Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness (2016)
A Good Heart: The Companion to Pristine Mind
COMPASSION IS complementary to the quality of love. Just as love is the heartfelt aspiration for others to be happy and to have all the conditions for happiness, compassion is the heartfelt aspiration for others to be free from suffering and from the conditions of suffering.
NOT JUST DURING A CRISIS
Compassion is not just something that we feel for someone who is critically injured, very sick, or in a horrible condition of some kind. People often believe compassion is what we feel when someone has some kind of pain or suffering and we think, “Oh, I feel so sorry for that person.” That is one dimension or form of compassion. The compassion that we are describing here is much broader and deeper than that. Like love, it is once again something we can feel for everyone, all the time. It is universal and enduring. Although it may occur in any number of different situations, it does not depend on any particular circumstances.
We can have compassion even for someone who is mentally and physically well, not sick or in crisis. After all, we know that for as long as they live in this world, they will inevitably face physical, mental, and emotional problems on numerous occasions. They will, without any doubt, experience disappointment and sadness, anger and aggression, and a whole array of undesirable circumstances. These things are a part of life. Our compassion makes us wish for them to be free, as much as possible, from these problems and the conditions that contribute to them.
We can have compassion for anyone facing harsh or unwanted circumstances now and in the future, and we can hope that conditions that lead to suffering never accumulate for them. This sincere wish that they do not suffer, that they avoid all physical, mental, and emotional disturbances on every level, is compassion.
What is the basis for this type of compassion? How do we cultivate it?
It is similar to what we talked about with the development of true love. We develop a deep sense of understanding that other people are just like us. We realize, “They want what I want. I want happiness. I do not want suffering. I do not want physical, mental, or emotional pain, discomfort, or unfortunate circumstances. Other beings are the same way. My friends, that stranger over there, and every living being—all are exactly like me. They do not want suffering, just as I do not. I understand that we are exactly the same in this respect. Thus, when they suffer, it is the same as when I suffer.”
We comprehend in a deep and meaningful way that others are in the same position we are. We can recognize in an experientially compelling way what they are going through. This makes us sincerely wish for them to be free of everything unwanted, just as we wish that for ourselves. In the same way we do not want to miss our airplane, do not want to be homeless, and do not want our mind to be buffeted about by circumstances like a feather in the wind, other people feel the same way. Their pain is like our pain. We know this and value their experience. And we learn that if we are able to help them, we are going to feel deeply, genuinely good ourselves.
It is relatively easy to be inspired toward this type of compassion when we think of our friends and family, or any community or group with which we identify. We can have the sincere wish for them to be free from all unwanted circumstances and disturbances, be they physical, mental, or emotional. It’s easy for most of us to think, “I wish my father didn’t have any kind of fear or anxiety. I wish my mother didn’t have any kind of doubt or hesitation.” Or to think, “I hope that my friends never face any serious illness. I wish that they be free of sickness and problems, and that they be free from anxiety, sadness, anger, aggression, and all negative emotions.” But when we understand that everyone is the same in wishing for happiness, and we sincerely wish that nobody should experience suffering, we gain a more expansive perspective, which embraces all living beings.
If we have love and compassion, even if someone starts a conflict with us, we have a better chance of being able to recognize it with compassion, understanding, and tolerance. Instead of reacting impulsively, we might be able to say to ourselves, “Oh, my friend is a little overwhelmed by negative emotions. Negative emotions are controlling his outlook. I know, based on my experiences, that he must be confused or suffering in some way.” We recognize that situation, so we will have more patience. Even if the conflict continues and we have a disagreement, we still maintain the perspective that the other person is just like us and only wants to avoid pain. This not only enables us to become more reasonable and compassionate, it also puts us into a generally happier state of mind.
Once we have the perspective that everyone around us wants the very same things that we want, our point of view is more objective, more in line with reality. We are not prejudiced by the interpretations of our own selfishness, fear, and other mental distortions. Compassion serves as a counterbalance to the drives and stresses of our own ego. If we are compassionate, then even when we are furious with someone, we can still want the best for them. Compassionate people are more understanding of the reality that shapes human behavior. They are not distracted by egocentrism and selfishness. So their mental burden is lighter.
Compassion is the wish, not only for our friends and family to be free from physical, mental, and emotional discomfort, but for everyone to be free of these painful states. It applies to people from all walks of life, to the strangers we encounter, to people we will never meet, even to people we may perceive as enemies.
Problems are always caused by selfishness, the constant pursuit of our own happiness while denying, ignoring, or not really understanding the fact that others want happiness just as we do. Problems and disharmony arise from that kind of egocentric attitude. People are abused and treated unfairly by those who lack the understanding that others are just like them. So many problems in this world stem from people denying their fundamental sameness with others.
However, once we understand and truly appreciate in a very deep way this most basic principle of existence, that we all want the same things, then compassion is always within us. It is just a part of us. Anything we do or say comes from that compassion. That is just how we are. We just naturally get along with others because if we have this attitude, conflict does not arise very often.
Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava says:
The key to helping others effortlessly is to practice boundless compassion.
With this understanding, the experience of compassion is always present as a part of us. This compassionate attitude leads to less conflict, and more harmony and respect, in our lives. Our compassionate actions are contagious; they affect other people, who begin to act in the same way.
SEEING OTHERS’ NEEDS
Compassionate people are flexible and do not insist unreasonably on their own way. They see the other side, not just their own—not just what they want. Compassion makes us emotionally available and receptive to others’ points of view.
Compassionate people do not think the world exists just for them and do not use others for their own benefit. They want success for everyone around them. This creates more success for everyone involved.
