Attitudes of Mindfulness: Compassion

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Chennai Temple: Photo by Sean Ochester

Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law. 
The Dhammapada

When Nelson Mandela died it got me thinking about the many exceptional people throughout history who have benefitted us all.  I was thinking about people who took great risks, suffered or gave up worldly pleasures and pursuits like Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, Jane Goodall, Desmond Tutu, Harriet Tubman, and the Buddha. People who lost their lives for their cause like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus. I even considered modern humanitarians like the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Bono, and Warren Buffet – and I reflected that there were surely many others that I do not know about or who didn’t come to mind.

I feel very fortunate to be able to make such a long list of those who have bettered the world. Many of these individuals embodied the Buddhist concept of bodhicitta – selflessness and compassion for all beings. Compassion is the desire to eliminate suffering and its causes.

In this culture we find ourselves swimming in a sea of fear – immersed in stories and images of danger and loss, its easy to feel we are barely able to keep our own heads above the fray. We unconsciously begin to live as though harmful people and things await us around every corner. And if we are so harmed, we are taught that it is our own fault for not seeing it coming and preventing it from happening. So, we tend to carry a certain level of skepticism, defensiveness and stinginess with us at all times. The costs of this approach to life are many, but at its core is a life lived regretting missteps of the past and anticipating the dangers of the future, rather than truly experiencing each moment as it unfolds. We are less present in our lives.

How do we escape this conditioned, habitual way of being and cultivate compassion? We do it in much the same way that we cultivate the other attitudes of mindfulness – through practice. First, we set an intention and a wish for the happiness, the end of suffering and the causes of suffering for all beings (including ourselves). Then we engage in formal practices, such as lovingkindness (metta) or Tonglen (sending and receiving) meditation that help us realize this intention in our daily lives. We relearn how to open to experience and see things as they are without judgment, even in the face of great difficulty. We begin to accept uncertainty. All of this creates space within us for allowing suffering – our own and that of others – so that we can respond skillfully and with wisdom, fulfilling our intentions.

When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”  Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice. – Pema Chodron

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