Empathy and compassion are natural states for most human beings, and fortunately so. For in feeling empathy towards another we have dissolved the boundaries—even if temporarily—that frequently are imagined to exist between one another.When we are compassionate, we help each other, doing whatever it might take to alleviate suffering in someone else or in many.
These two states, empathy and compassion, keep our world—its inhabitants, and hopefully the planet itself—from falling into hatred, neglect, and ruin.As important and fundamental as empathy and compassion are to have for someone else, they are equally as imperative to have for ourselves. Without empathy towards our own humanness, fallibility, and impermanence or without self-compassion and self-care, we can easily become consumed by exhaustion and anger—a burnout that ends with the inability to help anyone at all.In essence, being of service to someone else or even to ourselves (as odd as that might initially sound) is one of the highest spiritual paths we can take.Understanding interdependence helps to explain why we might wish to be of service to ourselves (as well as others). Interdependence means that no action or deed—either seen or unseen—stands alone. Everything affects something and someone in some way. For instance, our food usually comes from someone else growing it, our clothes from a store made up of employees in sales and employees behind the machines to the designers, etc. Our deeds originating from anger affect and our actions and when seeded from love affect others in kind. So recognizing just how inextricably linked we are can support reasons to take better care of and be kinder towards ourselves.
Recently, I found myself in the humbling position of my body not functioning well and in need of major surgery. One aspect of this time that was particularly interesting and surprising was how I rallied for myself. My 35 years of practice and the 100+ silent retreats I have sat showed up even though I hadn’t consciously called it forward. I wasn’t particularly afraid, although I did have my moments. I wasn’t angry, even though I didn’t like what was happening, and I wasn’t anxious because I wasn’t projecting into the unknown future. And, as importantly, I felt for myself—not in a syrupy, sympathetic, sorry for myself way, but as in an what might I do for ‘you’ (me) sort of way. I was newly in need, my life suddenly became a life, all lives are valuable and precious.I had recently graduated from a Buddhist Chaplaincy training, and was actually looking forward to being my own personal “chaplain.” I checked in with myself frequently. I listened to myself and held silent space for myself with no expectations, no big dialogue or teaching, no extra efforts.Once at home I had wonderful visits from friends. I opened although reticently, to accepting help from them; they cared for me, laughed with me, and sat with me for periods of time. So in essence I had company and support from within and without—both invaluable, and all experiences that have been treasured.
I’ve taught in hospitals for many years, and trained others to offer mindfulness and embodiment skills to at risk and in need communities. This latest experience was a new chance to up my empathy, investigate impermanence, my attachments and just to having a fallible, fragile and vulnerable human body.Being of service has a variety of manifestations; it can mean being of service to our own health and well being so that we can last or survive and take care of others well, it might mean taking care of a loved one, joining a political or environmental movement, or showing up at a soup kitchen.
Being of service to the world can mean finding time for some silence, for a softening of the heart and a little more space in the mind. There are many ways to do this. Whatever spiritual path we might be on, let’s continue on it and become stronger and more open from it. In this way we can walk out of our own minds, with our hearts blazing open, into the world, en masse and address what needs to be done.