In the Gap between Right and Wrong
by Pema Chodron
Compassionate action is a practice, one of the the most advanced. There's nothing more advanced than relating with others. There's nothing more advanced than communication--compassionate communication.
When we talk about compassion, we usually mean working with those less fortunate than ourselves. ... 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.
To relate with others compassionately is a challenge. To really communicate to the heart and be there for someone else - your child, your spouse, your parent, your client, or the homeless woman on the street - means not to shut down on them, which means first of all not shutting down on yourself. This means allowing yourself to feel what you feel, and not to push it away. It means accepting every aspect of yourself, even the parts you don't like.
To do this requires openess, which in Buddhism is sometimes called "emptiness", or not fixating or holding on to anything. Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can you acknowledge what you are feeling. Only in an open space where you're not all caught up in your own version of reality can you see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows you 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, not pulling back in horror or anger.
Being compassionate is a pretty tall order. All of us are in relationships every day of our lives, but particularly if you are someone who wants to help others - something you soon notice is that the person you may set out to help may trigger a lot of unresolved issues in you. Even though you want to help, sooner or later someone walks through that door and pushes all your buttons. Either you find yourself hating them, or scared of them, or feeling like you just can't handle them. This is true always, if you are sincere about wanting to benefit others. Sooner or later all your own unresolved issues will come up; you'll be confronted with yourself.
There's a slogan in the mahayana teachings that says, "Drive all blames onto oneself." The essence of this slogan is, "When it hurts so bad, it's because I am hanging on so tight." It's not saying that you should beat yourself up. It's not advocating martyrdom. What it implies is that pain comes from holding so tightly to having it our own way, and that one of the main exits we take when we find ourselves uncomfortable, when we find ourselves in an unwanted situation or an unwanted place, is to blame.
We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who's right and who's wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don't like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-prefected device for trying to feel better. Blame others. Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.
The slogan is a helpful and interesting suggestion that you could begin to shift that deep-seated ancient habitual tendency to hang on to having it on our own terms. The way to start would be first, when you feel the tendency to blame, to try to get in touch with what it feels like to be holding on to yourself so tightly. What does it feel like to blame? What does it feel to reject? What does it feel like to hate? What does it feel like to be righteously indignant?
In each of us, there's a lot of softness, a lot of heart. Touching that soft spot has to be the starting place. This is
what compassion is all about. When we stop blaming long enough to give ourselves an open space in which to feel our soft spot, it's as if we're reaching down to touch a large wound that lies right underneath all that protective shell that blaming builds.
Buddhist words such as "compassion" and "emptiness" don't mean much until you start cultivating your innate ability simply to be there with pain with an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under your feet.
For instance, if what you're feeling is rage you usually assume that there are only two ways to relate to it. One is to blame others. Lay it all on somebody else, drive all blames into everyone else. The other alternative is to feel guilty about your rage and blame yourself.
Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where you could live.
This place, if you can touch it, will help you train yourself throughout your life to open further to whatever you
fell, to open further rather than shut down more. You'll find that as you begin to commit yourself to this practice, as you begin to have a sense of celebrating the parts of yourself that you found so impossible before, something will shift in you. Something will shift permanently in you. Your ancient habitual patterns will begin to soften and you'll being to see the faces and hear the words of people who are talking to you.
If you begin to get in touch with whatever you feel with some kind of kindness, your protective shield will melt and you'll find that more areas of your life are workable. As we learn to have compassion for yourself, the circle of compassion for others - what and who you work with, and how - widens.