The presence of compassion

I have never been very good at compassion. I especially have difficulty being compassionate with people who I view as behaving badly (including myself). My initial reactions have been to point out their shortcomings, avoid them all-together, let them ruin my moment/day/week/month/year/life, and ruminate endlessly over how they (I) should behave.

I came upon this story from the book Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg. Sharon tells a story about meeting a Soviet official at an airport with “the most hateful stare I have ever received from anybody in my life. It was an icy rage.” She felt as if he had “poisoned her being.”

Some part of her woke up. She realized that every day this man experiences the state that she had just experienced. She writes: “A tremendous feeling of compassion came into me for him. He was no longer a threatening enemy, but rather someone in what seemed to be in intense suffering.”

The path of compassion begins with the knowledge that we do to others what we do to ourselves. None of us really know what is going on inside another human being. We don’t know what they might be experiencing, thinking, or feeling. Even if we ask them, the answer may come back nebulous and arbitrary. I have witnessed people in obvious distress and asked them about their state of being only to be told that they were “fine.” Such a response can indicate that they are truly fine, realizing they are in distress but handling it. It can also mean “I don’t know” or “none of your business” or “NO, I’m NOT!” Distress might be a normal state of being and as long as they are feeling distressed, they feel normal.

This is as far as I have gotten along the path. Compassion is a moment-by-moment, person-by-person phenomenon. It encompasses my projection of myself on to others. It realizes that I am being projected upon. Somewhere in between is a reality I can speak to.

©2011 by Barbara L. Kass

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11 Responses to “The presence of compassion”

  1. jeffstroud Says:


    “The path of compassion begins with the knowledge that we do to others what we do to ourselves.” Is a great awareness, it allows us to see our own reflection in each situation.
    I just recently have had that experience with an unpleasant experience with a neighbor. I had to recognize my own behavior in the situation, yet I had to walk in her shoes. I had to practice compassion, and forgiveness. It is how peace is created.
    I have just began reading Caroline Myss’s book “Invisible Acts of Power” And she states that compassion is Fourth Chakra behavior.
    Gift of the Heart – Kindness, Love, Forgiveness, and Compassion.
    She states: “the fourth chakra is the physical center of our spiritual anatomy and it governs the heart. Our hearts primary task, of course is to recognize our own spirit in every stranger and to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
    Remind you of something?

    Good to see your post. It is always an experience of awareness.
    (I am sure Laurie will be all over this)

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Hi, Jeff — thanks for your personal example; I was involved in a close-to-unpleasant experience with a person who refused to respond to my urgent request. This is a person who is in a power position in my life (i.e., a school official) so I had to play nice but inside I was seething with righteous indignation. Who the heck was she/he not to return my call or respond to my e-mail? In the end, I simply made a different decision than I had originally planned, but I note that I will take extra care with my dealings with this person in the future.

      I haven’t worked on my chakras as often or as deep as I should (guilty); it is nice to know the one governing my heart is alive and kicking. To love my neighbor as myself sounds familiar 🙂 — I think that the Native Americans said to not judge anyone until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.

  2. holessence Says:

    Barbara –

    I very much resonate with your statement, “The path of compassion begins with the knowledge that we do to others what we do to ourselves.”

    And when you said, “This is as far as I have gotten along the path.” I said to myself, “That’s a long darn way. Many people never reach that point!”

    It is, indeed, moment-by-moment and person-by-person. It’s a conscious choice to live through our hearts.

    Thank you for sharing about the book, “Lovingkindness” by Sharon Salzberg. I just added it to my reading list.

    Make it one heckofa day!

    – Laurie

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Hi, Laurie — I like Salzberg’s humility and honesty; her words are easy to read. Occasionally, a snippet like this will come into my life and simply alter me. It takes me a while to to integrate it fully, but I know that I am changed in a fundamental way and there is no turning back.

      I had a heckofa day, too!

  3. Gil Says:

    brilliant post, Barbara.
    thank you

  4. Sandi White Says:

    Barbara, I wrote a comment last night and evidently didn’t send it. I am going to be living in a world of yellow post-it notes one of these days. I did mention how I could feel more compassion for the hungry feral cat waiting outside my door than I did for the homeless man living on the street. The cat is skinny, looks like hell and I know it’s living rough. What is the difference between the cat and the man? I can see the cat in front of my eyes, I can hear that it is frightened and only because it is close to starving will it come to me and beg food. The homeless man, in the almost same circumstances, is not as real, I can’t see him , I can’t hear him. If he came to my door I’m afraid that I would call 911. I would not give him money because I would also be afraid that I would be besieged by hungry men. So it’s not that I am not compassionate towards the man, just frightened. I am willing to give funds to be distributed by others, just too cowardly to do it myself. Or to give myself a point, too wise. I have seen what giving out a dollar in change does in Juarez, Mexico. Compassion is not a comfortable emotion, but a the need for it makes us more human and closer to what we would like to be.

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Having lived across the river from Juarez, Mexico for 40 years, I understand completely, Sandi. There are people everyday who I would love to “fix” and give them what they need to help themselves find jobs, homes, food, and all the good stuff I work my ass off for. Most homeless people scare me because there is a reason why they are homeless. A lot of them are not exactly thinking right. They scare me, too. Other homeless people are in that situation because they made bad decisions. That’s a little scary as well. I thank God every day that I have the brains and talent and health that I need to live my life. My compassion allows me to deal better with people who annoy, irritate, anger, and frustrate me. I feel better about me. I don’t think you are cowardly. I think you are realistic.

  5. Kathy Says:

    Barbara, this is a wonderful blog. Compassion is what you say–a moment-to-moment, person-to-person experience. I want to be more deeply compassionate, too. How to get beyond our mind’s initial reaction to that place of response, divine love? I pray for that for all of us.

    • Barbara Kass Says:

      Hi, Kathy — I think divine love is a great place to start. Just being aware that the first place our minds are going to go is a good place to start, too. If I can be present enough to wait until my monkey mind calms down, then I can be present enough to find my compassion.

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