Our meditations on compassion begin at home, within our own hearts. They begin with appreciating our selves in an ever-deepening way. This appreciation is not about pumping ourselves up in our own eyes. It is not about covering over layers of confusion and internal discordance with a thin blanket of certainty. It is not merely an affirmation we propose about how we would like to be or how we would wish to be perceived by others.
True compassion is more about recognizing the true nature and depth of our own condition, the personal and the collective confusion as a social condition, as a human condition; our personal version of the helplessness, fear and hope that lie beneath all the grasping and striving of being alive. True compassion is a meditation that fully appreciates how deeply embedded that helplessness and fear truly is, lying at the heart of what it means to be human.
The true nature of this deep apprehension is not something to be confronted or overcome. I do not place myself in opposition to it or cover it over by some definitive action or superficial bravado. Such is already the objective of so much of our mental habit that we don’t need to repeat more of the same. Rather, by acknowledging this fear exactly as it is, we free ourselves from its control over us in some measure. We free ourselves to greater equanimity. More importantly, by acknowledging it in ourselves, we move closer to being able to recognize and respond to this fear in all people. It is an essential feature of human life.
Appreciation for my own helplessness and fear is not quite the same as forgiveness. I am not excusing myself for adopting beliefs and taking actions to soften or obscure my fundamental confusion about life or any of my grasping for certainty. I am not relieving myself of guilt or offering myself a clean slate to start over. I recognize the helplessness at the core of the beliefs and mental patterns that I have developed and to which I have become so attached. These are my own unique way of engaging with and supporting my chosen identity, the face that I present to the world. In acknowledging all of this, I enter the world populated by equally unique, separate and similarly chosen identities.
This appreciation, in its abiding and deepening capacity, in its welling up and fulfilling nature, becomes the compassion I have for myself. It is a way that I tell myself the truth of my own existence and be with myself in the midst of an unending momentary self-reinforcing process of re-creating and confirming the identity that I have chosen. The inescapable truth is that I have signed up for all of my own suffering. I am creating it in this moment. I am also appreciating myself in this exquisite moment of creation as the only one who can perpetuate my own suffering and also the only one who has any prospect of being relieved of it.
Remaining in this appreciation is itself a journey into natural mind and into developing compassion for all beings. Being a compassionate presence for oneself and in the world is not to be taken lightly. It must arise not only in recognizing how we create our own suffering, but also in recognition of the very mechanics of samsara. The helplessness and fear at the heart of our suffering arise from the confusion and bewilderment we all share about being an embodied presence in the world, having to establish ourselves as individuals with distinct identities, interacting with and managing the material nature of this body and this life every single day that we are given.
True compassion is an ability to appreciate and to offer witness to this universal condition – and to connect with others in recognition of its universal features: the forgetting of our true nature lying within our superficial identities; helplessly grasping for comfort as we learn to care for ourselves in every moment; the continuing suffering we create for ourselves by these acts; and our capacity to lift ourselves out of this habitual and cyclic behavior.
How can we even begin to address this reality? First we must be able to sit quietly, gathering all our energies and attention from whatever might be distracting us in the moment, gradually drawing all of that attention and focus into our physical space. With each breath we can release some of the ambient arousal of our habitual activity, bringing more of ourselves into the moment. Gradually, we can come to a place of quiet within.
As we are able to do so, we can begin to appreciate ourselves for all of the effort we expend in life, the energy and attention we devote to our daily existence; the ways that we provide for ourselves; the listening to our inner needs, impulses, noticing the feeling states that come and go; the ways that we care for others; the hundreds of decisions we make every day; the numberless mental adventures we take into memory and planning; the familiar and comforting impulses that arise in so many situations that define who we are and the life we are creating.
Can we truly be with all of this? We can witness it as a movie, appreciating it in all its finest, endlessly creative detail. It is our movie, our creation. And we are the actor, the director, the editor and every other part- because we cannot be otherwise. Explore how what we do reinforces who we are, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Consider how reflexive all this becomes, automatic, as if we are helplessly caught in a repeating scenario of decisions that reinforce the past and secure the future of the identity we have spent a lifetime constructing. Like an ivy plant climbing up a wall, knowing nothing more than what it must do to develop and survive, the clinging is completely natural…and completely confused.
Perhaps we can feel a part of ourselves that needs connection, love, reinforcement, the comforting certainty of being recognized by others in the world who share the same desires. Likewise, if we also know ourselves as someone who from time to time does not want to be seen for needing that connection, love and reinforcement for the identity we wear like clothing, recognize that person as well. If these ways of being are familiar to you, extend complete appreciation to each of them within you. Your true nature is to be none of these.
This is our predicament, is it not? In the midst of that clinging, we balance so delicately between the indestructible part of who we are and the helpless, fearful and bewildered beings endlessly creating and comforting the person we became upon choosing this life, this body. That precarious balance is happening in this moment. And if, in this moment, we are able to honor ourselves fully and with complete enveloping compassion, we can release ourselves from–-if only ever so briefly—all of the decisions we have ever made throughout a lifetime that have created the person we believe ourselves to be. No matter how small or grandiose they might have been, for just a moment we may experience the pristine nature, the complete purity, the immeasurable beauty of this entire vast panorama of being alive.
Witnessing what we have just done, realizing that even in a momentary suspension of the reflexive cascade of choices we make in every moment, we allow ourselves to realize what a beautiful thing it is to do so. This is the moment when we may now be able to look at another person with a fresh awareness of their timeless and indestructible nature as well as being fully cognizant of our own.