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It’s easy to feel compassion for some beings; for example, a small, helpless animal or a hungry child in some far away, desolate and impoverished country. Our hearts immediately go out to them.

Compassion is defined in the dictionary as:

– sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help; deep sympathy; pity

But feeling compassion for some is not so easy. 

When the guy cuts in front of us in traffic, or we experience some self-serving loudmouth on television or hear a story about a thief grabbing an old lady’s purse, compassion is the furthest thing from our minds. We’d rather give them what they “deserve”, punish them and put them away somewhere. We don’t WANT to feel compassion for these people. And yet our spiritual and religious heroes have always preached compassion and caring for all people. So how do we achieve this nearly impossible feat? 

I often like to read and ponder inspirational quotes. Sometimes a certain turn of phrase or thought can change my entire perspective, or give me a fresh and even sometimes mind-altering view of the world and human nature. So I’m going to include a few quotes on compassion here in hopes that maybe they will help you to find some for someone in your life who needs it. 

Albert Einstein said: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Einstein wasn’t the first smart guy to express this idea of our feelings of separation. When we feel separate from everyone else in the universe, how can we possibly hope to have empathy for them all? But the fact is, as Carl Sagan used to say, that we are all physically made of the same stuff of the universe, right down to the last cell in our bodies. I would take that one step further to say, at the risk of raising the ire of some religious leaders, that we are also made of the same spiritual “stuff”, and what really divides us is our interpretation of the world and human nature. Ultimately what divides us most is our thoughts.

Diane Berke, a Reverend, author and teacher says: “The major block to compassion is the judgment in our minds. Judgment is the mind’s primary tool of separation.

When we are so consumed with judging people and their actions, it only emphasizes our feelings of separation. For instance, when we hear the story about the guy stealing the old lady’s person, naturally, our compassion goes to the old lady, and we are quick to judge and condemn the slimy thief. We don’t dig any deeper, and why would we?

This is an age of short attention spans quick sound bites and most of the time we don’t pay attention to anything more than the glaring headlines. But no person is made up of one simple act, and if we were to take the time to look at the entire lives of these two characters, we would likely find good and bad in each of them. And surprise! We would probably also see ourselves.

Eugene V. Debs who was a union leader and activist in the U.S. in the late 1800’s said this: “Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

When you can see yourself in someone else, suddenly you can’t judge them in the same way anymore. Granted, it is difficult to see oneself in a criminal for example, but every human being was once a small, innocent child, and has had dreams and fears, hopes and disappointments just as we all have.

But even if we do open ourselves up to feeling compassion for all living creatures, there are six billion people in the world, many suffering at the same time through terrible things.

Joanna Macy says: “Compassion literally means to feel with, to suffer with. Everyone is capable of compassion, and yet everyone tends to avoid it because it’s uncomfortable. And the avoidance produces psychic numbing — resistance to experiencing our pain for the world and other beings.

We certainly don’t want to have to contend with emotional overload. It’s like trying to donate money to every single organization or needy human being in the world…there just isn’t enough. So we have to start small, within our own little world and with the people in our lives who are not so easy to feel compassion for. It doesn’t really take much.

Leo Buscaglia, one of my favourite writers and speakers, said : “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Compassion is not just a feeling, it is also an act.

A Buddhist saying goes something like this: “If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.” What you do for someone else, you also do for yourself, which ultimately brings you happiness.

The practice of compassion is an ongoing one, and it does take “practice”. I read somewhere once that you can begin by closing your eyes and imagine the people you love and care about, and then progress by visualizing yourself transferring those feelings over to someone you have trouble with. I’ve tried it a few times, and if nothing else, it takes away my feelings of anger and hostility, if only for a little while. And that’s a start!

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”- H.H. the Dalai Lama


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This, Too, Shall Pass

My Dad used to laugh about a fellow he’d often see while driving his bus every day in downtown Vancouver. This guy was obviously a street person, maybe a little off his rocker, and he always carried a sign saying “The End Is Near!” It entertained my father to no end. (Little pun there). 

Actually, the street person might have been one card short of a full deck, but he was absolutely correct. In fact, “The End is Here!” Things, events, lives, circumstances…are ending every moment. It’s what the Buddhists refer to as impermanence. Nothing, as it turns out, is permanent, not even the massive Rocky Mountains or the sun that rises every day. That might seem a depressing thought at first, but it can also work in your favour because it means that difficulties and bad times and suffering end too. And the end of suffering, as it happens, is the Third Noble Truth. 

Suffering does indeed, come to an end.

We’d all like to escape our misery by just being able to push it away or pop a pill, attend an inspirational sermon, watch a good movie, or read a great book. And while all of those things might give some temporary relief, quite often the root of our unhappiness remains because it is self-perpetuated. The cause is often created in our own minds. 

As I have mentioned before, taking some time to pay attention to your own thoughts can be quite a revelation. Realizing how much our thoughts influence our attitudes, moods and behaviours in every moment of our day-to-day existence is the first step to understanding what the Buddhists call the “nature of mind”.

It isn’t as much about control as it is about awareness. And if we pay attention long enough, we become aware of another Buddhist saying…”all that arises, must cease.” 

We are less successful when we look for distractions in the external world than we are by simply paying attention and noticing how thoughts and circumstances come to their own, natural end. Sounds kind of mundane, doesn’t it? But we’re impatient sometimes; we want to end our discomfort in a hurry and a quick-fix method sometimes sounds pretty good…lose 10 pounds in two weeks, pop this pill and you’ll feel better, look younger, etc., etc. No wonder so many people end up in emergency rooms or on therapist’s couches!

In fact, there are a number of psychotherapists out there now who incorporate Buddhist thought into their practise. There is an excellent book called “Thoughts Without A Thinker” by Mark Epstein, M.D., on this practise.

When the larger life events happen like the loss of something or someone, and they do, it takes time to recover emotionally and to adjust. What we are really aiming for is to simply not make it worse for ourselves! Clinging, desire and aversion, all work against us when it comes to recovery.

My mantra in the last few weeks has been “this too shall pass”, because I know for a fact that it will. Every day I notice I am a little less fearful or overwhelmed. I expect the odd setback like a lost night of sleep or a moment of discouragement or depression. But we’ll get through.

And there is one more Noble Truth, the Fourth, which contains the Eightfold Path, the path to the end of suffering. If you’re with me this far in this small series, I’ll explore that in the next blog posting! Be there or be square 🙂

(PS…my writing here is really just skimming the surface of the Buddhist philosophy, it is not meant as an in-depth study by any means, but I will pass along some links to Buddhist websites at the end for those of you who are interested in studying it further)