The Emergence of Compassion


Art by Outi Harma –

When we see that service is not a one-way street, we find that those we are helping give us a continuous stream of clues to help us escape the prison of our self-image. More than simply letting us know what might be working or not, they help us when they question our very models of ourselves. They snap us to; they may even see right through us. And if we can take it, it’s a blessing. We may feel a little foolish, but ultimately we’re grateful.

The struggles of those we are helping confront us with life at its purest. Their suffering strips away guile and leaves what is real and essential. The deepest human qualities come forth: openness, yearning, patience, courage, forebearance, faith, humor . . . living truth . . . living spirit. Moved and touched by these qualities, we’ve no choice but to acknowledge and reaffirm our humanity. Others notice when this happens. We feel them feel it. It’s at these moments that we remember what service is truly all about.

Throughout my childhood and well into my adolescence, there were other experiences that undoubtedly fed, if not at the time then later, into my emerging ground of compassion. For example, I was bedridden for a part of each summer with skin troubles — poison ivy, oak, and such. I’m sure those frustrating months and other situations like them affected my feelings toward people who are confined because of physical illness. At the time, the suffering seemed grossly unfair and all but unbearable. In retrospect, I am no longer sure whether those summers in my room, when I heard everyone else outside playing, were a curse or a grace. Undoubtedly, they were both. They were a curse to that young boy but grace to the man who was to be.

Another episode stands out and undoubtedly deepened my ability to empathize with such kinds of suffering. When I was sixteen years old at boarding school, I was caught in a nude wrestling episode with another boy. There were clear sexual overtones, and the upperclassmen who had spied on us through a hole in the closet wall lost no time in spreading the story throughout the school. Immediately I found the two of us ostracized. . . . The faculty didn’t seem to be able to handle the incident any better than the students. So I just went inside myself. It was only when a few popular boys risked social ostracism by befriending me that my ordeal of isolation ended. There was no time during that period or in the fifteen years immediately following that I ever congratulated myself on my good fortune at having had such an experience. But, in the last thirty years, I have come to see quite clearly how it affected me. It made me much more empathetic toward people outside the system. And the turning-inward, coerced though it was, proved a catalyst to help me find a place in myself where I could stand even in the absence of social support.

~ Ram Dass