Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Training in Compassion

My waitress wandered over to refill my coffee. A slow morning. She glanced idly at the book I was reading -- Patrul Rinpoche, Words of my Perfect Teacher -- and wandered off again. So of course I looked at the text then, with new eyes -- the eyes I imagine (extremely inaccurately, I'm sure) to be those of a bored waitress in a Greek diner. The words that leapt out at me were about developing compassion. And I thought of what a strange concept that would have seemed to me, before I came to the Dharma. A concept that would have made no sense, carrying the assumptions I carried then.

In the first place, I was accustomed to thinking of my compassion as being a more-or-less permanent quality of my more-or-less permanent self, not as a skill that could be developed. Someone who has never radically changed their physical activity imagines that the shape of their body and its capacities are simply given, and they're shocked when a cast comes off revealing a dwindled arm, or when they find their legs hardening and changing shape in just a couple days after taking up running. In the same way, I thought of my compassion as simply given. I had never tried to change that quality of mind, so I thought it was just there, as the color of my eyes is just there. How would a person "develop" it? It seemed like undertaking to "develop" my eyes to be an intenser blue.

So that was the first hurdle. The next was, even supposing it could be developed -- why would anyone want to? I plumed myself on my compassion, as I imagine most people do. I was compassionate, I thought, at the right time, towards the right people, in the right degree. I didn't waste time feeling sorry for upper- and middle-class Americans who yammered and whined whenever their pipeline of luxury goods threatened to slow down a bit. I was sorry for the people who really deserved it, the working poor, the down-and-outers, the homeless, the people struggling in places like the Sudan or Rwanda in really nightmare circumstances. I gave money to people on the street (if they looked really miserable). I gave money to Save the Children, and Amnesty International, and so forth -- organizations that were helping people nobody else seemed to give a damn about. What was wrong with my compassion? It was other people who were deficient in compassion, not me.

Moreover -- the third hurdle -- my compassion was a burden to me. I suffered under it. I already had compassion for more people than I could ever help. What could possibly be the point of trying to increase it? I felt bad enough as it was.

This is already looking like a long blog entry, so lets just set hurdle #1 aside. Take my word for it, for the moment -- it is possible to train in compassion: there are simple, effective techniques for it that have been in use for centuries. Tong Len ("Taking and Sending") pre-eminently, but there are others. And just aspiring to be more compassionate has an immediate, significant effect.

Hurdle #2 I overcame by practicing. Once I got really working on it -- really trying to sensitize myself to the suffering of those around me -- I discovered that I was in fact deficient, terribly deficient, in compassion. (I discovered also that I had been conducting a thriving anti-compassion practice. "Don't feel sorry for those white landowners who were dispossessed: they deserved it. Don't feel sorry for Dick Cheney, having heart surgery: the sooner he dies the better off the world will be. Don't feel sorry for Tosi's son ranting about business taxes: he's an idiot and doesn't understand that the taxes benefit him more than they ding him." Etcetera: I could extend this list ad infinitum. I excluded a really huge range of people from my compassion. And I worked hard on excluding them.) I excluded everyone who "deserved it" or "brought it on themselves." Which included me, of course. None of my suffering was legitimate. I deserved it all. I had brought it all on myself. But of course, from the Buddhist point of view *all* suffering has been brought on ourselves: you can't exclude someone on that account.

Hurdle #3 I overcame partly by study, partly by practicing. It wasn't long before I realized that what Dharma texts meant by compassion was quite a bit different from what I usually meant by compassion. For one thing, they talked about it as a joyous experience, sometimes, which was wholly foreign (and pretty damn suspicious sounding) to me. "Feeling sorry for people," though it played a part, was a minor. The point wasn't to suffer along with people. The point was to accurately perceive their pain, and aspire to lessen it. "Feeling sorry for people" was where I had gotten tangled and stuck. Not only does feeling sorry for people feel bad, it also implied that I endorsed their suffering, that I accepted their understanding of it. So the man who's suffering because his wife is such a goddamn bitch -- I couldn't feel sorry for him without accepting that his wife is a goddamn bitch, and I happened to know that she was just a decent woman pushed past all endurance by his continual hostility. Feeling sorry for him, according to my old understanding, would be worse than mistaken -- it would be complicity in abuse.

Strange things happen when you stop trying to evaluate the legitimacy of people's suffering. Barriers come down. Motives that seemed clearly malicious or perverse suddenly come into focus as mistaken, sometimes even nobly mistaken. The amount of suffering I perceive in the world since taking on the project of developing compassion has grown enormously -- but the amount of evil I perceive has dropped even more precipitately. The world has become easier to live in, not harder, since I've begun working on opening myself more fully to its pain.

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner -- "To understand all is to forgive all" -- gets it exactly backwards. It's by forgiving that we understand. We need to cultivate compassion so we can see more clearly. Without it we are blind.

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