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Cultivating Compassion

Friday, October 1, 2021


Cultivating Compassion
Friday, October 1, 2021

Sadly, but understandably, the virtue of compassion is more closely associated with Buddhism than Christianity in some people’s minds. If we want to change that, we might learn from Buddhist teachers like Tara Brach who offer us a broad definition of compassion that we can build upon. She writes:

Compassion is our capacity to relate in a tender and sympathetic way to what we perceive. Instead of resisting our feelings of fear or grief, we embrace our pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child. Rather than judging or indulging our desire for attention or chocolate or sex, we regard our grasping with gentleness and care. Compassion honors our experience; it allows us to be intimate with the life of this moment as it is. Compassion makes our acceptance wholehearted and complete. . . .

Compassion means to be with, feel with, suffer with. Classical Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart, a visceral tenderness in the face of suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, one who has realized the fullness of compassion and lives from compassion is called a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva’s path and teaching is that when we allow our hearts to be touched by suffering—our own or another’s—our natural compassion flowers. The bodhisattva’s aspiration is simple and powerful: “May all circumstances serve to awaken compassion.” When we are going through a divorce, afraid for our child, facing disease, facing death—whatever is happening can be a gateway to . . . clear and limitless compassion. . . .

Fr. Richard has often said that we come to God through great love and great suffering, and—if we allow it—this journey leads us to a universal love. [1] From her Buddhist tradition, Tara Brach teaches that suffering offers a pathway to compassion:

To cultivate the tenderness of compassion, we not only stop running from suffering, we deliberately bring our attention to it. Buddhist compassion practices usually begin with being aware of our own pain because once our hearts are tender and open to our own suffering, we can more easily extend compassion to others. Sometimes we most easily connect with tenderness by first focusing our attention on the suffering of others and then bringing attention to our experience. Either way, as we feel suffering and relate to it with care rather than resistance, we awaken the heart of compassion. As we practice responding to our suffering with the kindness of compassion, our hearts can become, as Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says, as wide as the world. [2]

If we’ve injured someone and are embroiled in guilt and self-recrimination, compassion for ourselves allows us to find a wise and healing way to make amends. If we are drowning in grief or sorrow, arousing compassion helps us remember the love and connection in our life. Rather than pushing them away, we free ourselves by holding our hurting places with the unconditional tenderness of compassion.

[1] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad: 2009), 122–123.

[2] Sharon Salzberg, A Heart as Wide as the World: Living with Mindfulness, Wisdom, and Compassion (Shambhala: 1997).

Adapted from Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (Bantam Books: 2003) 28, 200–201.

Story from Our Community:
Embracing all of who I am in God has helped me to live a fuller life—and be more present to the moment. I do not run from my small self but try to embrace it with compassion; I do not project my small self onto others but pray for all those struggling with small selves (including my own). Then I am better able to live in the world. —Bridget M.

Image credit: Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El ensueño (detail), 1931, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: What is she thinking? How do you feel seeing her? If you could, what would you say to her? Would you notice the weight she’s carrying?

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