Sharon Salzberg | Insight Journal: The Nature of Compassion

Interview | Insight Journal | Fall 1995

sharon and joseph

Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein | Photo: Insight


This article is excerpted from a talk given at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on July 27, 1994.

My colleague Joseph Goldstein and I just returned from teaching in Boulder, Colorado at the Naropa Institute. Naropa was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, and it was also the twentieth anniversary of our begin­ning to teach in this country.

It was a time filled with nostalgia and also a time for a lot of reflection: what have we done over the last twenty years? Have we done what we had set out to do? Had we consciously set out to do anything, or did life just unfold? There was a lot of reflection about the Dharma, about the Buddha’s teaching, about the transplantation of an Asian tradition to this country—it was a very rich and ex­citing time.

One of the themes that emerged, both personally for me and in general for a lot of people, was the issue of compassion and its relevance in spiritual practice—both as a motivation and as an expres­sion of spiritual understanding. As we sincerely undertake the spiri­tual life, it seems as though the path is not about acquiring exciting experiences. We are not replacing a desire for some­thing that we might have in a worldly sense —”I wish I had a new car”—with a spiritual aspiration—”I wish I could levi­tate” or “I wish something really excit­ing would happen in my meditation practice so I could tell everybody about it.” Ultimately the practice is about the purification of our hearts so that we rec­ognize our oneness. Then we relate natu­rally, without a contrived sense of “I am now a spiritual person and therefore I am very loving” or “I am now a spiritual person and so therefore I am very com­passionate.” Compassion and equanim­ity naturally radiate from a mind that has been purified, that is at ease, that is see­ing clearly how things are.

It is tempting to undertake a spiritual practice with the same kinds of clinging motivations with which we might have undertaken anything else. Perhaps we feel empty inside, we feel bereft in some ways, we feel we are not good enough, and so we undertake spiritual practice to try to ameliorate all of that. But then it can become a kind of self-aggrandize­ment. We cling or we hold on or we seek experiences, which is not using the strength of the practice in as powerful and as freeing a way as it can be used.

Practice is not about having and get­ting; it is about being compassionate to­ward ourselves and others. It is not about assuming a new self image; it is about being compassionate naturally, out of what we see, out of what we understand. Compassion is like a mirror into which we can always look, saying, “Is this re­ally what’s motivating me, or am I doing something else for some other reason?”

Compassion is also like a fire that con­tinually purifies our motivation in prac­tice.

Having a precise sense of compassion is very delicate. Compassion has quali­ties of self-sufficiency, of wholeness, of not being broken or shattered when fac­ing states of suffering. It has qualities of openness, of spaciousness, of resiliency. It is bom out of metta, out of loving-kind­ness; of knowing our oneness, not just thinking about it or wishing it were so.

There are other ways of understanding this—you do not have to try to force your mind into a belief that does not make any sense to you. Those people who have had any experience of introspection, whether it is meditation or just reflection, tend to get a good sense of the variety of motives and impulses that arise in the mind. We may look at someone’s be­havior, and we might say “I would never do that.” But to say “I have never seen that quality of rage inside of me; I have never seen that quality of desire inside of me; I have never seen that quality of de­lusion or confusion or infatuation inside of me”—a truly honest person would have quite some difficulty saying that. For example, within the Buddhist per­spective a cosmology is taught which in­cludes the idea of rebirth—we have all lived innumerable lifetimes since beginningless time within which we have all done everything. Everybody sit­ting in this room together, for example, has related to one another in every con­ceivable way. We have been one another’s parents and children, and at­tackers and saviors; we have hurt one another and killed one another, helped one another and healed one another; we have all been generous to one another at some time. This picture of what we might call the boundlessness of life means that none of us can look at somebody who is behaving badly from a stance of separa­tion or “Us and Them.” We can recog­nize the inapproprateness or cruelty of an act and see it clearly, but not from a sense of separation that views ourselves as being so utterly incapable of ever do­ing such a thing. We have all done ev­erything. The Buddha has said there is not a place on this earth where we have not all cried, where we have not laughed, been bom, or died. That is one example of a vision of life which allows us to see our connectedness.

