One point about the spiritual path that’s been confusing to me for a long time is compassion.

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Buddha, Jesus, and just about every other teacher emphasizes that we should strive to practice this highest of virtues. 113 of the 114 chapters of the Koran begin with the phrase “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”; Muslims are exhorted to follow this example by practicing charity, fasting, and empathy. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Boundless compassion is said to be the natural expression of enlightened, awakened consciousness.

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After years of practice, however, I was still waiting for compassion to issue forth.

I was a bit confused about why I wasn’t feeling all warm and fuzzy toward other beings. Sure, maybe I had a bit more patience with people who annoyed me, and maybe I was more open and willing to lend an ear to others in need, but did that really qualify as compassion? Because I didn’t see any “progress” in this regard, I concluded that I must not be enlightened enough; transforming myself to even express a fraction of the Buddha’s compassion seemed an impossible task. This led to a spiral of self-recrimination and doubt, which confused and paralyzed me at times.

 

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A great Zen master once said, “Do not seek enlightenment, just stop cherishing opinions” (or ‘illusions’, depending on the translation). Stop cherishing opinions: this sounds a lot easier than seeking enlightenment!

 

 

Every year that goes by, I’m continually amazed at just how often the “bottom drops out” of something I thought I knew. I am scarcely aware of how many opinions and illusions I cherish, and I shutter at the thought of just how many more I’m cherishing and don’t even realize. Years of study and practice led me to think I knew a thing or two about the path, but what I didn’t realize (and in many ways still don’t) is how easy it is to trade worldly opinions for spiritual ones and not realize it.

Nowhere is this truer than with compassion – or at least what I assumed compassion was. I took a look at what I thought compassion was, and was surprised by just how many assumptions I carried in my head about it. Does it really mean feeling warm and fuzzy inside? Does being a compassionate person mean you always give to people on the street, or are constantly occupied with doing things to make the world better?

It’s not that I have now suddenly “figured out” the ultimate truth about compassion, and now I’m going to write about it (you too can have it for only three payments of $24.99!).

All that’s happened is that I feel more open to practice compassion after spotting a few of my own (admittedly inexhaustible) illusions.

Click here to read part 2 in this series.

Meditation: What does compassion mean for you? Are you sure you know what it means?