As a Buddhist priest, I hear quite a bit about compassion, that brand of unconditional love we imagine ourselves to be incapable of having for one another. Talking about compassion may be one reason it is so frequently misunderstood as something that we should be doing. But compassion doesn't need doing. It exists already in the harmony of things just the way they are.
Discord comes from our doing — when we impose our judgment, expectations, and ego. Compassion comes from undoing. Compassion greets us when we undo our boundaries and erase the lines we said we'd never cross. Compassion waits in the space between us, the space that only seems to separate us: a gap we close when we cease all judgment and reach an arm's length in front of us to wipe a tear, shake a hand, or give a smile.
We don't have to go anywhere else to find compassion. Not to a Himalayan monastery or even a meditation retreat. We don't have to sit at the foot of a guru or stand on our heads. We won't find compassion in a book or a blog or an inspirational quotation.
There is only one place to practice compassion: the one you're in. You can never leave this place, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place. Here are 15 ways to practice compassion today on your way home for dinner.
- At the grocery store, give your place in line to the person behind you.
- Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.
- On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.
- Buy a cup of lemonade from the kids on the sidewalk stand. Buy two cups. Tell them to keep the change.
- Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.
- Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a very long time.
- Do not curse your neighbor's tall grass, weeds, foul temperament, or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.
- Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker.
- Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.
- Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat at the intersection.
- Talk to strangers about the weather.
- Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.
- Do not let difference make a difference.
- Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.
- Love the world you walk, ride, and drive around in, and make it your home. It's the only world you'll ever live in, and you have all the love in it.
Leave aside the extraordinary lengths and heroic measures. There's an eyeful of suffering right in front of your face. Often, people look frightened and lonely. They seem bothered, hurt, and terrifically sad. Kindness doesn't cure everything, but it cures unkindness. What a magnificent place to start.
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Be compassionate on your way home today. You don't have to go as far as you think you should. You just have to go farther than you think you can't. There is no greater compassion than your own.
Karen Maezen Miller is an errant wife, delinquent mother, reluctant dog walker, and expert laundress, as well as a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher, or sensei, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She’s also the author of Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, recently published by New World Library.