The word “compassion” is derived from the Latin: “co-suffering”. In many religions and spiritual philosophies, including Buddhism, compassion is one of the highest virtues a person can attain, and the practice of compassion has tremendous healing powers, both for the giver and the receiver. In Buddhist philosophy, one of the great purposes to which we can dedicate ourselves is the elimination of suffering – starting with our own personal suffering, and extending outward to all beings.
I am no saint and I must admit, it is difficult for me to find compassion for a spider’s life – especially if I find one in my house, and it looks suspiciously like one of the poisonous kind. I usually kill it rather than take it outside. But today when I was cleaning the kitchen, I found a long beetle with wings. It looked like its thorax had been smashed, and its legs were moving so slowly, antennas wiggling feebly. Probably one of the cats had brought it into the house for show and tell. I picked it up by one wing and I felt compassion. My thought was: this insect is about to die. I’m going to put it outside so it can lie in the flowers and grass. If I were dying, I would want someone to help me die in a beautiful place. I call my actions compassionate because I felt that I really did want to ease the suffering of the beetle, by providing him a more dignified place to die than the kitchen floor.
When I worked as a medical social worker in a small hospital, I had a young hispanic man on my patient rounds. He was dying of cancer. He had been ill a long time. His mother and father dedicated themselves to his care. They were some of the most beautiful, peaceful people I have ever met. The compassion they had for their son seemed boundless. In caring for him, they eased the suffering of their own grief. I remember talking with the mother through an interpreter, and she said to me, “Our son is our life, that is how it must be – how could it be any other way? We are his mother and father. We don’t know what we will do when he is gone – we will leave that to God.” Even though I didn’t understand but a few words of Spanish, I somehow knew intuitively, the meaning of the mother’s words, and before her words were translated for me, I embraced her. That was all I had to give, and I gave without thinking. Compassion inspires more compassion.
Sometimes we have the most difficulty feeling compassion for ourselves. Habits of self-criticism, self-doubt, even self-hatred can completely block any ability to be kind to ourselves. When we block kindness to ourselves, we limit our ability to be fully all that we can be, and that limits the energy we have available to make the world a better place. Our energy is locked up in habitual negative perceptions we have about ourselves. Just as compassion inspires compassion, lack of compassion is contagious too. If we lack compassion for ourselves, we create more suffering – we punish others with needless suffering because of the negative energy field our uncaring attitude creates.
Through the practice of self-hypnosis and mindfulness, we can let go of habits that keep us in endless cycles of suffering. By the creation of a non-reactive, safe spiritual place within, those habits begin to soften and melt away under the guidance of the natural healing power we have within ourselves. We have the ability within ourselves to heal our spiritual and emotional wounds just as much as our physical wounds. True healing requires compassion.
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