As I walked through a parking garage the other day, a very surprising thing happened. This garage isn’t well designed – there is barely enough space for cars to drive in and out and some of the parking spots are pretty tight. The driver of a small SUV decided to pull into one of these tiny spots, and as she inched forward into the space, there was a loud, crunching sound. She had scraped the car next to her.
She backed up and got out of her car. As she stood looking at the damage, the driver of the car she had hit came out as well. “I’m so sorry,” she said sadly. I anticipated that the other driver would display some anger and frustration. After all, he would now have to get at least two estimates for the repair, be without his car while it was fixed, and possibly pay the amount of his deductible. Most people would be angry. Instead, the two talked quietly and then began to laugh.
Although I wasn’t privy to their conversation, it was possible they realized that they were in this unpleasant and unwelcome experience together. Maybe they were also relieved that no one was hurt. It was obvious that she was sad and regretful. The other driver showed compassion for her.
When we are pitted against another person, compassion can be difficult to feel. We want to be the one who is right! It can be frightening to allow ourselves to truly understand the other person’s situation. As Pema Chodron tells us in Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change, compassion is threatening to our ego. When we really open up to another person’s view, we might find out we are wrong. Although he certainly had no part in the accident, the other driver couldn’t be angry once he opened his heart to compassion.
When we see situations and people through this lens, it is certainly kinder to them than blaming or criticizing. What might be surprising is that it is kinder to ourselves as well. When we are angry, our fight or flight response is activated, our ability to think rationally and solve the problem is compromised and we suffer many detrimental physiologic effects. In addition, when we verbally attack the other person, we deprive ourselves of a partner in helping to fix the situation. Compassion dissolves this anger and negativity and can give us a sense of connection and hopefulness.
Is there a situation in which you feel wronged? Try opening your heart and allowing a sense of compassion in. Just for a moment, see things from the other person’s point of view. How does this shift your relationship with this person? What possibilities might it create? Notice how much more peaceful you feel without the anger and resentment.
We each have the power to choose compassion when conflicts arise. We simply need to decide how we want to live.
Good afternoon Helane,
I smiled when I saw your posting today on Compassion, and the smile was in response to a couple of things. First a little background: I don’t know if you would remember that more than 30 years ago I met the Universal Sufis and started to hang out with them. I liked their attunement as they were deeply involved into the process of looking at the great religions and studying their similarities instead of their differences. I found this to be a wonderfully heart-fulfilling novel approach to the realm of tuning one’s own spirituality. I was also delighted by the fact that Universal Sufism isn’t a religion. It is an old, old wisdom school and the Sufis on this path were Christians (Crufies), Buddhists (Bufies), Jews (Jewfies), Muslim (Mufies), searching agnostics (Goofies) and many other folks such as aboriginals, Hindus, Zoroastrians, etc. The smile that popped onto my face came first from the picture that prefaced your article: the formed hands that made a heart with wings, which just happens to be the symbol of this form of Sufism.
The second smile came as I read your words and realized that in your article you were beautifully describing the second of the four ‘perfect Buddhist virtues’, namely that of Karuna, receptive compassion. The four ‘immeasurables’ quite well define the ideal affect of being, and I find them especially efficacious for those of us on the path of healing: Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekkha.
Metta is loving kindness. What is the most powerful tool of those of us on the healing path? The kind heart of the ‘healer’. (I put that word in quotes because, of course, we know that we don’t really do the healing. On a good day we can catalyze and facilitate a healing process, but the actual healing is in the hands of The Boss.) This loving kindness doesn’t discriminate, not even between benevolent and malicious people. It is a form of loving in which “I” and “you” disappear.
Karuna is receptive compassion, listening and truly hearing with ears connected directly to heart, allowing the flow of compassion to come forth, measureless in its abundance, fully in the present.
Mudita is the boundless sharing of the joy of another person, joy without restraint of ego.
Upekkha is the equanimity that comes from the boundless acceptance of things just the way they are at this moment, free of judgement….mind in balance, without attachment to outcome.
So, thank you, Helane. You do good work. It’s nice to see someone addressing the hearts and souls of physicians as well as their brains.
May you be having a wonderful summer filled with family and friends.
Thank you so much for sharing your deep understanding and wisdom – it adds so much to the words I wrote. I was fascinated that the Sufi’s were not just Muslims (shows what I know!) and included seekers of all religions. I loved the category of searching agnostics – the Goofies! The hearts and souls of physicians is what I am most interested in at this point in my career. As a professor at the medical school, I see students working so hard to acquire the knowledge and skills so they can practice medicine, and I wonder how long they will be able to sustain that drive and passion unless they learn how to care for themselves and unless we build a more trusting and supportive community among ourselves. We seasoned physicians are well aware that many physicians are leaving medicine – it’s a national tragedy that people who were so committed and who invested so much (and in whom society invested as well) are leaving because they no longer find satisfaction in practicing medicine. I believe with all my heart that this can be helped, if we will take steps to address the causes of our frustrations and emptiness. This is what I love to do – to help physicians love being a doctor again.