When we look, we tend to see that our mind, like every mind, contains every­thing. We have all the joys and all the sorrows. We may see through different conditions, through different degrees of awareness, of wisdom, and act on them in different ways. But to actually be able to say, “I could never in my wildest imagination feel that way”—is unlikely. We have to understand our seeming dis­connection, our seeming apartness, and examine it to see if it is real in any way wholesome. But a distinction is to be made between such concern and guilt, which is a state of contraction, a state of endlessly going over things which we might have done or said. Guilt drains all of our energy; it does not give us the strength to reach out to help others. In some way we become center stage in the state of guilt. Rather than being moved by someone else’s suffering, we are moved by our own feeling of guilt and are more attached to that.

When we look, we tend to see that our mind, like every mind, contains everything.

Compassion is also considered distinct from outrage, which is another kind of anger. This is a delicate thing, difficult to grasp except experientially. Anger, or aversion, is considered an unskillful state of mind. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong. It means that in itself it is a state of suffering. It is in some way fed by delusion, and it will not ultimately be an effective motivation for sustaining what we need to do to change our own situation or to change the situation of others. This is a crucial point.

We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are feeling compassion when in fact what we are feeling is fear. We’re afraid to take an action, we’re afraid to confront, we’re afraid to be forceful, we’re afraid to reach out. But this is not an easy thing to see about oneself, so we prefer to think we’re being kind or compassionate rather than simply afraid. One of the tre­mendous virtues of awareness is that we learn to see what’s there without judg­ment. Because of that lack of judgment, and because of that equanimity, we can open more and more genuinely and see what’s actually there. Not being afraid of fear, we’re essentially saying, “Oh, yeah that’s fear; that’s what’s happen­ing right now.” It’s an excruciating de­gree of self-honesty based on awareness, which is very freeing. This brings a gradual erosion of the feeling that we do not deserve the love and attention we are willing to give to others.

One of the Buddha’s great statements was, “I teach suffering and the end of suffering.” Sometimes people hear that and it becomes the basis for judging the Buddha’s teaching as being very pessimistic and depressing, and yet it’s really not meant to be that way at all.

This statement is born of two under­standings. One is that in order to come to the end of suffering we have to openly acknowledge suffering. We can’t pre­tend it’s not there, we can’t be afraid of it, we can’t deny it. We must be able to see it clearly for what it is. The second un­derstanding is a vision of life where we are not weighing things in terms of whether they are good or bad or right or wrong. Instead, we’re seeing some hab­its of our own mind as leading to suffer­ing, and others as leading to the end of suffering.

For example, we see anger come up in our minds—it’s not that we say, “I’m bad, I’m wrong, I’m horrible.” Or, we see some­one acting out of anger—it’s not that we condemn them, but rather we see the suf­fering of it. It is tremendous suffering to be lost in a state of hatred. We can see that, and we can feel some compassion for ourselves. And when we see it in oth­ers, we can feel some compassion for them.

We also see the opposite. There are different qualities of mind, qualities of being, that lead to the end of suffering. We can rejoice in them whether for our­selves or for others. So “I see suffering and the end of suffering.”

… if we truly love ourselves we would never harm another, because if we harm another it is in some way diminishing who we are…

States such as anger, hatred, and guilt lead to suffering. Anger is sometimes talked about as being like a forest fire that is ranging wild and free. It’s a state we can get lost in, and it might take us to a place where we really don’t want to be. It’s consuming. It consumes its own nu­triment. It leaves us depleted. One defi­nition of anger in Buddhist psychology is a state of persecution.

Just think about that state of persecution for a minute; the mind gets very narrow; it gets very tight; it isolates something. It fixes on someone or something; it gets tunnel vision; we see no way out; we panic. We are deluded in several ways when we are lost in this state.

