Compassion and the Nature of Mind

Boudnath eyes

Since taking the bodhisattva vow in early 2009, I’ve been on the Mahayana path—the path of compassion. I dove into the first five years without hesitation, but for much of this year, I was in a mild spiritual doldrums. Without boring you with the details, I’ll mention that I felt unable to continue to approach the Mahayana path as I had been doing: very patient, self-sacrificing, and rather exaggeratedly tender and kind. To try to continue in this vein felt intensely unpleasant, a combination of phony and emasculating.

The Mahayana practice I’ve been feeling burned-out on seems to be exactly what authentic Dharma promotes: compassion based on the knowledge that all beings suffer, and an attitude of self-softening and concern for others above all. To presume to have “gotten past” that way of life sounds very dangerous and arrogant, and I wouldn’t present it as advice, or listen to someone who did.

But I will put forward one recent related experience that I think may be helpful. As time goes on, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that true compassion is based on an appreciation of the power and brilliance of human nature, and not strictly on an appreciation of human vulnerability or the intensity of human suffering.

Seeing Mind

As I came into adulthood, the first thing that clued me into compassion was a deepening appreciation of suffering. For quite a while, I viewed people mostly as variations on the theme of “suffering sentient being”: desperately wanting to be happy, but not knowing how. I found people instantly sympathetic as a result, no matter how contorted the rest of their story or behavior.

I still think this perspective is valid to an extent, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think our struggle to be happy happens in a larger space, and that that space—the space of awareness, or mind itself—is what’s really beautiful about people.

Watching People Communicate

Getting to observe this space in dyad practice was one of most amazing opportunities I had during my time living in Boston. What my dyad partners said was often interesting; but as time went on, I also got a deeper and deeper sense of the way people communicated, and, in fact, of who was communicating—and it was the space of mind.

Watching someone speak honestly is watching the space of his or her mind look directly into itself.

I gradually came to see watching someone speak as watching the space of his or her mind look directly into itself, and communicate from there. Honest communication from that mind always carries specific qualities: it is spacious, aware, gentle in that it is devoid of aggression, and totally open in that it experiences without bias or judgment. As time went on, I fell in love not with the content of people’s minds, but with the basic nature of mind itself.

This basic nature is equally present in painful experiences. For example, you can ask someone, “What does it feel like to have schizophrenia?” and he will generally answer precisely, matter-of-factly, and honestly—almost as if recounting an experience that is happening to someone else. To answer the question, the space of mind looks plainly and honestly into itself, and the answer carries that quality of innate openness, clarity, and lack of cynicism.

Mind and Compassion

Obviously, it’s not true that just because our natures are basically spacious, aware, and unbiased, our suffering (for example, from schizophrenia) is any less intense. But it is true that suffering—and, for that matter, happiness—occurs within the greater space of mind or awareness. For me, I’m finding that feeling that space in myself and others is the basis of compassion.

It’s the nature of the human mind that is to be celebrated, and that nature isn’t bound up in any of our dramas.

In other words, in my experience basic goodness seems to go a lot deeper than our individual sob stories—or, for that matter, our success stories—as intense and real as those stories are. It’s the nature of the human mind that is ultimately to be celebrated, and that nature isn’t actually bound up in any of our dramas, be they the struggle for identity, happiness, or anything else.

So, to borrow a Shambhala image, compassion may be a bit like watching a dragon soar through the sky. Because of its power and beauty, love comes naturally. And if a dragon thinks it’s tied to the ground and can only limp along, compassion comes not particularly from a heightened sense of the dragon’s wretchedness, but from the contrast of its present self-expression with its natural majesty and freedom.

human

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How “Human” Feels

As a final approach to the topic, maybe we can look at the Wikipedia featured image for “human.” When we look at this couple, do we see, first and foremost, two suffering sentient beings crying out? I don’t feel this way. More than anything, I’m impressed and even a bit taken aback by the innate power and authority of the human gaze—power which comes, clearly, from the nature of the mind that gazes.

You may enjoy skimming the rest of the article, particularly the pictures. I find that throughout, human beings project above all an obvious and unmistakable power, the power of their awareness. I’m finding that compassion is contacting and celebrating this power—and understanding suffering and confusion as impediments to its expression, not as defining traits.

How This Helps

Rigden Thangka

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I think my “kindlest, gentlest” Mahayana approach eventually became hard to sustain for two reasons.

First, on the relative level, I felt like I was seeing people only in a partial light: only the soft, fuzzy, vulnerable parts. To pick an example, Dwight Eisenhower helped to save the world from fascism as commander of the Allied war effort in Europe, and then served two successful terms as president of the United States. To paint him as a shaking child, desperately searching for but unable to find happiness, is probably accurate in some sense—but it ignores the immensity of his strength, resourcefulness, and courage, which seem as remarkable as his status as a suffering sentient being. Feeling compassion as an appreciation of human flourishing rather than human frailty seems to allow for a more complete picture of humanity itself.

On a more absolute level, there was the persistent question of “Compassion for whom?” It was getting difficult to reconcile the core Buddhist truths of basic human perfection and liberation—the mind whose portrait I see in the Rigden Thangka—with the more commonsense observation that almost everyone is badly confused and in need of help. Before, the Mahayana approach felt like “Focus on the commonsense piece for now,” which always seemed like a contradiction waiting to be resolved. If compassion is based in an appreciation of human strength, however, there’s no contradiction. Compassion is simply tuning into and appreciating basic openness, awareness, and freedom—and appreciating suffering as a pronounced contrast with that basic nature.

I’ll close with a video from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. During this video, he’s dying of cancer (hence the chronic cough)—but that certainly doesn’t define the clip. Rather, I find he projects a combination of kindness, gentleness, inner quiet, and a faintly perceptible iron will that is an almost perfect expression of human nature at its most pure. Celebrating that nature—in people who’ve found it, as well as people who haven’t—seems to be the new definition of compassion I’m working with.


Fred MeyerFred Meyer is a longtime Shambhala and Buddhist practitioner. He works on Medivate, an online platform for encouraging regular meditation, and writes on spirituality at Valid Cognition. He lives in New Orleans.