Practicing Compassion

Compassion is very high up there on the list of values I use to guide my actions and decisions. Showing compassion means working towards an understanding of others’ beliefs, actions, behaviors and demonstrating that understanding to them.1 Understanding where others are coming from and verbalizing that understanding, when appropriate, paves the way for dialogue. Dialogue is essential if we are going to build a better and more peaceful world.

In doing so, I separate actions from individuals. It’s not you, it’s what you did. This means that people are not inherently wrong or evil or bad, but their actions may be. In an educational context, there is therefore room for self-reflection and self-improvement. If we explicitly work with students to label behaviors or actions as unacceptable, instead of individuals themselves, we lay the foundation for choosing to be better.2

Where I’ve consistently run into trouble, however, is when I start thinking about the truly “bad people” who don’t fit into the metric I use with my students. These people are Pol Pot and Hitler and Stalin and ISIS. They are people who have murdered, harmed, broken millions of innocent lives. These “bad people” have always been a barrier for me when I think about showing compassion to all humanity, which means I haven’t been very compassionate at all.

Last week, I had a conversation with a friend where I shared my thoughts on how to approach students who act and behave in ways that harm others and need to change. My friend, also an educator, suggested that harm comes from two areas, insanity or ignorance. Insanity could be the result of anything from undiagnosed illness to lack of attachment in infancy to an emotionally-driven crime of passion, which made sense to me as an explanation. Ignorance, however, made me squirm. I accept ignorance from young people because they need to be taught before we can expect them to actively choose not to harm others. I am not as forgiving of adults, however, because they should know better.

My friend commented that such a vein of thinking seemed like dangerous territory, and we changed the subject.

In my personal quest to be a better person, I recently started reading Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World by Matthieu Ricard.3 I read the following passage while on the treadmill a couple days ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since:

At first sight, it may seem incongruous to treat an enemy with kindness: “He wants to harm me, why should I wish him well?” But Buddhism’s reply is simple: “Because he doesn’t want to suffer either, because he too is under the sway of ignorance. Because this ignorance makes him harm others.” True altruism consists of wishing that the harm-doer become aware of his deviance and thus stop harming his fellow beings. This reaction, which is the opposite of the wish to avenge and punish by inflicting more suffering, is not a sign of weakness, but of wisdom.

I read that paragraph twice. Continued my run, read a few more pages, and then went back and read it again.

That’s when I understood what my fellow educator meant about dangerous territory when commenting on my (not so rational) rationale for blame.

Buddhism teaches that ignorance causes suffering. Ricard explains ignorance as “the mental confusion that deforms reality and gives rise to an array of mental obstructions such as hatred, compulsive desire, jealousy, and pride.” This nuanced definition of ignorance, rather than the colloquial “lack of knowledge and understanding,” and the link between ignorance and suffering, have fundamentally shifted my understanding of practicing compassion.

If ignorance causes suffering, we need to find the root of that suffering and help each individual overcome it so that we can put a stop to harm.

Searching for the root of suffering and helping others overcome it is compassion.

If ignorance → suffering → harm, then placing blame on those who are ignorant certainly does put us in dangerous territory. Well spotted, educator friend.

Understanding leads to action. Action, in this case, means forgiveness. It means moving past the harm, terror, and despair and moving toward a positive, constructive, and open-minded way of approaching all people in the best interest of building peaceful societies for all humanity. Action means ameliorating circumstances and situations that cause ignorance, so that ignorance does not cause suffering, so that suffering does not cause harm. It means figuring out where the problems are likely to be before they manifest as the mental obstructions that Ricard defines as ignorance.

I admit, my fresh understanding is 48 hours old and has all the fragility that comes with novelty. Accepting this idea, that ignorance and insanity lead to harm and violence but no one is at fault, is challenging. There’s a glittering, shimmery bubble somewhere in my chest that feels like it’s expanding when I roll this perspective over in my head. I think that bubble is hope. And then I start to think about the implications of what I’m even considering, all the work that has to be done personally and as a society, and I feel the edges of that bubble blur and waver, almost contracting. I recognize what is happening, focus on hope again, and feel the bubble swell.

This is likely why we call it practicing compassion. Practice is an ongoing effort at improvement that gets easier over time and eventually turns into maintenance of a skill. Remaining purposefully aware of the shifts in my own thinking will, ultimately, translate into habits of mind and behavior. Compassion has always been important to me as a value, so now the challenge is to be compassionate in practice.

Suggested Reading

    1. 10 Ways to Have Peaceful, Loving Relationships
    2. Labeling Behavior, Not People
    3. Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World by Matthieu Ricard


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