One way we get deluded is that when we fixate on a person or an attribute of ourselves, or a situation in this way, we forget the law of change. We forget that things do change. And so we put people, ourselves, situations in a kind of box. “This is how it is, this is how it’s always going to be” and we panic. Yet every thing always has the nature of change; it’s not fixed, it’s not solid, it’s not impermeable. Everything comes and goes as conditions arise and change.

Anger is also a deluded state because it tends to affix blame on ourselves when we cannot control things. Yet often these very things are completely outside of our control. We get angry at growing older for example. We might be twenty, or thirty or forty or fifty and feel inside like we are ten years old. What happened? The body seems to follow its own laws. We get older whether we want it or not—it is outside of our control. Anger seems to feel, “We should have been able to con­trol that; we should have been able to make it something different.” We look at the world: there are some things we can­not control. And yet, without that feel­ing, “We should have been able to con­trol it,” how will the anger get fed? That is another quality of anger’s deluded nature.

This is not to say it’s bad or wrong to feel anger. Just understand that this is anger’s function; this is how it works, how it affects us. Does it give us the en­ergy to make change in a sustained way? Does it burn up its own nutriment? Does it give us skill in making change? Or is it so pained and deluded that we lash out in ways that prevent effective change? And so, we come back to that very deli­cate distinction between anger or aver­sion and a state of compassion.

A corollary to this, maybe even more difficult to understand, is the distinction between compassion and grief. There is a definition of grief within Buddhist psychology that links it to aversion, links it to anger, links it to this sense of “I should have been able to keep that person from dying,” “I should have been able to…” whatever. That linkage points to a state of grief where our sense of purpose is shattered, where we don’t have the energy to move forward, to do something, to take effective action.

The traditional understanding of compassion is the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to pain.

Once again, our own feeling becomes center stage rather than whatever the situation is. And again—it is not to say that this is unwholesome or wrong, but is it something that leads to suffering or something that leads to the end of suffering? This, of course, is not very popular from a more contemporary psychological perspective, but it’s something to investigate, to look at. It’s not that we want to deny the grief, or suppress it or make it go away. But understand it for what it is: is it compassion or is it not? The teachings would say it is not. This is a subtle distinction, but it’s very real nonetheless.

So what is compassion? What is this mysterious force that is not anger, not aversion, not guilt, not grief?

The traditional understanding of com­passion is the trembling or the quivering of the heart in response to pain. It’s a movement, almost a sense of agitation, but not a restless agitation. It’s trembling, it’s quivering, it’s open, it’s tender. The courage of compassion is said to come from equanimity. Because we feel com­passion in response to seeing pain we need equanimity to be able to open to the pain. In order to not deny it or pretend it’s not there, or repackage it so it sounds better or looks better, we need to actually see it for what it is. We need equanimity, we need courage, we need wisdom to be able to open to pain. And then the com­passion can come forth.

If we are striking out against what’s happening, if we’re utterly protesting, if we’re lost in anger, if we’re lost in guilt, suddenly there’s no room for compassion to come because all of our energies are involved in these other states.

There’s another element to this rather precise sense of compassion which is mirrored in the metta practice. Metta, or loving kindness, means friendship. What happens when we practice metta is the establishment of a sense of equal­ity between ourselves and others. We don’t sacrifice love for ourselves in order to feel love for others. And we don’t fo­cus exclusively on ourselves… there’s a true equality. Thus, we are developing the art of friendship for ourselves and all others.

One of the things that nourishes com­passion, according to the teachings, is when it has a stability. This stability is different than shallow martyrdom where we are only thinking of others and we are never caring about ourselves. And it’s different from what might be thought of as a conventional kind of self-caring, which only cares about ourselves and doesn’t care about others. The Buddha said at one point that if we truly love ourselves we would never harm another, because if we harm another it is in some way diminishing who we are; it is tak­ing away from ourselves rather than adding to ourselves.

