Compassion and the True Meaning of Empathy
by Joan Halifax
"I want to address the issue of compassion. Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise. A line that the Dalai Lama once said, he said, “Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” And I would suggest, it is not only humanity that won’t survive, but it is all species on the planet, as we've heard today. It is the big cats, and it’s the plankton.
Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India. I was so privileged to be able to teach in a hospice on the outskirts of Bangalore. And early in the morning, I went into the ward. In that hospice, there were 31 men and women who were actively dying. And I walked up to the bedside of an old woman who was breathing very rapidly, fragile, obviously in the latter phase of active dying. I looked into her face. I looked into the face of her son sitting next to her, and his face was just riven with grief and confusion.
And I remembered a line from the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic: “What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?” And Yudhisthira replied, “The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t realize it can happen to us.” I looked up. Tending those 31 dying people were young women from villages around Bangalore. I looked into the face of one of these women, and I saw in her face the strength that arises when natural compassion is really present. I watched her hands as she bathed an old man.
My gaze went to another young woman as she wiped the face of another dying person. And it reminded me of something that I had just been present for. Every year or so, I have the privilege of taking clinicians into the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. And we run clinics in these very remote regions where there’s no medical care whatsoever.
And on the first day at Simikot in Humla, far west of Nepal, the most impoverished region of Nepal, an old man came in clutching a bundle of rags. And he walked in, and somebody said something to him, we realized he was deaf, and we looked into the rags, and there was this pair of eyes. The rags were unwrapped from a little girl whose body was massively burned. Again, the eyes and hands of Avalokiteshvara. It was the young women, the health aids, who cleaned the wounds of this baby and dressed the wounds.
I know those hands and eyes; they touched me as well. They touched me at that time. They have touched me throughout my 68 years. They touched me when I was four and I lost my eyesight and was partially paralyzed. And my family brought in a woman whose mother had been a slave to take care of me. And that woman did not have sentimental compassion. She had phenomenal strength. And it was really her strength, I believe, that became the kind of mudra and imprimatur that has been a guiding light in my life.
So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there’s referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.
Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.
And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent, from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you’ll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.
And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.
Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities. For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.
Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what’s called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchers at Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey, we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.
You know, if compassion is so good for us, I have a question. Why don’t we train our children in compassion? (Applause) If compassion is so good for us, why don’t we train our health care providers in compassion so that they can do what they’re supposed to do, which is to really transform suffering? And if compassion is so good for us, why don’t we vote on compassion? Why don’t we vote for people in our government based on compassion, so that we can have a more caring world? In Buddhism, we say, “it takes a strong back and a soft front.” It takes tremendous strength of the back to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions. And that is the mental quality of equanimity.
But it also takes a soft front — the capacity to really be open to the world as it is, to have an undefended heart. And the archetype of this in Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-Yin. It’s a female archetype: she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world. She stands with 10,000 arms, and in every hand, there is an instrument of liberation, and in the palm of every hand, there are eyes, and these are the eyes of wisdom. I say that, for thousands of years, women have lived, exemplified, met in intimacy, the archetype of Avalokitesvara, of Kuan-Yin, she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world.
Women have manifested for thousands of years the strength arising from compassion in an unfiltered, unmediated way in perceiving suffering as it is. They have infused societies with kindness, and we have really felt that as woman after woman has stood on this stage in the past day and a half. And they have actualized compassion through direct action. Jody Williams called it: It’s good to meditate. I’m sorry, you’ve got to do a little bit of that, Jody. Step back, give your mother a break, okay.
But the other side of the equation is you’ve got to come out of your cave. You have to come into the world like Asanga did, who was looking to realize Maitreya Buddha after 12 years sitting in the cave. He said, “I’m out of here.” He’s going down the path. He sees something in the path. He looks, it’s a dog, he drops to his knees. He sees that the dog has this big wound on its leg. The wound is just filled with maggots. He puts out his tongue in order to remove the maggots, so as not to harm them. And at that moment, the dog transformed into the Buddha of love and kindness.
I believe that women and girls today have to partner in a powerful way with men — with their fathers, with their sons, with their brothers, with the plumbers, the road builders, the caregivers, the doctors, the lawyers, with our president, and with all beings. The women in this room are lotuses in a sea of fire. May we actualize that capacity for women everywhere.