The state of compassion arises with a quality of equanimity. Can you imagine a mind state in which there is no bitter, condemning judgment of oneself or of others? This mind does not see the world in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil; it sees only “suffering and the end of suffering.” What would happen if we looked at ourselves and all of the different things that we see and did not judge any of it? We would see that some things bring pain and others bring happiness, but there would be no denunciation, no guilt, no shame, no fear. How wondrous to see ourselves, others, and the world in that way! When we see only suffering and the end of suffering, then we feel compassion. Then we can act in energetic and forceful ways but without the corrosive effects of aversion.

Compassion can lead to very forceful action without any anger or aversion in it. When we see a small child reaching toward a hot burner on a stove, we instantly take action. Our response is born out of the compassion we feel; we move to pull the child back, away from harm. We do not reject or condemn the child.

To be compassionate is to wish that a being or all beings be free from pain. To be compassionate is to sense from within what it must be like to experience someone else’s experience.

To view life compassionately, we have to look at what is happening and at the conditions that gave rise to it. Instead of only looking at the last point, or the end result, we need to see all of the constituent parts. All things in the conditioned universe arise due to a cause. Have you ever had the experience of feeling resentful toward someone and then having an insight into what in their history might have caused them to behave in a certain way? Suddenly you can see the conditions that gave rise to that situation, not simply the end result of those conditions.

I knew two people who had both suffered from abuse in childhood. One, a woman, grew up to be quite fearful, while the other, a man, grew up to be quite angry. The woman found herself in a work situation with the man, disliked him intensely, and was trying to have him fired from his job. At one point, she got a glimpse into his background and recognized how they both had suffered in the same way. “He’s a brother!” she exclaimed.

This kind of understanding does not mean that we dismiss or condone a person’s negative behavior. But we can look at all of the elements that go into making up that person’s life and can acknowledge their conditioned nature. To see the interdependent arising of these impersonal forces that make up our “selves” can provide the opening for forgiveness and compassion.


From Loving-Kindness by Sharon Salzberg. © 1995 by Sharon Salzberg.

Reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.

Photo © flickr.com/Nick-K (Nikos Koutoulas)
Sharon Salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is a meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West. Sharon has been a student of meditation since 1971, guiding retreats worldwide since 1974. She is a weekly columnist for On Being, a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and the author of many books including Real Happiness, and Lovingkindness.


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