Cogitating on Compassion

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At 3am I found myself awake lying in bed in Galway, Ireland, unable to sleep due to jet lag. My mind drifted aimlessly around, contemplating the previous day’s meetings. Eventually I found myself cogitating on what compassion is and isn’t.

My thoughts were provoked by the recollection of an email I received which challenged my understanding of compassion. How can someone state they have compassion for the pain a circumstance creates, and then express a desire to not improve said circumstance and instead continue to worsen the pain? To me this seems counter-intuitive when one examines the definition of compassion:

Compassion. /kəmˈpæʃən/ noun. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I recently read The Art of Living: Peace and Freedom in the Here and Now by Thich Nhat Hanh, in case you don’t know, Thich Nhat Hanh is a is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, he is also a prolific writer. Within this book there was a meditation mantra which included this line:

“May I know how to look at myself with the eyes of understanding & love.”

This is really getting to the essence of what I am working on daily. My Metta meditation practice has helped create the space between stimulus and response that allows me to think about someone’s circumstances prior to reacting to their behavior. This space gives me the opportunity to be compassionate and considerate not just to others but to myself as well.

I applied the lens of compassion to the email I described earlier. Rather than react to it viscerally, I gave myself the time to analyze the circumstances surrounding it. I came to realize that the statements were edicts of self-centeredness. When one wears the lens of self-centeredness one is not being compassionate nor self-compassionate. (Dr Kristin Neff wrote an excellent article on why self-centered thinking is not compassionate). Narcissism can be overcome like any personality trait, and it will need to be dealt with for compassion to truly manifest.

The notion that self-compassion is the precursor to compassion for others is the essence of the Metta Mediation practice. In my mind it now makes sense why they decided to deepen my pain, they have no compassion for themselves, nor others. To quote Thich Nhat Hanh again:

“May you know how to look at yourself with the eyes of understanding & love.”

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