Acts of Compassion

There are many ways we can be compassionate in today’s society. Compassion is merely trying to understand, to see beyond your own point of view and share in humanity as a whole.  An act of compassion need not be grand – it can be as simple as giving up your seat on the bus, or smiling at someone who looks down as you walk past them on the street.

I came across this beautiful story from Jason at Parallax Press today, and had to share it. May peace and love fill your heart and soul, and flow out into the wider world.

I just came back from the Deer Park Holiday Retreat last week, and the theme this year was “New Year, New You.”

While there, we watched Thich Nhat Hanh’s New Year dharma talk from 2013. In the talk, he said something that was very interesting: “There can’t be a new year if there isn’t also a new you.” If we do not have the intention to water the seeds of transformation within us, he elaborated, the so-called new year will continue to be very much like the old, not only for us, but also the world.

With that in mind, I had the privilege of sharing my own insights on the transformative practice of compassion with many of you at the retreat. I shared the story of a life-changing incident that occurred many years ago when I was sixteen and volunteering at a community legal clinic for those who could not afford attorneys.

It was while working there as a receptionist that I encountered a very literal case of “saying hello to your suffering.”

One day at the clinic, I picked up the phone to answer a call as I routinely did, and I heard the sound of a woman crying and what sounded like the humming and whirring of a train or subway car pulling into a station.

“My husband has been beating me and I have no money for a divorce. I should jump onto these tracks and kill myself.”

I realize now that this woman had not only called the clinic for help, but had begun the process of saying hello to her suffering. And suffering had said hello to me that day.

Even as she contemplated her own annihilation on those steel tracks with the train arriving ever closer, she had enough strength within herself to call a total stranger who happened to be a completely unprepared sixteen year old.

In his latest book No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying. Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgment. So the practice is not to fight or suppress the feeling, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness, (pp. 26-27).
Rather than saying to the woman, “I’m only sixteen years old; I don’t know what your suffering is, nor how to help you,” I simply listened to her with all my heart, cradling her suffering gently in my arms.

I listened to her for an hour or more, and gradually the crying stopped and I could not hear the train.

I am not so presumptuous to claim that I saved this woman’s life, but what I can say is that my act of compassion sprouted within her the beginnings of a lotus from the mud.

If you’re going through a difficult time, Parallax hopes that the new year leads to the blossoming of a new you. To help get you started, here’s one of my favorite passages from No Mud, No Lotus: 

Releasing the Arrow

There is a Buddhist teaching found in the Sallatha Sutta, known as The Arrow. It says if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes exactly at the same spot, the pain will not be only double, it will become at least ten times more intense.

The unwelcome things that sometimes happen in life—being
rejected, losing a valuable object, failing a test, getting injured in an accident—are analogous to the first arrow. They cause some pain.

The second arrow, fired by our own selves, is our reaction, our storyline, and our anxiety. All these things magnify the suffering. Many times, the ultimate disaster we’re ruminating upon hasn’t even happened.

We may worry, for example, that we have cancer and that we’re going to die soon. We don’t know, and our fear of the unknown makes the pain grow even bigger.

The second arrow may take the form of judgment (“how could I have been so stupid?”), fear (“what if the pain doesn’t go away?”), or anger (“I hate that I’m in pain. I don’t deserve this!”). We can quickly conjure up a hell realm of negativity in our minds that multiplies the stress of the actual event, by ten times or even more.

Part of the art of suffering well is learning not to magnify our pain by getting carried away in fear, anger, and despair. We build and maintain our energy reserves to handle the big sufferings; the little sufferings we can let go…

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4 thoughts on “Acts of Compassion

  1. “[…] my act of compassion sprouted within her the beginnings of a lotus from the mud.” As a follower of Kuan Yin and someone who suffers from depression, this line really spoke to me–it really struck me. I found this post to be beautiful and reflective.

  2. Wise and useful words for me right now, as you know. It is important not to magnify one’s pain any more than to deny it. I guess there is a balance there. Acknowledge, don’t wallow. Thank you for these insights. xox

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