Practicing Compassion Amid Chaos & Illusion
from a talk by Jim Roseberry in 2016
The term ‘compassion’ maintains an exalted status in Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara (or Kwan Yin) is revered as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Along with loving kindness, joy, and equanimity, compassion is one of the Four Immeasurable Minds. We learn that when we study and practice these, we will enjoy the fruits of our actions.
But it is not that simple for me. Mildly irritated by the use and over-use of words such as ‘compassion’, it is clear to me that alleviating affliction in a world rife with suffering is not a simple task. What is compassion? A simple definition: being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to alleviate it.
In ordinary discourse, however, ‘compassion’ is often invoked in a way that both trivializes it and makes it banal. President Bush said he was a ‘compassionate conservative’. President Clinton said, “I feel your pain.” Nicholas Kristoff pointed out that ‘Democrats do not have a patent on compassion’. A New York Times editorial discussed “Real Compassion in College Admissions”. Whose suffering was identified and what was proposed to alleviate it?
Etymology of the term raises questions too. Through its Middle English, Old French and Latin roots, ‘compassion’ is related to pity, pain, mercy and altruism, among other things. Act out of pity for another’s suffering? But ‘pity’ implies difference, discriminatory thinking. No thanks.
I prefer to learn about compassion through specific experiences. For example, I have participated in circles of support for parolees. Along with other volunteers, I meet with a core member (the parolee) to facilitate his or her transition from prison to the community. Anguish is a recurring theme and our goal is to alleviate it.
Yet my experience in circles of support has revealed how difficult it is to practice compassion. It is easy to get overwhelmed by suffering and my ego is always a part of the experience. So I have settled on three simple practices.
First. Breathe and calm my mind. When I am fully present, my better instincts are more likely to flourish. Second. Listen deeply and speak carefully in order to know the truth and describe it. Use deep listening to sift through the layers of the core member’s story without becoming attached to it. It is very easy to get sucked into suffering. Third. Avoid becoming attached to the outcome, but stay committed by continuing to show up.
If I follow all three, I am less likely to be overcome by the agony of the parolee’s situation as well as be less burdened by the need to earn merit from my actions. I am not certain if this is an example of compassion, but in any case, let it not be confused with the word’s myriad contemporary uses.
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Monastic Zoom Visit Friday
- 6:00 pm – 25 minute sit
- 6:30 pm – Dharma talks from Sr. Spirit and Br Insight followed by questions and answers
- 8:30 pm – Adjourn
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Tuesday Night Sit Time: 07:00 PM
Wednesday Afternoon Sit: Time: 1:30 PM
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