“Compassion indicates an open and responsive mind responding to the exigencies of an ever-changing field of vibration to sustain the optimal awareness that serves self-and other’s ultimate desire for liberation and well-being.” (Keith Dowman, Flight of the Garuda)
I was blown away when I learned that the Tibetan word for compassion is actually better translated as responsiveness. I suppose one of my opinions about compassion was that it had to include some kind of lovey-dovey kindness. Wrong again.
If we look at this quote closely, we notice a few interesting points. First off, this definition mentions being able to respond to self and other’s desire for liberation and well-being. If we think that being compassionate must involve reaching out to others, we overlook that sometimes the most compassionate response to a situation is to put yourself first. On airplanes, they always tell you to secure your own mask before helping others; how can you pull a drowning man from the river unless you yourself are firmly grounded on the shore?
The second thing to notice is that compassion doesn’t necessarily involve gentleness (again, contrary to my preconception). Responding to the situation in a compassionate way doesn’t even necessarily entail action; in fact, sometimes the most compassionate course of action might be to simply leave things alone. Even when compassion does take the form of action, it needn’t be gentle or kind- as in the case of a mother’s shouting at her child for running into traffic.
In relationships, compassion as responsiveness can, again, lead us to act in ways that on the outside might not align with our preconception of compassion. For instance, as I mentioned above, sometimes the most compassionate thing to do is to do nothing. When a partner is going through difficult times, sometimes what he or she needs most is simply to be heard, not to be told the ways in which we are going to help them to get out of this rut (this would be playing the savior- an expression of ‘idiot compassion’).
Sometimes we have to understand that what the other person is going through is necessary, and his or her own experience will be a greater teacher than we could ever be.
In relationships, conflict and drama are inevitable, and it’s more important than ever to try and practice compassion in these situations. When other people- be them friends, parents, or lovers- hurt us, we should remember that we all tend to inflict suffering on others because we ourselves are wounded in some way. We all have blind spots and unconscious tendencies that lead us to react in anger or jealousy.
Instead of immediately condemning the other person for generating these unpleasant states, however, a compassionate perspective would understand that the other person is simply acting out of his/her conditioning. It’s much easier to judge someone than it is to try and understand the factors that are leading them to behave in the ways they do.
A compassionate perspective would understand that we are really all in the same boat when it comes to the fact that we all want to be happy, yet despite our best efforts to bring this about, we all experience frustration, dissatisfaction, and suffering.
I know that my relationship with my wife simply would not have survived had we not (albeit unconsciously) tried to apply this understanding. The two of us went through many years of struggle and conflict where we were both trying to love each other but didn’t really know how. We kept acting in ways that were unconsciously hurting each other, and I suppose the only saving grace in all of that was that we took most of the pain that was generated in these situations to investigate what was really at stake and why we were reacting the way we did. It wasn’t always easy to admit the depth of our own pain, fear, and anger, but we gradually learned to trust in the love that mysteriously existed between us.
In the end, I understand our relationship as being subject to the power of Love pulling us toward Itself, almost like a magnet. In order to do this, It had to remove all the blockages along the way. These blockages were our ego-based attachments, habits, and defense mechanisms, and as with everything ego-related, these don’t go down without a fight.
There is nothing special or particular about us in this regard: I firmly believe that this magnetic Love force is actually pulling all beings toward Itself (Teilhard de Chardin called this the “Omega Point”). The only question is whether we will acquiesce and work with It, or continue resisting it through ego temper tantrums.
Click here to read the fourth and final part of this series.
Meditation: Can you think of a situation where trying to make things better actually makes them worse?