Almost two years ago I found myself unexpectedly in a hospital bed awaiting a common but serious medical procedure to unblock an artery. I had just returned from a trip to visit my daughter in the US, and could count a few mostly work-related flights in the five months prior to that, including a trip to a very remote part of northern India where for a month my days had begun with a mile-long walk up a very steep path for breakfast at 6 am. Over time I’d found myself getting more and more breathless, and put it down to lack of fitness but, back in Ireland, I decided to consult my GP who immediately referred me to the emergency chest pain unit. Within two hours I was sitting in front of a young hospital registrar, still expecting to be told to get out and exercise more. However what he said took what was left of my breath away: I had an eighty-percent blockage that was preventing oxygen (lifeblood) from flowing into my heart. Fortunately, he said, my heart was not damaged and could be fixed.
I meditate regularly, read and teach on matters of the heart, and have spent many years sitting with people as they explore mind-heart matters, struggling with their stuck places: creating the space for them to paint away the barriers to feelings with watery paint on paper, to help create a movement, a shift, a flow that would allow emotion to be felt. In the meantime, my own heart had been quietly shutting down.
This was a seminal moment, and it would have been very easy to chastise myself as a typical case of doing, not being; but I can also allow myself some strange comfort in the knowledge that genetics in my case played a major part in causing the condition. Following surgical intervention, what I experienced at the most visceral level was an instant flood of feeling and warm sense of reconnection with the world once the physical blockage to my own heart had been removed.
I discovered with unquestioning certainty that, in the words of Emily Dickinson – “The heart is the capital of the mind” (poem 1354).
Searching for the meaning of compassion
Thirty years ago, when compassion was presented as an aspect of being human that I’d be studying in training to be a facilitator for Tara Rokpa, this was quite a radical idea for its time, and when we began to research the topic as a training group, we found that it was extremely difficult to explicate. In fact, to be quite honest, it was for me a difficult word to embrace at any level, it seemed so strongly to resonate with Sunday missals and other things I’d preferred to stay away from once my teenage rebel had found her voice. In our first examinings we were tentative: compassion was feeling sympathy for families trapped in a war zone – pity for orphaned children, empathy for a friend who’s lost a partner, concern for the welfare of a loved one. Compassion is caring for people, isn’t it?
When we began to look into the depths of its multiplicity of meanings, I became more and more curious. As we explored the concept it acquired mystery and depth and generated many more questions, requiring in its determining something far more exacting than pity or kindness and bigger than sympathy, for it seemed to ask for utterly selfless action. Put another way, it asked us to see other and self as inseparable, which was somewhat at odds with therapies that emphasised the need for individuation and the cultivation of a strong sense of self as their final purpose.
Presenting this paradox is an oversimplification of the territory, so how can these seeming contradictions sit sensibly together? I pondered again last year when the story of eighty-three year old Ned Delahunty’s death and funeral touched a nerve for many who’d known him as a familiar figure around Thomas Street in Dublin. He was both belligerent and well-mannered; he lived on the streets for twenty years apparently, with great dignity, and yet spent his days picking up litter. He was at once self-contained and cared-for; he had no known family, but galvanized members of a local community who quietly minded his needs up to the moment of death, without even knowing his name. When he died of cancer in hospital in January 2013, a local nun was holding his hand. His burial was delayed for three months as gardaí tried to trace relatives. None were found. While he was alive, many caring people were working to make things OK for Ned, a man who quietly challenged our comfort zones by living a vagrant life amongst us, almost unnoticed and asking for nothing. Money or food was left beside his bedding as he slept in a doorway, his dole was collected for him, clothes were saved for him. Over one hundred and fifty people attended his funeral. How can such a quiet human influence make such an impact on people he never knew? What is the nerve he touched? Is it our own frailty that is mirrored here, our own human vulnerability? It is what Pema Chodrön (1994) refers to as “the soft spot” or “the open heart” (32), which is the starting place for compassion.
