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The Seat of Compassion

The word compassion has been used in English since the 14th Century. It comes from the Latin, com- meaning ‘with’ and pati, ‘to suffer, to bear’. It has come to mean not only being present to another person’s pain but also having the desire and willingness to do whatever can be done to alleviate that pain.

As a child, I had an innocent sense of compassion. When I was nine and came back to school after Christmas vacation, the teacher asked what we’d gotten for Christmas. One girl said she hadn’t gotten anything. When I went home that afternoon, I put half of what I’d received in a bag and brought it to school the next day. She didn’t thank me. I remember that. But I also remember accepting that and feeling it was right. I had done what I could. I wanted her not to hurt. At that time, I also had compassion for myself. As I have come to find isn’t uncommon, I felt lonely in my family, felt I didn’t belong. Yet there was something inside me that companioned me through. I was lonely for others, but not lonely for myself.

As I grew older, life became more complicated, and somehow I abandoned myself. I tried to fit in, to be what I thought other people wanted me to be. The result was that I lost that sweet connection with myself and thereby lost compassion for myself. I have come to see that compassion for oneself is the ground upon which compassion for another and eventually for everyone and everything on the planet and, indeed, for the Earth itself, is based.

Sanskrit is the language of both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. The word daya suggests an honorable desire to relieve the suffering and hardship of another and doing whatever is needed to assuage their pain. The concept of daya, however, goes deeper than that. Daya is treating all living beings—not just human beings—as one’s own dear self. Indeed, if we see others as ourselves, the inevitable conclusion is that anyone’s suffering is my own suffering. So everyone—persons of another culture, ethnicity, gender, or political persuasion—that is, every single one, will naturally be seen with compassionate eyes.

Daya is also extolled as the way to happiness. If I see everyone as myself, and if I am sensitive to my own sufferings and seek to do what I can to soften them in a commitment to compassion for myself, it is inevitable that I will be interested in others. Curiosity is a wonderful gift. To listen to the longings of another’s heart, to hear the tale of their sorrows, to offer what we can to each other . . . I can see that this becomes the true path to joy.

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