Articles

Featured in the Garrison Institute Newsletter Summer 2008


sharon salzberg

Sharon Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and serves on the board of the Garrison Institute. An acclaimed meditation teacher and author, her forthcoming book, of which this is an excerpt, is The Kindness Handbook (due out October 2008 on Sounds True, www.soundstrue.com).

The Heart of Compassion

Compassion is known in Buddhist teaching as the quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering. Finding the right relationship to pain, both ours and that of others, is very complex, because pain can be a tremendously powerful teacher and an opening. It can also be the cause of terrible anger and separation. We can be filled with loneliness and resentment because we're in pain, we can feel very isolated because we're in pain, we can feel a lot of guilt in a state of grief, blaming ourselves for something we did or something we didn't do or something we didn't say. We can blame ourselves for seemingly being ineffectual in a world that needs so much help…

Rather than laying a veneer of idealism on top of reality, we want to see quite nakedly all the different things that we feel and want and do for what they actually are. The mistake that most of us make at one time or another is to try to superimpose something else upon what we are feeling: “I mustn’t feel fear, I must only feel compassion. Because, after all, that is my resolve—to feel compassion.” So we might feel considerable fear or guilt, yet we are trying to deny it and assert, “I’m not fearful because I am practicing loving kindness and that’s all I am allowed to feel.” The stability at the heart of compassion comes from wisdom or clear seeing. We don’t have to struggle to be someone we are not, hating ourselves for our fears or our guilt.

It is tempting to undertake a meditation practice or path of development with the same kind of clinging motivation with which we might have undertaken anything else…. But evolving a spiritual practice is not about having and getting; it is about being more and more compassionate toward ourselves and toward others.

One of the moments that most nourishes true compassion is when we have this clarity—when we know what we are thinking and know what we are feeling. This clarity differentiates compassion from shallow martyrdom where we are only thinking of others and we are never caring about ourselves. This clarity differentiates compassion from what might be thought of as a conventional kind of self-preoccupation when we only care about ourselves and not about others. The Buddha said at one point that if we truly loved ourselves we would never harm one another, because if we harm another it is in some way diminishing who we are; it is taking away from rather than adding to our lives.

It is tempting to undertake a meditation practice or path of development with the same kind of clinging motivation with which we might have undertaken anything else. Perhaps we feel empty inside, we feel bereft in some ways, we feel we are not good enough, and so we undertake spiritual practice to try to ameliorate all of that.

But evolving a spiritual practice is not about having and getting; it is about being more and more compassionate toward ourselves and toward others. It is not about assuming a new self-image or manufactured persona; it is about being compassionate naturally, out of what we see, out of what we understand. Compassion is like a mirror into which we can always look. It is like a stream that steadily carries us. It is like a cleansing fire that continually transforms us.