If you’ve read some of the other articles in this series, you might have noticed that I often mention compassion. Many times, I’ve talked about the importance of bringing an attitude of compassion to ourselves, our issues, and our spiritual journey. I do this because compassion is absolutely essential to our unfolding – without it, spiritual growth is not really possible. So what is this quality that is so vital for us to open into our full spiritual potential.
I’d like to start with a story that comes from the days when my daughter was 5 years old. We were out one day, and she was running excitedly ahead of me down the sidewalk. Suddenly she tripped and fell hard onto the rough asphalt surface. She started screaming with pain and shock as she looked at the blood running from her lacerated knee. I ran up to her, put my arms around her, held her tight and murmured sympathetic words about how much it must hurt. Then, as her sobs started to quieten, I asked her if her hurt knee could be fixed with a slice of pizza. She looked up at me and said in a quavering voice, “Two slices”. How could I say no! Her tears stopped, she limped gamely to the pizza shop, and happily devoured her two slices of pizza, the pain in her knee forgotten.
This story illustrates a particular kind of compassion which I’m going to call everyday compassion. This kind of caring is very familiar to all of us, and we’ve all given and received it many many times, as children and as adults.
So what do we notice about everyday compassion. What we see is that it’s an empathetic response to pain. We see that when another is hurting, our heart responds with love and kindness, and we try to do something to make the pain go away. We want to alleviate the suffering, whether it’s physical or emotional.
Everyday compassion works well in the physical realm for physical hurts, as it did with my daughter. It is also the best way to respond to young children when they’re hurting emotionally. When they are suffering, they need us to do whatever’s necessary to make it better. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to alleviate suffering. It’s one of the qualities that makes us human, and drives much of what we do.
The problem with everyday compassion is that it isn’t the best response once we’re no longer children, because it doesn’t allow any transformation of our emotional pain. It does make us feel better in the moment, but the hurt parts of us remain unexamined and unchanged, only to reappear another day. What’s needed for our emotional pain is true compassion.
Like everyday compassion, true compassion is a spontaneous, heartfelt response to pain. What’s different is that it does not try to make our suffering go away, but instead provides the kind holding that allows us to stay with and deepen into it.
It recognizes that emotional pain is a doorway to Spirit, and the last thing it wants to do is remove that doorway. So it doesn’t try to soothe our pain. It doesn’t try to make the doorway go away.
It knows that living from Spirit is the ultimate cure for all our suffering, and so it does everything it can to use this opening to support our journey towards Spirit. It knows that we can only unfold into Spirit if we are willing to be exactly where we are in each moment, whether it’s pain or pleasure.
True compassion is the gentle presence that understands completely. It’s a spacious allowing that accepts whatever we find inside. It’s like the kind friend who is absolutely there for us, letting us know that we are no longer alone. It sees our suffering with exquisite sensitivity, and responds with exactly what’s needed. It’s both still and responsive, a calm, serene pond that nevertheless starts to ripple the moment even a tiny pebble is thrown in. It knows exactly how to respond, what to say and what to do to give us complete support, not to soothe the pain, but to stay right with it.
It allows us to relax into our suffering, and start to understand it. As understanding and insight arises, our process starts to unfold, and we find that we are no longer completely immersed in our pain. And as we follow our unfolding thread, we move closer and closer to Essence, our True Nature, where this is no suffering. So paradoxically, by supporting us to deepen into our pain, true compassion eventually brings us to who we really are, and to the place of no suffering.
So we see that when emotional pain arises, either in ourselves or others, the kindest action is not to try to soothe it. The kindest, most compassionate thing we can do is provide a loving space so that we can deepen into the pain, deepen into ourselves, and move closer to our Essence.
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