Common definitions of compassion read like the following: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken with misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. These definitions create the idea that compassion requires us to join another in their misery. Does this really help anyone? We may need a definition of compassion that is more powerful. For true compassion we will have to expand our understanding so we don’t mistakenly create more sorrow from suffering.
Let us consider a definition which does not require us to suffer. What if compassion is simply the active expression of acceptance for the world and people just as they are? It entails a state of mind where there is no judgment about a situation or a person. True compassion is being able to look at the whole world without expectations that it should be any different. We can still hold a vision of possibility for the world, but we don’t use it as a standard of comparison for rejecting where the world is right now. In this way we can avoid the personal emotional reactions that create sadness, sorrow or pity.
While the desire to make someone feel better is a natural human desire, it can be distorted in our mind. If we react to another person’s situation with sadness, frustration, or anger we will desire to stop feeling these unpleasant emotions. Our mind holds an outside situation as responsible for our sorrow or pity. Unaware of how we are creating our own reactions, our desire to make ourselves feel better drives us to change others. We are overlooking the role of our beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations in creating our own emotions. In trying to change another we have lost our respect and acceptance of another for where they are.
An example of this was a woman who was intent on saving the world from suffering. She saw people being unhappy and was sad for them and frustrated for their circumstances. She saw people drowning in a sea of emotional suffering and her emotional reactions motivated her to dive in to save them. I asked her if she could lift herself into a boat of happiness with the world the way it is. “No,” she replied. She was an unhappy person that wanted to guide the world to be happy, but couldn’t get herself in the boat… no matter how hard she tried.
I pointed out that if we followed her logic we would all end up drowning together. If I saw her suffering and unhappy then I would feel sad for her. Now there would be two unhappy people. If two people saw us and took the same approach then there would be four people suffering over our frustration and sadness. Four more people could feel saddened and frustrated by our plight and then there would be eight more in the water. If we keep going in this direction the whole world would end up feeling sorrow and pity because one person was unhappy. She began to see that her logic of outrage, sorrow, and pity helped no one.
Helping someone from drowning in emotional suffering has to be done from within the boat of compassion, acceptance, and love. Diving into sorrow and pity your self will not help anyone and only adds to the number in the waters. Some resist this approach and call it selfish to put your happiness first. I disagree. Having emotional reactions and feeling offended when the world is not living according to our personal beliefs is the act of selfishness. I see expressing love for yourself and for others is the most generous thing you can do.
Becoming aware of the emotional pain born out of these beliefs will motivate you to suspend your belief in these artificial standards. In this process it may seem sensible to let go of our expectations for ourselves first. This is actually one of the hardest places to start. You may find it more productive if you begin with an inventory of expectations of other people.
This process can be humbling. When I challenged my own beliefs and break the cycle of my emotional reactions I realized how difficult it was to identify and change beliefs. Realizing the challenge helped me be more accepting of other people trapped in their own beliefs. I no longer expected them to change their emotional state simply with my suggestions. I knew that they would have to change their point of view and beliefs before their emotions could change. Sometimes the process can be quick; perhaps a wise teacher can help with a change of perspective. Other times what is called for is being present and unconditionally accepting for life as it is. As my awareness grew I became more accepting of all the different dimensions of life. I also became more humble as I let go of my personal agenda of how the world or people should be.
There is no difference between compassion and forgiveness. Both share an attitude of unconditional acceptance for a situation or person as they are without judgment or expectation of something else. When you forgive people you let go of your attachment to your expectations and wishes for something different. This is the same as actively accepting life as it is. When you forgive people and the world for whatever they will do in the future you will be accepting of them however they are. This act makes it possible to live without judgment and the resulting emotional reactions. In this way compassion for the world is the same as a complete act of forgiveness. This is the pathway to a happy and truly compassionate life.