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The Catalyst for Compassion

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

I recently made the common modern mistake of going on social media after news of a terrorist attack in a country considered an ally. My social media feeds were

flooded with the faces of my family and friends with their faces tastefully watermarked by the attacked county’s flag and all sorts of expressions of dismay and support. So far, fine, good, humanity at its finest after a tragedy, reassuring that people care enough to show solidarity.

Then scrolling through I started to see remarks crop up pointing out the hypocrisy of coming together over a tragedy involving a country similar to our own but not much of a blip on the news feed for the numerous other tragedies in the world involving other nations – ones not so closely allied – happening at the same time.

The messages of support gave way to snide or poignant memes, political quips and queries as well as attempts at deep discussions of race, economics and ethnocentricity . I was half thinking, I suppose this too is also fine, good, humanity at its finest, debating and delving; yet even as I said this to myself I could feel another part of me alternating between guilty and grumpy. Time to log out.

The question then arose – what is the catalyst for compassion? Why does it come so easily when observing some types of suffering and not others? Who does our heart go out to naturally and where is it more of an effort and why?

I briefly concluded that it must be that we are all as nationalistic as ever despite rabid globalization and our obvious interdependence. Perhaps because my mother was once a History and Government teacher, my first surface answers to these questions were a standard set of bullet points around the history of humanity in the last few thousand years. I was thinking that perhaps, as in the past, various types of Caucasian colonialism are simply alive and well with their habits of racism that go unexamined unless something obvious, like this month’s world tragedies throw it in our face.

We spontaneously gave our first thoughts to the country with more people who act and/or look like us in it; and then felt guilty about it and started fights online with our friends. Or we were self-righteously well informed and engaged about the other tragedies and morally outraged at superior media coverage of the richer/whiter/allied county; and started fights online with our friends. Or we complacently didn’t care at all because something is always blowing up and we have our own lives to worry about (and are possibly already are in an online fight with our friends).

But still the question of where we have ‘natural’ compassion still seems to have more to it than race, politics, economics, etc. Because similar irregularities in our compassion-focus happen even within our own group of friends or relatives when there are personal tragedies. Who gets attention and support and why? The ones we “feel” for as opposed to the ones who we feel like “should get their act together.” How we classify who goes in these two groups is more amorphous.

There is a teaching in Buddhism, one that is probably mirrored or similar in other great faith traditions, on equanimity – impartial and equal attitude towards others. This concept can be applied in many ways. One strategy is to use equanimity as a basis or foundation to develop compassion, love, altruism, etc. The idea is that the people we classify as “friend, enemy or stranger,” only have those labels from our own perspective, based on our personal experiences with them. We want our friends / loved ones to be happy, we feel aversion towards our enemies or the difficult people in our life, and we have a sense of indifference towards those we consider to be strangers. This is directly related to what they do or don’t for us at this time.

The challenge in developing equanimity is to stretch the heart and mind to understand that all three categories of people are identical in how they are motivated in that they just want to be happy and don’t want to suffer even if their behaviours are varied.

Equanimity sees that our perspective has been limited and specific to our direct experience and opinions and seeks to broaden it. First must be the recognition that the feeling of “friend, enemy or stranger,” comes from our opinion of whether that person has benefitted, harmed or done nothing for us or for someone we love.

An equanimous mind understands that the feeling of those labels changes all the time. All it takes is one big argument with a friend for them to feel like an enemy, one nice conversation with a stranger and they feel like a friend. And so forth.

We break it down further realizing that even the concepts of “benefitted, harmed or done nothing for,” themselves are not so concrete – have friends ever encouraged doing the wrong thing? Has some (all?) personal growth and insight come from difficult relationships? Aren’t the people who invent, make and transport the things used daily (for benefit or detriment), strangers? Intellectually not rocket science, experientially quite a feat. The point is that genuine and authentic equanimity fuels unbiased compassion, but the way that happens requires more than an intellectual understanding. It requires a heartfelt integration using your own personal logic and life experience.

Perhaps there is a step in between equanimity and compassion. If that’s the case, could universal compassion be increased if we authentically found other people appealing and had a sense of connection with them?

Let’s assume compassion gets blocked as soon as we don’t understand or don’t agree with another person’s motives or way of life. No resonance. No affinity. Or, on a more superficial day, we simply don’t have compassion for people we don’t like.

If the big question is, what is the catalyst for compassion? Could the answer be in the smallest of answers: just like me, others want happiness. In that way, we are the same. All the infinite variations of people and their behaviours are a reflection of that same human wish. This a wish we can all understand whether or not we agree with the strategies to achieve it or what it looks like in the process.


The Catalyst for Compassion

Buddhist Nun, Venerable Lozang Yönten

Mahamudra Centre, NZ 2016

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