The following is an excerpt from a recently released book by one of Ram Dass’ favorite teachers, Joseph Goldstein. The book is entitled Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening and can be ordered from our webstore Here.
Compassion arises out of our willingness to come close to suffering. The problem is that even though we may want to be compassionate, and perhaps often are, it is not always easy to open to the suffering that is present. And just as there are many times when we don’t want to acknowledge and open to our own pain, we don’t necessarily want to be with the pain of others.
There are strong tendencies in the mind that keep us defended, withdrawn, indifferent, or apathetic in the face of suffering. This indifference is often unacknowledged and is a great barrier to a compassionate response.
As an experiment, watch your mind the next time you approach a situation of suffering. It might be some pain in the body or some emotional distress, like discontent, fear, unworthiness, jealousy, or loneliness. It might be an interaction with a difficult person, or a situation of suffering in the world – situations of racial injustice, political or religious violence, or of natural disasters. What happens as we face these situations, either in person or through the vivid images of the media? Do we feel uneasy? Do we withdraw? Do we numb ourselves? Do we let it in?
The question for us is, how can our hearts stay open given the magnitude of suffering that exists in the world? Is it even possible to open to it all with compassion, diminishing the subtle cruelty of indifference? The challenge is not a theoretical one. It is not enough to admire from afar the qualities of kindness and compassion as being noble ideas, but somewhat removed from our daily lives. It is not enough to cultivate them only in the solitude of a meditation retreat. Our practice is about the transformation of consciousness that makes compassionate responsiveness the default setting of our lives.
Compassion requires both openness and equanimity. It requires learning to let things in without drowning in the difficulties and without being overcome by sorrow. It means learning to simply be with the truth of things as they are. This is the great gift of mindfulness that opens us to compassion. Being with the truth of what is present is what we do every time we open to our own pain or difficulty. As we practice opening to and coming close to the suffering in our own lives with compassion, we then have greater strength and courage to be with the suffering of others.