Courage and Compassion
My brain loves action. For reasons more interesting than useful, I am slightly addicted to images of physical aptitude. Athletes, martial artists, and dancers truly captivate me. I can easily lose an hour surfing the web for new examples of athletic prowess in any number of genres. These endeavors fascinate me partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly because they represent a value I hold dear – courage.
I was recently reminded of another type of endeavor, one much less visible on youtube, one that requires a depth of courage not even hinted at by jumping a motorcycle onto a moving train. This under-appreciated and exceptionally courageous activity is available not only to the fit and well-trained, but to every single conscious being, regardless of state or stature. I’m alluding here to the act of compassion.
Why should a commitment to be compassionate require this degree of courage?
An example may be instructive: a deep commitment to compassion includes a willingness to open your heart wide enough to accept and experience some version of the suffering of a mother whom, after a long and difficult labor, has just lost her child. If I could insert a moment of silence for us to consider this reality, I would do so here. This degree of suffering is present in the world at the very moment you are reading this, and much more.
Compassion is the willingness to endure any emotional experience necessary in order to reach out and dignify every other person’s pain by your own honest presence and attention.
I did not understand the seriousness of this commitment, and the emotional courage it would require, until I witnessed H.H. the Dalai Lama speak on the subject. What I remember most about that occasion was not his phrasing, but the diamond clarity in his eyes as he charged the crowd with developing this aspect of their humanity. It was obvious in the depth, steadiness, and seriousness of his gaze that he was talking about overcoming a fear. He knew full well, even though many of us did not, that his request of us was a greater challenge than suggesting to a room full of people mortally terrified of heights that they immediately take up base jumping, and here’s an 80 story skyscraper to start with… The weight (not sure how else to say this) of his presence as he spoke conveyed the weight of the mandate. This work – the work of developing true compassion – would require each of us to go well beyond what we would consider reasonable, or even possible.
I suspect that of the humans on the planet today, there are fewer willing to face the genuine depths of their own emotional landscape than those willing to risk life and limb in a beautiful physical risk. This is all the more interesting in that while we can generally agree that swordplay has clear and obvious associated risks, offering compassion does not, at least not ones we would all easily agree on or identify in similar terms.
Buddhism offers some potent tools for bringing a gentle, steady, and penetrating light to our own emotional dark corners. Western psychology has also developed an array of genuinely helpful strategies. We must, if we are to develop something approximating emotional courage, be willing to approach this work consciously and – this is key – gently. Compassion begins with self-compassion, and few among us have learned to treat ourselves with even the rudimentary kindness we would afford a stray animal.
Given the state of things, I think it’s a good moment to do so.