Widening the Circle of Compassion I

Radical Acceptance:  Enhancing your Life with the Heart of the Buddha (pp 221-245)

Practicing Self-Compassion

In the previous talk, we noted a simple practice when we want and need to give ourselves self-compassion.

  1. Mindfulness:  We are mindful that we are experiencing difficulties.
  2. Investigation:  We investigate through mindfulness the thoughts and bodily sensations that have arisen.
  3. Loving Kindness:  We respond with kindness and understanding for ourselves rather than being harshly self-critical.  We use a loving kindness(metta) practice such as: May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am.
  4. Connectedness:  We realize that what we are going through is commonly experienced by all human beings and that everyone goes through difficult times.

Widening Our Circle:  Love

Compassion means to be with, feel with, suffer with.    The key word is “with.”  In order to be with ourselves or others, we need to be mindful, paying attention moment to moment to what is. When we do that, we “let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.”  P. 222

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj defined love as the refusal to separate, to make distinctions.  We can’t be with others wholly if we let conditions such as anger and hate get in our way.  When we pay attention to others, we recognize their vulnerability and suffering. We realize that they want peace and happiness just as we do.

The Trance of the Unreal “Other”

When we are in a trance such as the previously noted trances of unworthiness, desire, and fear, we are totally absorbed in our own world. We shut others out and whatever perception we have of them is unreal.  “Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real (p. 229).  We withhold our kindness.

Another pitfall of the unreal is when we compare ourselves to unreal groups, we lose sight of their suffering.  “We also compare the groups we belong to—Americans, Russians, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Muslims, and so on—to other groups.  That’s why we tend to wear the mantle of our group affiliations on our sleeves (or our car bumpers).  Our sense of self is imbued with social labels that define us and make us feel safe and accepted within clearly defined boundaries.  Although a sense of belongingness can be found within these group identities, it is still limited.  As long as we’re identifying with subsets of people rather than the entire human race, we’re creating divisions that separate us from our fellows….Sadly these divisions often lead to prejudice and hatred…..Group identity lies at the root of most violent conflicts—whether it’s a scuffle between two local high school football teams or a full-scale international war.”  Neff, Self Compassion, p. 67-68)

The Practice of Compassion

Joseph Goldstein states that “Compassion arises out of our willingness to come close to suffering.”  The first step is to develop empathy.  “Empathy happens when we take a moment to stop and feel what is really going on with another person before we rush on with our own lives.  This is another application of the sacred pause.  “When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. The “tender gravity of kindness” naturally awakens as we pay attention to others. (pp. 233-234).

“What do they really need?”

When in conflict and having a difficult conversation with someone else, it is helpful to be mindful (pay attention) to the other person’s needs.  Asking the question, “What do they really need?” leads to “What can I do to help?”.  Rather than solely focusing on winning the argument, pause and try to see through the other person’s eyes.  This is empathy.  What is their position?  Why are they acting this way?

“Imagine you’re stuck in traffic on the way to work, and a homeless man tries to get you to pay him a buck for washing your car windows. He’s so pushy! you think to yourself. He’ll make me miss the light and be late. He probably just wants the money for booze or drugs anyway. Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll just leave me alone. But he doesn’t ignore you, and you sit there hating him while he washes your window, feeling guilty if you don’t toss him some money, resentful if you do.

Then one day, you’re struck as if by lightning. There you are in the same commuter traffic, at the same light, at the same time, and there’s the homeless man, with his bucket and squeegee as usual. Yet for some unknown reason, today you see him differently. You see him as a person rather than just a mere annoyance. You notice his suffering. How does he survive? Most people just shoo him away. He’s out here in the traffic and fumes all day and certainly isn’t earning much. At least he’s trying to offer something in return for the cash. It must be really tough to have people be so irritated with you all the time. I wonder what his story is? How he ended up on the streets? The moment you see the man as an actual human being who is suffering, your heart connects with him. Instead of ignoring him, you find-to your amazement-that you’re taking a moment.to think about how difficult his life is.  You are moved by his pain and feel the urge to help him in some way. Importantly, if what you feel is true compassion rather than mere pity, you say to yourself, There but for the grace of God go I. If T d been born in different circumstances, or maybe had just been unlucky, I might also be struggling to survive like that. We’re all vulnerable.

Of course, that might be the moment when you harden your heart completely–your own fear of ending up on the street causing you to dehumanize this horrid heap of rags and beard. Many people do. But it doesn’t make them happy; it doesn’t help them deal with the stresses of their work, their spouse, or their child when they get home. It doesn’t help them face their own fears. If anything, this hardening of the heart, which involves feeling better than the homeless man, just makes the whole thing that little bit worse.

But let’s say you don’t close up. Let’s say you really do experience compassion for the homeless man’s misfortune. How does it feel? Actually, it feels pretty good. It’s wonderful when your heart opens–you immediately feel more connected, alive, present.

Now, let’s say the man wasn’t trying to wash windows in return for some cash. Maybe he was just begging for money to buy alcohol or drugs–should you still feel compassion for him? Yes. You don’t have to invite him home. You don’t even have to give him a buck. You may decide to give him a kind smile or a sandwich rather than money if you feel that’s the more responsible thing to do. But yes he is still worthy of compassion–all of us are. Compassion is not only relevant to those who are blameless victims, but also to those whose suffering stems from failures, personal weakness, or bad decisions. You know, the kind you and I make every day.

Compassion, then, involves the recognition and dear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help–to ameliorate suffering–demerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is”  Neff, Self Compassion, pp 9-10

How Can I Be More Kind?

If we ask ourselves when meeting anyone—friend or stranger—“How can I be more kind?” inevitably we will recognize that every being needs to be listened to, loved and understood. While we might become aware of this first with those in our immediate circle, it is possible to pay attention and care for all living beings. The more fully we offer our attention, the more deeply we realize that what matters most in life is being kind. As we open to the vulnerability of others, the veil of separation falls away, and our natural response is to reach out a helping hand. (pp. 239-240).

Being more kind is beautifully expressed by Beth Neilson Chapman in How We Love:

Life has taught me this

Every day is new

And if anything is true

All that matters

When we’re through

Is how we love


Faced with what we lack

Some things fall apart

But from the ashes new dreams start

All that matters to the heart

Is how we love


How we love

How we love

From the smallest act of kindness

In a word, a smile, a touch


In spite of our mistakes

Chances come again


If we lose or if we win

All that matters in the end

Is how we love


How we love

How we love

I will not forget your kindness

When I needed it so much


Sometimes we forget

Trying to be so strong

In this world of right and wrong

All that matters when we’re gone


All that mattered all along

All we have that carries on

Is how we love


  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Continue to practice holding yourself with compassion using the four steps of mindfulness, investigation, loving kindness (metta for self) and connectedness.  How does this feel for you?
  • Widen your circle of compassion.  Practice being kind in situations where you would not normally do so.  Be mindful of your love and observe in a non-judgmental manner the separations and distinctions that may arise.


  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice with concentration and mindfulness.

Next: Widening the Circle of Compassion II Previous: Awakening Compassion in Ourselves