As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating compassion as vital to a spiritual life. Most of us want to be compassionate at heart yet at times we may struggle to manifest it skillfully in daily life. What happens when we see a homeless person on an empty street and we recoil rather than feeling a warm yearning to reach out and help? Maybe a family member needs our support but we’ve had a long history of conflicts and misunderstandings and we struggle to extend a hand. Perhaps a co-worker who always seems aloof or combative has a tragic loss. Instead of feeling a sense of caring and interconnection with their suffering, we initially feel neutral, detached.
At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering may not align with our ideals and intentions. When we see this gap, we may feel even more separate. This can easily turn into self-judgment and criticism: “I’m not a very compassionate person;” “I don’t have the courage to help;” or even, “that person doesn’t deserve my kindness.”
When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that a compassionate response is unlikely to arise unless we acknowledge and explore our immediate reaction This is the gap—when our response and our ideals are out of sync. Instead of identifying only with our ideals, or judging ourselves for an unwanted response, we can drop down and learn to stay in the gap, the place beneath our thoughts where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. In these situations, this is where compassion begins. Returning to this place, our bodies, our hearts, what is truly arising at this moment?
If you’re walking down the street and encounter a homeless person, can you see the moment aversion arises and just experience it? It may not happen immediately, but once you’re aware of it, take a few breaths and stay in the midst of your experience. As you learn to do this, your conditioned response will begin to diminish. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also start to dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering more directly. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help beyond offering a few dollars. Sometimes the correct response is to distance ourselves if the situation seems unstable. But if there’s no immediate threat, perhaps simply a smile, an acknowledgement that we actually see this human being, is the kindest response. Longer term, we may feel motivated to seek out concrete ways to take action.
The roots of suffering run deep. As we learn to stay in the gap, not turning away from our fear or aversion, a skillful and compassionate response is closer at hand. As Ajahn Chah puts it, “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.”