As a parent, I often feel my children’s pain. They come to me crying and suddenly I feel myself getting teary too. It might be hurt feelings or a bonked head on the corner of the kitchen counter. (Damn that age when they’re just the right height for that!) My response in those moments makes a difference. If I dismiss their feelings – “You’re fine!” – they are left alone. But if I feel it too, they know that someone cares. I don’t necessarily have to fix it.
This is one way of looking at compassion, a trait we have been studying in my Mussar class and one that is also important in Buddhist teachings. Compassion is a sympathetic response to another.
While a parent’s love readily sets the stage for compassion to occur, it is not so easily accessed in other relationships. In the book Everyday Holiness, the primary text we are using for my class on Mussar, it says: “The moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul.”
In our class the other night, we puzzled over what compassion really is. Some thought it meant the ability to feel what another is feeling, to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Another thought that compassion meant to have pity on other people. Many of us were not quite sure. How does it differ from love? When is my desire to help another person compassion and when is it generosity?
According to Jewish teachings, compassion has everything to do with how we relate to others. “Compassion is an inner quality that grows within us out of the perception that we are not really separate from the other,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “We have a commonsense appreciation that we are all separate beings but the truth is that we are very much connected at several levels.” When connectedness resonates within us, we are able to feel another’s pain (and happiness) as if it were our own.
Mussar teachings say that is not enough to feel compassion. One must also act on it. “Compassion does not come into being just by feeling empathy,” the book says. “The depth and richness of the emotional connection must be translated into action that expresses concretely how truly moved you are to take care of the other. It is the action you take that turns a relationship or a shared emotion into compassion.”
I am thinking now of the people in Japan who have suffered such sudden and catastrophic disasters in the past week. I feel for the loss of human life, of homes, and of their sense of safety. I worry about the ongoing threat from the nuclear reactors. But what will I do to express that concern? According to these teachings, that is what matters.
Buddhist teachings on compassion also emphasize the call to action. “Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world,” it says in the book, Lovingkindness, by Sharon Salzberg. “Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion, is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”
The goal of our spiritual practice is to be able to understand, to be able to look without illusion at what is natural in this life, at what is actually happening for others and for ourselves. This willingness to see what is true is the first step in developing compassion. More difficult than acknowledging pain, however, is opening to it. This is the second step in developing compassion: opening to pain and establishing an appropriate relationship to it. We may have to do this a little bit at a time.
Salzberg says even very simple actions can make a big difference. “We may not be able to take away the mass of somebody’s suffering, but we can be present for them. Even if through our small act of being present, somebody does not feel as alone in their suffering as they once did, this will be a very great offering.”
I think it is interesting that the presence of another, in and of itself, can ease pain and suffering. Just being there. I guess that is why there is the Jewish custom to sit shiva after a death. In Jewish life, family and friends come to the house of the bereaved for seven days. People eat and talk, but the custom is mainly to come and sit with the person who is grieving. Just being there is enough.