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Compassion is inextricably linked to the Buddhist practice of liberation. It can be the motivation for this practice as well as the result. As one’s inner freedom grows, one’s capacity for compassion increases; as one’s compassion increases, so does the importance of freedom. Liberation supports compassion and compassion supports liberation. They both benefit when they go hand in hand.
Compassion is a form of empathy and care that wishes for the alleviation of someone’s suffering. Known as karuna in Buddhism, this compassion is sometimes referred to as the “jewel in the lotus.” The lotus symbolizes the heart or mind that, with practice, blossoms into freedom, and the jewel represents the compassion appearing in the center of this blossom. The feeling of unfettered compassion is one of the most beautiful feelings a person can experience, providing valuable meaning and purpose to any human life. Its presence is sometimes celebrated in Buddhism as an inner wealth and source of happiness.
Given its importance, Buddhism doesn’t leave the manifestation of compassion to chance. We don’t have to passively accept how often and how strongly we happen to experience it. Instead, it’s possible to actively develop our feelings of compassion and remove the obstacles for our feeling compassionate.
Because people sometimes confuse compassion with feelings of distress, it is helpful to clearly distinguish these two. Compassion doesn’t make us victims of suffering, whereas feeling distress on another’s behalf often does. Learning how to see the suffering in the world without taking it on personally is very important; when we take it personally it is easy to become depressed or burdened. We can avoid taking it as a personal burden or obligation if we learn to feel empathy without it touching our own fears, attachments, and perhaps unresolved grief.
This means that to feel greater compassion for others we need to understand our own suffering. Mindfulness practice is a great help in this. With mindfulness, we can better see our suffering, its roots within us and the way to freedom from suffering; we can begin to cultivate both equanimity toward our suffering and release from its causes.
In this regard, it’s helpful to appreciate the great value in staying present, open, and mindful of suffering, both our own and that of others. We often need to give ourselves time to process difficult events and experiences and to let difficult emotions move through us. When immediate action is not required, staying mindful of suffering doesn’t necessarily require a lot of wisdom or special techniques. It mostly takes patience and perseverance. Relaxed mindfulness of our own suffering increases our ability to feel empathy for others’ difficulty and pain. It gives time for understanding and letting go to occur. By practicing to be free of habitual reactivity, we take the time to see and feel more deeply what is happening. This allows empathy to operate and for deeper responses to arise from within. In this way, compassion is evoked rather than intentionally created.
Some people are reluctant to actively cultivate compassion because they worry that it will be insincerely or artificially contrived. Others fear that it will make them sentimentally naive or prevent them from seeing others clearly or realistically—perhaps out of concern they will be taken advantage of if they are compassionate to others. Because efforts to be compassionate can be misguided, these concerns are worth keeping in mind. However, as there are healthy ways to increase our compassion, the concerns don’t have to inhibit our efforts to do so.
One effective way of developing compassion is creating conditions that make it more likely to occur. That is, rather than directly making ourselves more compassionate, we can engage in activities that make it more likely to appear naturally.
A condition for compassion is a sense of safety. It is easier to feel compassionate if we feel safe and very difficult when we don’t. Therefore, to develop a confident and compassionate life, it can be helpful to find appropriate ways to feel safe. Locking ourselves in our home may feel secure, but it’s not conducive to caring more about others. Learning how to be safe while in the world is more useful. So is using mindfulness practice to address some of the anxieties and self-preoccupations that make us more likely to feel threatened.
It is important not to feel obligated to be compassionate as this often leads to self-criticism and stress that interferes with the arising of a natural compassion. Buddhism doesn’t require us to feel empathy and care for others. It does say, however, that we have the capacity to be compassionate and that doing so is a wonderful asset to ourselves, to others, and to the practice of freedom. The focus can be on how compassion enriches us, not depletes us.
Some people are hesitant to cultivate compassion because they worry they will have to give up too much of themselves as they help others. Or they fear they will have to spend time with people they feel uncomfortable with. By knowing we are not obligated to be compassionate it may be easier for us to use our best wisdom and common sense to understand when acting on compassion is appropriate and when it is not.
Having confidence in our skill to respond to others’ suffering can also make it easier to feel compassion. If we feel helpless, too uncomfortable, or even threatened by the troubles others are facing, awareness of their suffering may add to a sense of personal threat. Developing skill has a lot to do with slow and patient training in such things as mindfulness, concentration, and letting go.
A way of strengthening compassion is to understand and then release what prevents it from arising. For example, tension and stress limit compassion. When we’re stressed, we’re usually too preoccupied for empathy to operate. However, when we’re relaxed, our capacity for empathy increases. People who cultivate deep states of calm often find it naturally opens their hearts to great capacities of compassion and love.
Selfishness and self-preoccupation also obstruct compassion by blocking the attention and sensitivity that is needed for compassion to arise. One benefit of letting go of selfishness is that compassion arises more easily.
We can also increase the amount of compassion we feel in our lives by setting the intention to do so. This can be quite specific, such as intending to be compassionate in a particular situation or toward a particular person—or it can be more general, as intending to be compassionate for this day or this week. When we consciously set this intention, we’re more likely to be reminded of and to think in terms of compassion. We will also notice compassionate thoughts and impulses that occur but which may otherwise be overshadowed by different desires and concerns.
Valuing compassion when it does appear can also strengthen it and make it more apt to arise in the future. We might consider and appreciate the benefits it can bring others as well as ourselves. Knowing the benefits can bring a sense happiness that in turn can make compassion more appealing. Compassion can be more appealing when we have seen how it can be a source of happiness and how it can be intimately connected with our inner freedom. Compassion for others can be a relief when we have spent too long pre-occupied with ourselves.
Another supportive condition is to deliberately reflect on compassion, perhaps stimulated by regularly reading and talking to others about it. Whatever we think about regularly can become an inclination. If we repeatedly think about love, kindness and caring for others, thoughts related to compassion are likely to appear more often.
Spending time with people who are compassionate can also help us. The people we see frequently often have an influence on us. Seeing compassion in others can inspire it in ourselves.
Finally, understanding how compassion is a form of love helps us recognize what a jewel it truly is. When it arises from inner freedom it is then connected to other beautiful capacities of our hearts. It can appear together with well-being, calm, clarity, and peace.
There is, in fact, a great deal we can do to make compassion a more central part of our lives. As compassion grows, our self-centeredness and clinging decrease, and liberation becomes easier. As we become freer, compassion becomes more readily available. To let compassion and liberation support each other is one of the most beautiful ways of training in the Buddhist path. It can be our gift to the world.