“When we come into contact with the other person, our thought and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says or does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh
This week, I was standing in a supermarket line waiting to check out and stood behind a man in his 50’s who was purchasing a bottle of wine. I waited patiently (I thought), but when the man continued to engage in a conversation with the cashier, I started getting impatient. While I kept silent, the man felt my impatient energy, so he started picking a fight in a condescending way, volunteering to move his position behind and pay after me even though he only had one item and my cart was full. He continued harassing me by sarcastically asking me whether he should also pay for my groceries. I could sense that this man was troubled calling out for help and just wanting a listening ear even if it meant that of the cashier’s. He wouldn’t stop his verbal diarrhea, pressing me to engage in his argument. I started defending myself, but before my inner bomb went off, I asked God for patience and compassion, so I forcibly shut my mouth and silently used my hand waving him to go away. And boy was I relieved when he disappeared. It was obvious that he just wanted an audience who would listen to his problems. While we all know that the cashier’s line is not the time for therapy sessions, I still felt guilty that I failed at showing him true compassion by being more patient. I’ve asked God for forgiveness.
How many times have we all felt that our compassion and patience were being tested by family, friends and strangers, who want to be difficult because they are projecting their own problems onto us? We can all relate to this story, I’m sure. And how many times do we all fall prey to reacting defensively with anger, frustration, hurt, etc., like I did on that supermarket line. In order for real spiritual growth to take place, we are called to have unconditional compassion and patience. Thich Nhat Hanh, like all great spiritual leaders, teaches us that we must show compassion regardless of someone’s reprehensible behavior. This is not to say that there should be no consequences for bad actions or that we should condone it, as this would defy the spiritual law of karma or cause-and-effect. By showing unconditional compassion, we are not rewarding bad behavior. What we are doing is connecting and showing love to another sentient being who is hurting by putting ourselves in their shoes as each and every one of us experiences hurt. When we turn away from compassion for someone who is hurting regardless of their behavior, then we are turning away from our own healing and love — the love which is ultimately our greatest projection of and one with God, our highest level of spiritual enlightenment. So when we do not show compassion for all beings, whether good or bad, we are essentially shooting ourselves in our own foot and limiting the possibility of our own self actualization of our true Being, which is love.
Practicing true compassion has many challenges. As human beings with our endless flaws and foibles, how do we become more unconditional in our compassion?
Refrain from Judging
One of the biggest ways to practice unconditional compassion is to refrain from judging. On some unconscious level, I was judging the man in the supermarket as somehow being inferior because, if I felt he was my equal, I would have responded more with patience, thus practicing genuine compassion. Until you have walked a mile in someone’s shoes, you do not really know their story. If luck or karma didn’t go our way, each of us could have easily been born as the homeless man, the starving child, the drug addict, the murderer, so who are we to judge others when we could have been walking in their shoes? When you judge others, you are carrying the premise that you are better or superior. In the spiritual realm, which is the truthful one, no one is superior or better, as God’s love to each and every one of us is equal; in God’s eyes, we are all just uniquely different yet equally important, like oranges and apples. Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” We should leave the judging up to God, so refrain from judging others.
Love Thy Enemies
In the bible, it says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Our greatest test in compassion is whether we can have it for our enemies. They become our best teachers in learning the lessons of true compassion because when someone has done you wrong, you have to muster the courage and strength to transcend those deep negative feelings, like anger or hurt — and forgive — which is the hardest thing to do. By practicing compassion to your archest enemy, you are on the path to the highest level of forgiveness, and therefore, the highest level of spiritual growth. So, past the ultimate test of compassion by showing it towards your enemies.
Each of us will go through moments in our lives when we’re on our knees to God, as no one is immune to pain. Well, how do you expect compassion in your own time of need if you do not show it to others? Compassion is only reciprocated when you give it to others, so the more you give, the more you will receive — it’s that simple.
Be Aware of your Thoughts
Make a conscious choice to be compassionate in all situations. So, when you catch yourself judging or arguing with others, then stop the thought and behavior. We each have a choice in how we can think and behave, right? It doesn’t mean that you have to be people pleasing by being overly amenable, apologetic or over bearing. Sometimes by just keeping quiet and doing nothing, you are showing the highest level of compassion. It is in silence that you can sometimes have the most positive impact. The important thing is that you are aware of your thoughts and trying your best to provide genuine compassion.
When we practice compassion, we are calling on love and realizing our true self and spiritual growth. So, even though we’re not perfect, we can all do our best to practice unconditional compassion, and, in doing so, we will find ourselves on the path to what we’re all seeking: unconditional happiness in our own lives. Now, we can all be on board with that!
By Moon Cho, Creator of Ying & Yang Living