Compassion is Where Pain Meets Love

Susan Piver
May 25, 2022

Compassion is one of the main reasons I meditate. 

In the Buddhist tradition in which I trained, cultivating compassion is the whole point of meditation. This compassion is meant for all beings, no matter what: the people you love, the people you like, the people you don’t know, and the people you hate. All of them are worthy of your compassion.

As we have experienced this past week, compassion can also hurt.  To face suffering in the world, and allow yourself to feel pain in response to it, requires a kind of fierceness and bravery that is very different from how compassion is often depicted.

When you think of the word “compassion,” what comes to mind? Maybe you get an image of Mother Theresa or a parent holding an infant. Maybe you think of someone who calms people down when they’re upset, or who stops at the site of a roadside accident to see if there is anything he can do to help.

But compassion is an inner stance, not an external pose, and depending on the circumstances, a compassionate action may look very different from these examples.  Sometimes compassion looks like walking out of a room.  Sometimes it looks like holding someone, or some systems, accountable.  The external manifestation varies, but the source of true compassion is your own heart and the guiding question is, “what is needed in this moment?”

How might this look in practice?

When we look closely at our experiences of compassion, we often notice two components that arise simultaneously.

One of them is frightening. It is called “pain.” The world is riddled with pain. It is everywhere we look. And when we open to the pain in our own hearts, it can feel quite daunting. However, it is also necessary. Notice what you feel, and feel it. Would you call it fear, anger, sadness, something else? Find it in your body. Does it feel hot or cold? Does it make your shoulders tense or your stomach clench?  Allow that feeling. Let your heart soften to what you feel and allow yourself to fill with it.

The second component is called “love” and refers to the response that naturally arises when we do this. As you let your heart soften to those involved, even if only for a moment, you can build trust in your discernment of what is most helpful in a given situation. Perhaps it is a hug. Or a phone call for help. Or an angry confrontation with the forces of wrong. When we lean into our heart of hearts, we discover the fount of kindness.

Someone once said to me that compassion is the ability to hold pain and love in your heart simultaneously and I have never heard a better, more intimate definition.

I’m not saying this is easy.  Compassion takes tremendous courage. But you can do it. All you have to do is allow your heart to break to the sorrow and beauty of this world.

Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including The Four Noble Truths of Love. In 2012, she founded The Open Heart Project, the world’s largest online-only meditation center.

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