Out of all the spiritual principles that many of us try to cultivate, compassion is probably my favorite. For starters, on a good day I am probably a little bit better at compassion than some of the other worthwhile spiritual values. When it comes to patience, for example, I am pretty pathetic. God, karma, whatever, seem to keep supplying me with experiences demanding patience because I just haven’t gotten it yet. But if I set my mind to it, compassion is something that I can do.
Compassion is one of the most universal spiritual values. Just as air or water seep into every available space, compassion permeates every type of human relationship from friendship to romance. Compassion has an important place in all of the major religious traditions. It can be present at virtually all stages of conscious life. It can be narrowly applied to specific individuals and it can be broadly cultivated for all of humanity.
Compassion requires understanding, or at a very minimum, a willingness to understand another person. This is likely the major point at which we can fail to be compassionate: how often do we think that we understand another person, but we really haven’t tried to understand that person on his or her own terms? How often do we come upon a situation already thinking that we know the “right” answer for someone else? So some effort to move beyond our pre-conceptions and be open to new learning will help us better understand others. A non-biased, non-judgmental, fact-finding (scientific!) approach seems like a great exercise for cultivating compassion and understanding.
There is much more than a feel-good component to compassion. Of course kind and loving acts help us feel good individually. But compassion can soften someone’s heart so that they will be receptive to us and what we can offer. In this way it is a means for truly connecting with another person. Compassion enables us to view someone else through a lens of shared humanity. It focuses on commonalities, not divisions or differences. With compassion, we can look at another (someone perhaps whom we barely know) and understand some very basic things about that person. We can know something of another person’s sorrows, joys and insecurities. Because we have all experienced basic emotions like pain, disappointment, and excitement we can use compassion as a vehicle for understanding (to some degree) how those same emotions are experienced by another person. We can know that in many ways, we are each on the same journey to find happiness and make the most of life.