Awakening the Heart of Compassion

Sometimes the most powerful awakenings come to us at the most difficult moments of our lives. That was my experience one day when my husband Hob was dealing with the challenges of advanced Alzheimer’s. Everything seemed to be going wrong: lost car keys, a leaking pipe, house plants wilting from neglect, aborted communication between us – the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek called it.

Surely most of us have moments of falling apart and emotional meltdown. That’s where I was — overwhelmed, exhausted, and heart-broken over my husband’s ruthless decline into dementia. In a moment of desperation, I found myself with a hand over my heart, reciting in a whisper, “May I have compassion for myself. May I have compassion for myself.” Many times, urgently.

As the emotional tightness began to soften, the words spontaneously changed to, “May I have compassion for him. May I have compassion for him.”  And finally, “May I have compassion for everyone suffering from dementia,” repeated several times, my hand still over my heart, now softened by my own caring attention to my grief.

It was a memorable experience. That was the first time I had felt such deep compassion for myself. How much easier it was to feel compassion for others!

We could say that deepening in compassion is both the beginning and end of the spiritual path. Wisdom teachings assure us that compassion is an inborn condition of the heart, yet we lose touch with this truth. Any contracted mental/emotional state shuts down our compassion, for inevitably in our humanness, we deal with a spectrum of challenging emotions–fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, grief, and so on.

It’s helpful to realize that compassion is bittersweet. The bitter part is that life continually throws us huge challenges: pain, sickness, loss, death, and yet those very realities–harsh and uninvited–break open our hearts. Reality seldom fits our hopes for it; that’s the hard part. The sweet part is that our heart breaks open with feeling, love, and compassion toward ourselves and others. We discover our interconnection with others and the world.

Among many beloved images for compassion are Kuan Yin in China and Tara in Tibet. Their names mean, “She who hears the cries of the world.” We discover that the cries of the world are also our cries, that we practice to transform our suffering and, in turn, the suffering of those around us. Compassion arises in the littlest moments: when we listen deeply, contact a friend in need, smile at a stranger, connect with the checkout person, or any small action that creates connection and contributes to the well being of other people. In these moments, notice the warmth of heart that arises in you and is surely conveyed to others.

Compassion for oneself–for that is one of our starting points–is a simple but powerful practice that awakens the heart and connects us to others. May we all cultivate a compassionate heart for the sake of all those in our lives and for beings everywhere.

With blessings and love, Olivia

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