Three stages of compassion

For the first half hour bumping through the clouds in this small plane I’ve been trying to make small talk with the guy sitting next to me. The weather. Is this vacation or work? Where is home? Short questions and answers, then we fall silent. My mind drifts to my son, living in China. This man is around the same age. A mother’s instinct tells me to let him be. I turn my attention to the white and blue sky-scape outside the window.

The Flight Attendant hands us each a coffee and our conversation resumes. Surprisingly, in a leap of a few sentences, we shift gears. Now we’re talking about the goodness of people and the suffering of the world. He held up the palm of his hand:

“One quarter of the people of the world have no peace. They live with bombs. One quarter are starving, all they can think about is food and water. Another quarter– or much less– is getting rich from all that suffering. And then there is our planet, being destroyed by all this…”  Now his words were flowing, a flood of heart-exchange between us. ” And what can we do? Those of us who have peace, have food, who wish to help? Where do we begin?”

Another silent pause.

Feeling. Where is this feeling in my body? Is it in the space between his heart and mine? What is this feeling?  Does it have a name? Despair? Compassion? Anxiety? Deep sadness. I’m in awe that this young man speaks so openly to the deepest part of me, to the warrior heart that has taken a vow to exchange self for others. A vow I forget more often than keep.

” I guess all we can do is to care. Until we have the power to do more, at least we can care. As you do.”

I silently reflect on the Buddhist teachings on compassion. The first stage is being like a mother who’s only child is being swept away by a raging river. It is feeling completely powerless, yet overwhelmed by the need for action. We can’t turn away from the suffering at hand. We’re like the parents of the soccer kids, gathered at the mouth of the cave in Thailand. This first act of compassion is to admit our own powerlessness and call for help. It sounds easy, but how often do we allow our hearts to stay open when we are up against the wall of our own limitations? If we can do this on an everyday basis, like the young man next to me was clearly doing, we are continually re-setting our intentions to stay open rather than to shut down.

Calling for help is the second stage of compassion. We realize our interdependence with others. We admit we can’t do this alone, but we trust that others, the rescuers, might regard our children as their own. In the case of the Thai scuba divers, one man gave his life for these children, as a loving parent might do. Trusting in the kindness of others is the second stage of compassion.

The third stage of compassion is to rejoice in any occasion, no matter how small, when suffering has been relieved. As my traveling companion says, “the big things weigh me down, but the small things lift me up.” It’s important to be lifted up instead of sinking into depression. For every news story about failure and despair, find one that makes you smile.

Feeling… warmth, kindness. Smile