The balance between the movement of compassion and the stillness of equanimity is quite subtle and in every situation we need to watch out for it.

There are texts in which the Buddha is talking about loving oneself and caring for oneself: “You can search the entire universe for someone who deserves your love and compassion more than you do yourself, and you will not find that per­son anywhere…You more than anyone deserve your own love and compassion. It is easy for spiritual aspiration to beco­me a sort of martyrdom, where we are only thinking about generosity, or care, or compassion in terms of others, not in terms of ourselves.

Compassion is distinguished from an­ger, aversion, guilt and grief. It is also based on the sense of oneness rather than on overlooking ourselves, which might be the usual association we have with the concept.

The balance of wisdom and compas­sion or equanimity and compassion de­mands that we look at ourselves and the world and be able to say, “This is life! This is the world! This is how it is!” How many times have we looked at somebody and said, “If only I could make your pain go away I would.” But we simply can’t. This is how it is. There are lots of condi­tions that lead up to this moment, maybe from beginningless time. Where did it start? We so often can’t make the pain go away.

So are we destroyed by truth, or can we still be present? What allows us to not separate? What allows us to not dis­tance ourselves from that? It is wisdom, it is the quality of equanimity. Balance between the movement of compassion and the stillness of equanimity is quite subtle, and in every situation we need to look at it.

We don’t want to lay a veneer of idealism on top of reality, but rather to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want and do for what they are.

Ultimately it’s just a question of prac­tice. It’s the practice of being aware of our motivations. The practice of metta or compassion will break down the barri­ers between ourselves and others so that we know it is the practice of wisdom.

If we could be aware of what we are feeling as we are feeling it—experience it directly—without getting lost in it and without judging it as bad or wrong, we’d see that it has the nature to arise and pass away—it is not stable, it is not perma­nent, it is not who we really are. It is important not to be afraid of these vari­ous arisings—not to condemn them, not to push them away—but to be able to experience them directly. This is quite different than becoming lost in it or iden­tified with it: “This is who I really am, this is the entire picture.”

Compassion is a practice of cultivation. Rather than laying a veneer of idealism on top of reality, we want to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want and do for what they are. The mistake that most of us make at one time or another with a practice like com­passion (which is different than a prac­tice based solely on awareness, just see­ing what is) is to try to lay that veneer on top of whatever we’re actually feeling: “I mustn’t feel anger, I must only feel com­passion. Because, after all, that is my dedication—to feel compassion.” So we feel incredible rage, and yet we’re trying to deny it and say, “Well, I’m not angry because I am practicing loving kindness and that’s all I am allowed to feel.” It is a very delicate balance, bringing those two together—pure awareness, which is so honest and sees what’s happening, and also the cultivation of something like compassion.

Even the Dalai Lama says about him­self, in his most recent book, “I don’t know why people like me so much.” And then he says, “It must be because I really try to be compassionate, to have bodhicitta, that aspiration of compassion. It’s not that I succeed—it’s that I really try.” To me it’s an interesting issue: is there a quali­tative change between any of us and the Dalai Lama, or is it quantitative? Are there more compassionate moments in a row that he seems to experience than we do? Or is the actual quality of compas­sion different? There are reasons, both textually and traditionally, to believe that it’s not qualitative, that the moment of compassion any one of us feels is as pure, as deep, as direct; but what happens is that we get lost more often. We get distracted, we forget, we get caught up in something else. But we don’t necessar­ily have to make our compassion “real” or more genuine or better than it actually is. It is fine the way it is; it is just rather rare.

This view is a little less self-defeating, and it empowers the practice. We’re not reaching for something in the practice that’s not there already; we’re remember­ing more and more. That’s the power of actually doing the compassion prac­tices—it reminds us more frequently and strengthens that intention in the mind.


Source: Insight Journal | Fall, 1995

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