Compassion is a Verb, Not A Feeling


As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, points out, "Compassion is a verb". It is not a thought or a sentimental feeling, but is rather a movement of the heart. As classically defined in Pali, compassion is "the trembling or the quivering of the heart". But how do we get our hearts to do that? How do we "do" compassion?

Compassion is born out of loving kindness. It is born of knowing our oneness, not just thinking about it or wishing it were so. It is born out of the wisdom of seeing things exactly as they are. But compassion also arises from the practice of inclining the mind, of refining our intention. The Dalai Lama once said, "I don't know why people like me so much. It must be because I try to be compassionate, to have bodhicitta, the aspiration of compassion." He doesn't claim success -- he claims a commitment to really trying.

Compassion or Fear?

Is there a difference, in quality or quantity, between the compassion any of us might feel and the compassion of the Dalai Lama? Is it that he experiences more compassionate moments in a row? Or is the actual quality of compassion different?

While this can be seen from many different perspectives, one traditional view would say that a moment of compassion any one of us feels is as pure, as deep, as direct as anyone else's; but what happens is that we may lose touch with it more often. We get distracted, we forget, we get caught up in something else, or we confuse another feeling for the state of compassion.

We might at times think that we are feeling compassion when in fact what we are feeling is fear. We may be afraid to take an action, to confront a person or a situation, to be forceful or to reach out. Under the guise of believing we are being kind and compassionate, we hold back. From the Buddhist perspective, this lack of effort to ease our own or another's suffering is seen as lack of courage. Because it is not easy to see lack of courage in oneself, we prefer to think we are being compassionate rather than afraid.

Compassion or Guilt?

Another state of mind that is often confused with compassion is guilt. When we see someone who is suffering while we are fairly happy, or if we are happy in a way that another person is not, we might inwardly feel that we do not deserve our happiness, or that we should hold back our happiness out of pity for the other. But guilt, in Buddhist psychology, is defined as a type of self-hatred and a form of anger.

Certainly there are times when we recognize that we have acted unskillfully, and we feel concern and remorse. This kind of remorse can be important and healing. This is in contrast to the guilt we feel as a state of contraction, in which we endlessly review what we might have done or said in the past. In this state of guilt we become center stage; rather than acting to serve others, we act to get rid of the guilt and thus only serve ourselves. Guilt drains our energy, whereas compassion gives us the strength to reach out to help others.

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Moving Into True Compassion

compassion is a verb

In order to let go of the feelings of fear and guilt, and move into true compassion, we need to see without hesitation whatever we may be feeling or doing. One of the virtues of awareness is that we can simply look without judgment at what we are actually experiencing. Not being afraid of our fear or guilt, we can say, "Oh, yes, that's fear, that's guilt; that's what's happening right now." And then we can reestablish our intention to be compassionate.

When we practice compassion, we may make the mistake of trying to lay a veneer of caring on top of whatever we are actually feeling: "I mustn't feel fear, I mustn't feel guilt, I must only feel compassion, because that is my dedication." It is important to remember, though, that the clarity at the heart of compassion comes from wisdom. We don't have to struggle to be someone we are not, hating ourselves for our confused feelings. Seeing clearly what is happening is the ground out of which compassion will arise.

What is most important is the mind's unshakable intention to see through to the root of suffering. We need strength, courage, and wisdom to be able to open so deeply. And then the compassion can come forth.

Loving Ourselves So We Can Love Others

The state of compassion is whole and sustaining; the compassionate mind is not broken or shattered by facing states of suffering. It is spacious and resilient. Compassion is nourished by the wisdom of our interconnectedness. This understanding transcends a martyrdom in which we habitually think only of others, never caring about ourselves, And it transcends a self-centered caring in which we have concern only about ourselves and never bother about others. Wisdom of our interconnectedness arises band in hand with learning to truly love ourselves.

The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm another. For in harming another, we diminish who we are. When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea that we do not deserve the love and attention we are theoretically willing to give to others.

By bringing awareness to the truth of the present moment, and also holding a vision of our heart's deepest wish to be loving toward all, we establish our dedication to compassion. Perhaps the shining manifestation of compassion in the Dalai Lama is a reflection not only of the number of moments he is compassionate, or of how these moments transform the quality of his presence, but also a reflection of his complete confidence in the possibility and importance of being a truly loving person.

Reprinted with permission of
Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Article Source

A Heart As Wide As The World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness
by Sharon Salzberg.

compassion is a verbThe Buddhist teachings have the power to transform our lives for the better, says Sharon Salzberg, and all we need to bring about this transformation can be found in the ordinary events of our everyday experiences. Salzberg distills more than twenty-five years of teaching and practicing meditation into a series of short essays, rich with anecdotes and personal revelations, that offer genuine aid and comfort for anyone on the spiritual path.

Info/Order this paperback book
and/or download the Kindle edition.

About The Author

Sharon Salzberg - author Compassion is a verb

Sharon Salzberg is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. For a schedule of Sharon's workshops, visit

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