal world of relationships and family? 

I might suggest compassion. 

The truth is that we are all suffering. I know that can sound like a depressing view of reality, but really it’s looking to embrace what’s really there. The Buddha taught that we all suffer and we do so many things to get rid of that suffering (maybe even wearing “fuck your feelings” t-shirts?) or to ignore it, stomp it down. Sometimes when we think of suffering, we think of underprivileged children in third world countries, but there are many types of suffering and varying degrees. Your suffering might not be like someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or doesn’t deserve compassion.

So how do we even find our ability to be compassionate?  It’s a big question. What does it look like in life and not just talking about or meditating on it? How do we steer tools we learn in meditation or mindfulness toward that purpose?

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to share some examples — mostly from my own life — of searching for that ability. It’s easy to talk about compassion and empathy in the abstract, but in real life, it can be hard to even find the direction of the path towards those things. 

Let’s take some time to explore that together. Maybe you have examples that you’d like to share along the way too. 

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