For many of us, when a homeless person asks us for money, what is our first thought? Is it, ‘Do I have enough to spare?’ or do we say, ‘Yes’, if we think they’ll spend it on food, and ‘No’ if it looks like it will be spent on drinks, or smokes, or dope? Do we decide how much they deserve, or need, regardless of what is in our pocket? Do we desire to extend control over even what we’ve given away? Sometimes, when I remember, I try carrying loose change in my jacket pocket, easily accessible, but then it will dwindle to a few coins and I’ll find myself wondering whether to give to the Romany lady with the baby or the homeless Irish teenager, or save it for my bus fare home. And I can watch my heart loosen and tighten, be open or closed, as I grapple with self protection and a wish to help another human being in need.
According to Gilbert (2009): “Compassion can be defined in many ways, but its essence is a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living beings, coupled with the wish to relieve it” (xiii).
So yes, compassion can be the noble wish for someone else’s welfare and happiness, but in reality it so often remains a wish, a thought that resides snugly in the comfort of our own familiar mind stream, with occasional actings out on O’Connell Bridge or Dame Street, sharing a sandwich or cup of coffee when I have the time, when I have some change handy. And that is really the crux, because when I rouse thought into action, how do I know what is helping? How do I know what is required by another, what they need and wish for? Here arises a more complex series of reactions that include a moral judgment, an arrogant protection of my own sense of self, so that ‘self’ will not be impinged upon, even by my giving away. So, even as I give, there can be a strange residual taste in the mouth. There’s been a recent move amongst some coffee shop owners about town, where it’s possible to buy a coffee and pay for two; a ‘suspended coffee’ – the second one can be collected by someone else, perhaps the person begging that I just walked past in the street, whose bowl I ignored. Interesting isn’t it? I am enabled to act on my impulse to be generous – facilitated by the café owner – yet keep myself separate from the real act of giving. When I explore this, I can see that there is always a condition, an element of self protection, of ‘me first’.
It is conditional compassion.
When we deeply examine this conditional aspect of our good motivation we may be surprised to discover that it arises out of fear, and this is because we are guided in our actions by ‘self’ as a reference. Self, and things that are ‘mine’, are what we strive to protect in order to maintain status and identity. But in our desire to exist happily in the world, the actions we take to pursue that happiness – even the well motivated ones – are subtly driven by an expectation that we will lose something, or that we should receive something in return for our thoughtfulness towards other people, recognition of our good nature, and this impinges upon our ability to be selflessly compassionate. Compassion in its purest form has no limits, and recognizes the equal-ness of not only all humanity, but of all living beings – of their right to exist and be happy, and in its truest, deepest sense is not, cannot be, selective. Like the sun, it does not choose those upon whom it shines.
First become a healthy human being
The term metta or loving kindness is often used when speaking of compassion, but there is a very subtle difference in the meanings that I’d like to mention here: loving kindness is the wish for others to be happy, it has a natural gentleness, a natural kindness, that functions regardless of the state of mind of the other person. So we can feel a natural loving kindness for someone irrespective of their happiness or suffering – as a mother would a child, the response comes naturally and without effort, where we have a natural affinity – it is caring for people we like. Loving kindness has a personal resonance and is relational, it evokes warm feelings, and says we share in the joy or hurt of another as if it were our own. As human beings we need to give and to receive this mothering love, and to receive recognition of our worthy-ness in order to feel whole within ourselves, in order to grow into healthy relationships with others, to be able to give the love without fear. Many of us don’t develop this innate capacity for wholeness, it remains hidden, while instead we maintain a limited fearful outlook – for all kinds of reasons. This is where the successful therapeutic relationship has the potential to nourish and foster and provide the time to develop into maturity, and in a space of loving kindness nudges us into our full human potential.