Compassion is the foundation for human connection. It is essential to the success of relationships. Compassion is the core of connecting sincerely and harmoniously. Without compassion, we may feel isolation and despair.
We all need to develop our compassion until we experience compassion in every moment and in every interaction of our everyday life. Without compassion, our ego takes over our mind-set and we become preoccupied with ourselves. When compassion is in control, the ego cannot predominate. Compassion is the opposite of ego.
COMPASSION IS COURAGEOUS, STRONG, AND PATIENT
Courage, strength, and patience are linked to compassion because the more we have a sincere wish and desire for others to be free from suffering and pain, the more challenging situations we are willing to face in order to do the things necessary to help others. Nothing will feel too difficult or challenging for us to do in the service of others. Compassion becomes our driving force. Compassion is the measure of our strength of character.
You may have heard of the term bodhisattva, used in Buddhist literature. It usually refers to a being of extremely high realization whose sole purpose is to benefit all beings. Bodhisattvas are renowned for having especially great courage or heroism. What defines a bodhisattva’s courage? Bodhisattvas are heroic in three different ways: first, they are willingly reborn in this world repeatedly over many eons; second, they resolve to help alleviate the suffering of the infinite number of beings who inhabit the world; and third, they undertake so many difficult challenges for the benefit of beings. A bodhisattva is not afraid of these three things. Why? Because of his or her great compassion. Bodhisattvas act as heroes or role models for us. We can aspire to generate the compassion of a bodhisattva. As our compassionate action increases, we can accomplish amazing things.
It is important to recognize the great power of compassion. When we speak of strong emotions, we may think of an example such as anger, which we all know can even drive a person to violence or murder. But we should see that compassion has just as much strength, except that it is used in the opposite way. Someone who is grounded in compassion has the strength and the courage to do powerful things by fully accessing that compassion.
Patience is also a close companion of compassion. The more love and compassion we have, the more patient we become. The degree to which we have love and compassion is the degree to which we are patient.
Patience does not mean we never get frustrated. Even bodhisattvas, who have devoted their lives to benefiting others, can get upset. Getting upset is not necessarily incompatible with true compassion; in some contexts, it can actually have a very positive effect. The key element in managing impatience and upset is to make sure that we never hold on to such reactions. We must be able to let them go. If we can do that, even impatience and being upset with others can be constructive on some occasions.
Patience also means that we are not afraid of challenges and the time and energy that worthwhile efforts often require. Even when a situation is challenging, if we see a way that our efforts might benefit others, we do not easily give up; we persevere. We may get upset at some point along the way, but we continue to do the job without becoming discouraged. We have more patience for difficult tasks and difficult people. We follow through.
Not giving up on others is a major hallmark of compassion. We are able to maintain some form of connection with others, and we are always working to help them, one way or another. Even if we are disturbed by some aspect of the situation, we try to correct the problem or provide some form of relief to those who suffer from it.
If we have great compassion, we also have a broad mind. A broad mind means we see beyond the immediate circumstances, beyond the present moment in time. We understand the possibilities for change even when they may not be apparent to us in the moment. Because of this, we do not give up on others easily. We stay committed. We see the big picture without fixating on one immediately frustrating aspect of the situation.
LETTING GO IS COMPASSION
In a world of complicated minds swirling with mental events, there are always people who, misguided by the deceptive nature of samsara, seek happiness in ways that create problems for others. We do not have to constantly react to such people. A far more effective way to respond in such a situation is to not get caught up in reacting nor be triggered by the emotions we encounter in others. Even if we do have a reaction, it is important to be able to let it go. We do not need to always react, react, react. There are so many people with complicated minds in this world. To always be reacting to them is exhausting. Most important, it is unnecessary and takes us further and further away from the experience of our Pristine Mind.
If, instead, we understand that this is just the way the world is, full of irrational reactions to mental events that are, in truth, largely irrelevant to what is important, then, even when we do react, we are able to recognize and manage our reaction more appropriately. With this understanding it is much easier to just let our reaction go, giving ourselves more freedom and tolerance, and less agitation and despair. We are much happier when we recognize this than if we are always getting caught up in the disturbed mental events of others. Doing so only makes life very difficult. Avoiding such reactions gives us the deep and ongoing feeling state that is compassion.
The very act of letting go of our reactions in this way is also in itself a form of compassion. It allows the problem to go away. We do not compound the unpleasant nature of the situation. We do not keep repeating it in our mind. We do not hang on to it.
If we are not able to do this, we get stuck in the situation, and it returns to make us suffer the experience again and again. But if we let it go, it is finished. If we need to say something, then we tell the person what we need to express, and then let it go.
It also becomes easier for us to forgive because we know that the other person is just caught up in their own mental events. It is not something personal to us. When someone does something counterproductive, we are able to think, “He’s just reacting in his own way. I know he is controlled by his emotions or his ego.” The other person simply does not know that they have a choice in how they respond to their mental events. They do not know they have a choice that will let them feel much, much better. We know that, especially with the training of our mind, we can choose not to be caught up in mental events. When we realize that, it is easy to forgive others for their behavior.
Acceptance, forgiveness, and patience are qualities of a good heart. We will not always be patient, but we will have a greater degree of patience and more tolerance of other people’s behavior. There is more openness and less struggle. Our mind becomes more suitable for the state of Pristine Mind. The more we have the inner experience of such compassion and unconditional love for others, the easier it is for us to be patient, forgiving, and tolerant. It carries its own reward, so long as it is sincere and genuine.