WHEN WE TALK of compassion, we usually mean working with those less fortunate than ourselves. Because we have better opportunities, a good education, and good health, we should be compassionate toward those poor people who don’t have any of that. However, in working with the teachings on how to awaken compassion and in trying to help others, we might come to realize that compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others. Compassionate action is a practice, one of the most advanced. There’s nothing more advanced than relating with others.
There’s nothing more advanced than communication—compassionate communication. To relate with others compassionately is a challenge. Really communicating to the heart and being there for someone else—our child, spouse, parent, client, patient, or the homeless woman on the street—means not shutting down on that person, which means, first of all, not shutting down on ourselves. This means allowing ourselves to feel what we feel and not pushing it away. It means accepting every aspect of ourselves, even the parts we don’t like.
To do this requires openness, which in Buddhism is sometimes called emptiness—not fixating or holding on to anything. Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.
Recently I was talking with an old man who has been living on the streets for the last four years. Nobody ever looks at him. No one ever talks to him. Maybe somebody gives him a little money, but nobody ever looks in his face and asks him how he’s doing. The feeling that he doesn’t exist for other people, the sense of loneliness and isolation, is intense. He reminded me that the essence of compassionate speech or compassionate action is to be there for people, without pulling back in horror or fear or anger.
Being compassionate is a pretty tall order. All of us are in relationships every day of our lives, but particularly if we are people who want to help others—people with cancer, people with AIDS, abused women or children, abused animals, anyone who’s hurting—something we soon notice is that the person we set out to help may trigger unresolved issues in us. Even though we want to help, and maybe we do help for a few days or a month or two, sooner or later someone walks through that door and pushes all our buttons. We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can’t handle them. This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to benefit others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we’ll be confronted with ourselves
— Pema Chodron, from When Things Fall Apart