True compassion can then arise when we no longer include self-reference or judgment or conditions, it doesn’t exclude anyone, or anything, it is universal, non referential, self-less. This means I must let go the very I or me that is inclined to want protection, that has preferences, that has been hurt, betrayed, is bereft, or is witness to the suffering of another. ‘I’ have to step out of the picture, but because compassion is inclusive, I am also not excluded. It is not an action, it is a state of mind. So the question becomes: “How to uncover and recognise our innate capacity to be kind and extend care to others unconditionally and without expectation, as a basis for positive development and personal growth?” (Sweeney et al., 1995:1). Because if that can be achieved, then a non-referential compassion can arise.
In the words of Tsokney Rinpoche, I let go ego.
You give yourself up entirely, everything that is happening to you is to help you develop compassion, it no longer depends upon whether or not you like someone, on good or bad moods; you appreciate everything, you feel loving kindness towards all people, bad people, ugly or beautiful, all are your teacher (in compassion). There is no longer good or bad.
Akong Rinpoche (1999:2)
There’s a word in Sanskrit: ‘bodhicitta’, combining bodhi – meaning ‘awake’, or ‘awakening’, and citta – meaning ‘mind’ or ‘that which is conscious’. It is a term used in many schools of Buddhist meditation to describe what potentially can be developed through the one pointed focus of mindfulness, because awakening the heart-mind disperses fear, allows us become aware of the different realities within which we exist, develops the wisdom to understand that everything is interrelated, interdependent, inseparable; that I cannot exist without you. If the heart is the capital of the mind, it is also that which is conscious, it is the place that is moved by feeling even before the brain has configured that there has been disturbance. This implies a deep wisdom within the heart that is inseparable from the mind.
Through being in a space of loving kindness I can come to know my own failings and prejudices, my talents, my beauty, my ugliness, my rough spots and soft spots. I learn to allow and accept all these parts of myself, to recognise when they get in the way or when they are helpful; because once I have seen and acknowledged them, seen the fearful undercurrent that quietly (or not so quietly) rules my unconscious thoughts and actions, I have no choice but to let go my ego and recognise Ned, my fellow journey-man, as myself – and this is the way of compassion.
Annie Dibble is a student of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, and a Tara Rokpa Group facilitator and Trainer. This is a slightly edited version of an article first published in Inside Out: The Journal of Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapies. Autumn 2013.
Akong Rinpoche (1999) Oberleithe, Germany. Compassion: Transcript of talk given to Tara Rokpa Therapists and Trainees, Unpublished.
Chödrön, Pema. (1994) Start where you are : A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston: Shambhala.
Dickinson, Emily ( 1955) The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson. (ed. Thomas H Johnson). New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Gilbert, Paul. (2009) The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
Sweeney, B. Irwin, E. Hensey, L. (1995) The Compassion Stage of Tara Rokpa Therapy. Dublin: Tara Rokpa Training Paper. Unpublished.
Further reading and resources
Akong Rinpoche, (1996) Taming the Tiger; Tibetan teachings for improving daily life. (eds. E G Irwin, Clive Holmes) London: Rider Books.
Akong Rinpoche, (2005) Restoring the Balance. Sharing Tibetan Wisdom. (ed. Clive Holmes) Capetown: Kairon Press.
Akong Rinpoche, (2010) Limitless Compassion: A way of Life. (eds. Lama Zangmo & PaulWooton) Scotland: Dzalendara Publishing
Irwin, Edie. (1999) Healing Relaxation : 7 key steps to Dissolving Tension and Enjoying Life. London : Rider.
O’Brien, Carl. <http://www.irishtimes.com/news/i-think-in-his-own-way-he-s-galvanised-the-community-he-s-taught-us-about-the-need-for-compassion-1.1325096> The Irish Times Online. Accessed 17 March 2013
Santorelli, Saki. (1999) Heal Thyself, Lessons in Mindfulness Medicine. New York: Random House.
Tsokney Rinpoche (2009) In conversation with David Rome at the Garrison Institute, NY. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBvKnSW2Nrw