"Compassion doesn't always call for grand or heroic gestures. It asks you to find in your heart the simple but profound willingness to be present, with a commitment to end sorrow and contribute to the well-being and ease of all beings. A word of kindness, a loving touch, a patient presence, a willingness to step beyond your fears and reactions are all gestures of compassion that can transform a moment of fear or pain. Aligning yourself with the path of understanding and compassion, you are learning to listen to the cries of the world," writes Christina Feldman (Heart of Wisdom, Mind of Calm: Guided Meditations to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice). She has been teaching meditation for 28 years, is co-founder of the Gaia House in Devon, England, and is a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Buddhists have a long and rich tradition exploring compassion, and Feldman explicates this practice with exquisite depth and subtlety. There are chapters on compassion for the blameless, for those who cause suffering, for ourselves, and for those we love. She also relates it to the cries of the world, adversity, and emptiness. Two of her guided meditations are included in the excerpt.
Feldman states that compassion grows out of having to deal with tragedy, loss, suffering, and pain. Although our usual strategy is to run from these disagreeable situations, it is better to work with them as they surface in our experiences. Daily life presents us with innumerable occasions and people who make us uncomfortable. Instead of closing down, we are called to manifest the compassion that is within us by opening our hearts: "We have demonized pain and suffering so often that flight seems to be the only option. Rarely does anyone tell you it is a good idea to stop running and be still, that instead of fleeing from sorrow, you could come closer to it, befriend it, feel and understand it. Finding the commitment to stop running from pain is the first step to cultivating compassion. Your willingness to turn toward suffering rather than away from it is the beginning of approaching the world with greater kindness and tenderness. To listen to the cries of the world, you are asked to be still, to let go of your arguments, judgments, fault-finding, and the effort to make the difficult disappear."
Feldman is a very practical spiritual teacher. We especially liked the following illustration from her encounter with a person who always looks on the dark side of things:
"I once found myself standing in a parking lot with a friend who had historically carried a low tolerance threshold. He was engaged in a well-worn litany of complaints about the idiocy of other drivers, the inconvenience of how the parking lot was mapped out, and the discourtesy of the people in the store we had been in. I found myself interrupting his tirade to ask him whether there was perhaps another way he could be responding to this mountain of perceived injustice. Looking bewildered he said, 'None of this should be happening.' Sometimes we are so accustomed to living in the house of intolerance and blame that we no longer even question it. We believe that, because we carry ancient traditions of resistance and impatience within ourselves, they will be with us until we die. The path of compassion asks us to overturn our habits, beliefs, opinions, and prejudices, to understand that our hearts can be transformed in every moment we are willing to be still, receptive and aware."
We can change our lives and become more compassionate to ourselves and others. But it takes practice in patience, letting go of our egocentric needs, accepting impermanence, and befriending our aversion and resistance to people, places, and things. Feldman presents a profound teaching on letting go developed by the Dalai Lama as reflecting on "what could disappear." We are asked to think about what has already disappeared from our lives: our infancy, childhood, adolescence; friends and lovers from the past; places that no longer exist; and ambitions and dreams that have been replaced by newer ones. This simple exercise is a gem and really brings impermanence down to earth.