“Knowing others is wisdom; knowing the self is enlightenment.” – Tao Te Ching

You cross the street to avoid looking in the eyes of a homeless woman. Your heart is calling, but you don’t respond. Why? Maybe it’s because you learned not to be vulnerable as a child. You became afraid to be who you are, afraid to listen to your heart. It’s too dangerous. Opening to this homeless woman, even for a moment of eye contact, may make you feel vulnerable as you become aware of what she needs and what you have. Questioning the status quo, however fleeting, may seem just too difficult at this moment; your conditioned response may be to cross the street and avoid vulnerability. You haven’t consciously thought these things, but you have made an unconscious decision, one of so many moments in an urban day. You pass on to buy the paper or get some lunch before going to your meeting.

This is us living the busy and unexamined life, acting from that complex of motives that take us through the day. But when we don’t pay full attention to our inner dialogue, to our feelings and thoughts, and we don’t answer the call of the heart, we feel alienated from ourselves and from life around us, however subtly, and we don’t experience the moment as fully as we might. As we pass by the homeless woman, life passes us by.

Compassionate action gives us an opportunity to wake up to some of our motives and to act with more freedom. It gives us the chance to put ourselves out on the edge, and if we are willing to take a clean look at what we see there, we can come to know ourselves better. We can’t, of course, change what is arising in us at any moment, because we can’t change our pasts and our childhoods. But when we listen to our own minds and stop being strangers to ourselves, we increase the number of ways we can respond to what arises. Then we know when we are resisting contact with a poor person because of something that happened in childhood, and we know that now we have nothing to fear either from the homeless person or from the examination of our place in the economic structure. We are here right now, and we are free. We can either walk past the person, talk to her, give her some money, and go on, maybe reflecting on the causes of homelessness and its relation to our hot tub, or we can cross the street because we are still carrying around fear and protection from childhood and don’t want to deal with it today on the way to a meeting. Whichever we do, with increasing awareness comes an appreciation of our actions as they are, and then they begin to change. Even if we haven’t acted compassionately toward the street woman, we haven’t repressed the fact that she exists, and we aren’t judging ourselves; as awareness and acceptance increase, not blocked by our fears, we tend to act more humanely. It happens naturally.

A central quality in people who are drawn to compassionate action is empathy for those who need help, a commonality with people who are suffering, oppressed or vulnerable. This feeling is often a result of imprinting during childhood, when we had no control over what was happening and felt frightened, helpless, vulnerable, sick and alone in bed on a summer night. A friend who works with refugees lived through a middle-class childhood with a violent alcoholic father. She carries an image of herself and her two young sisters, huddled, waiting for the fighting inside their house to be over, feeling small, unprotected, and powerless to change anything. When she grew up, she found herself identifying intimately with those who felt helpless in the face of outside forces – battering husbands, uncaring governments, or mysterious diseases such as AIDS – even if there was nothing else in their lives that overlapped with hers. She found herself drawn away from a successful career in business toward work in which she could help people take responsibility for their own lives.

~ Ram Dass, excerpt from Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service