The Foundation of Compassion

Great anxiety and grief have been awakened in the world during the pandemic. The image that comes to my mind is an iceberg, an iceberg made out of fear and anxiety and grief. Before the pandemic only 1/10 was visible. Somehow the loss and the uncertainty of our current situation has revealed what was always under the surface. We’ve been thrown under the surface. We’ve been forced to look into the dark deep. There we encounter the fear and the grief there, unexamined. How can we transform this encounter with the depths of our fear into an initiation? How can we bear the collective grief of humanity during this fearful time and be inspired to open ourselves ever more deeply? Clearly we must deepen our compassion, find the courage to let our hearts be spacious and be connected.

I’ve talked to several people who fear being overwhelmed unless they push away their fear and grief. How long can one try to not feel the collective pain without becoming exhausted? There are three ways to respond to suffering. First we can push it away, stay busy, deny its existence or pretend to ourselves we have everything under control. Secondly we can get lost in the suffering, become completely identified with it. In English we say “I am afraid.” In Spanish we say “I have fear.” (Yo tengo miedo) and in Tibetan “Fear is here.” How much more difficult it is not to get lost in our emotions when we’re thinking and speaking English!

Gratefully there is a third possibility– resting in compassion. The compassionate heart is spacious, warm, and connected. In fact, the true nature of our heart is boundless sky-like spaciousness, without end. Due to our conditioning however we imagine there is a window frame around the sky that is our heart which limits how much of the sky we can see. If a large enough cloud of fear comes into our sky-like heart bounded by our imagined window frame, all we see is the cloud of fear. We say “I am afraid.” We’re lost in the fear. We identify with it. Through practice, through cultivating compassion we expand the window frame. The same sized cloud of fear can come into our window frame bounded sky, but now we see the cloud is contextualized in a pure blue background of sky. Beyond that we see cloud is moving. The cloud will eventually be gone from view. Fear is here but is only a passing cloud in the vast sky that is the nature of our compassionate heart. Are we the cloud or are we the sky? Is the sky ever changed by the passing clouds?

The connected nature of the compassionate heart can be experienced as connection to ourselves, to others, and to the sacred. The warm nature of the compassion of heart is a combination of a loving heart and a generous heart. So we have three possible compassion practices. Cultivate a spacious heart, a connected heart, a warm heart. Choose one these three and throughout the day ask yourself “Is my heart spacious?”, “Is my heart connected?” or “is my heart warm.”

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
~ HH The Dalai Lama