When it comes to developing compassion, each of us must find our own way through the representations of what it is and how to act accordingly. We have unique experiences and capacities which determine, through analysis and feeling, experience, memory, our individual past and the inspiring and exemplary lives of others, what is our personal pathway to compassion. This pursuit is also a pathway to our own healing and emergence into a capacity for universal compassion.
It is often mentioned in Buddhist texts that compassion is not about feeling sorry for someone, or merely letting them know that we empathize with whatever feeling they are experiencing. Compassion is about being with someone who is suffering in a way that not only relieves suffering, but also communicates an abiding presence beyond the suffering itself: not trying to fix anyone; rather, being a witness to the universal reality of suffering. Beyond that, there is also virtue in being able to speak the truth about suffering, to yourself as well as to others, even if it is difficult to hear. Such is the value of looking beyond limiting beliefs and behavior patterns in which we have become entrapped, either for a particular moment or even for a lifetime.
Back in 2009, Pema Chodron wrote a sweet article in Tricycle Magazine called “Unlimited Friendliness: Three Steps to Genuine Compassion.” In it, she described Chogyam Trungpa’s prerequisite for compassion for others as being compassion for oneself. This sentiment is shared and often voiced by the Dalai Lama. Trungpa called this compassion for oneself Maitri, or unlimited friendliness. When we develop friendliness towards ourselves, we naturally become more able to be compassionate toward others. It is the nature of this friendliness that I wish to explore here.
Step Two in his three-step process is to communicate from the heart, which is to say that we must remain in contact with the truth of our own feeling so that we can communicate in a genuine way with others. The third step is to be able to put the needs of others before our own needs. Another way of saying this is that we must, with the most searching integrity, drop our personal agendas in order to be of true service to others.
When we are presented an opportunity to be of true service to another, to express compassion with a clear intent that is not muddied by our personal agendas, we may find that this is more difficult than we realize. A desire to receive something for ourselves or to be perceived in a certain way from the interaction arises so easily and readily. Have you ever noticed that? It limits our capacity for true selflessness, does it not? If this is the case, we might well go back to noticing whether our friendliness toward ourselves at that moment is also unlimited.
Pema called this process of continuous development of a clear and unrestricted friendliness and kindness toward ourselves as the foundation of our capacity for true compassion. As we learn to extend this quality of friendliness to ourselves, we are better able to recognize our reactive patterns, our unacknowledged needs, the beliefs that drive us and our unexamined assumptions. We come closer to transforming the ways we are not being kind to ourselves.
The peace we are looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we are seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth–it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.
Pema further calls this quality of friendliness “compassionate abiding.” This means we allow ourselves to experience the full and true nature of our feelings without judgement, guilt, avoidance, and without trying in any way to change anything. Not trying to “fix” ourselves. This is analogous to what Tsoknyi Rinpoche teaches and calls his “handshake” practice, simply being with feelings that obscure our ability to be truly compassionate toward ourselves and others.
In this encounter with our inner truth, we are developing a quality of presence that is less liable to become hooked by undesired (or undesirable) feelings. By extending an open, inquisitive and compassionate approach to those difficult feelings as if they have their own stories, we can gently bring them out of the shadows and into the light. But again, we do not attempt to change these feelings in any way. In fact, the essence of the “handshake” practice and “compassionate abiding” is more like curiosity, working directly with the urge to modify or fix anything–the agenda we bring to our inner process.
Pema performs this approach using her breathing, “ventilating” the feeling and giving it space, feeling into it as if we are meeting a new friend, inviting its nature to become more apparent, allowing the “story” of that feeling to become more evident. Staying present with ourselves in this way not only develops our capacity for compassionate abiding, but enhances our capacity for what she calls “the ultimate nonaggression, the ultimate maitri” for others.
It is also important to notice whether we regard discomfort or powerful feelings that hook us in certain situations as obstacles to the development of true selflessness. They are no such thing. They are not distractions from compassionate expression. They are the very nourishment of growth into that expression. Cultivating abiding friendliness toward whatever arises as a personal agenda, extending compassionate regard and accepting these feelings just as they are helps us integrate their presence and their nature into a more pervasive kindness toward ourselves. In bringing them forth into the light, we may not be diminishing their presence, but we will be reducing their influence.