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I’ve been living with a nagging question for a long time: What does it mean to live a compassionate life? I have sat with this question for many years, sometimes grimly and hard. Although I no longer have an idealized definition of the word – compassion being somehow synonymous to living a selfless, saintly life - what I do have are uncertainties about my ability to understand compassion and its place in my daily life. What does compassion look like and feel like? And can I be this way naturally? Am I this way naturally? In the midst of such overwhelming suffering in this world what exactly are my responsibilities to those in need?

Recently, I got around to reading the dozen or so emails that I have collected over the past weeks concerning Darfur. Like everyone I get a lot of spam emails and I delete these with ease. Somehow I got on the list and while I find these emails political and disturbing I do not delete them. I can’t. Getting an email message about genocide in Africa is a remarkable thing. It is very real and it’s happening right now, right this minute. This organization is asking for my help. I am confronted with the stories of displacement and loss half a world away in what seems to be an impossible, incomprehensible situation.

Political conflicts resulting in the suffering of vast numbers of people seem continuous and beyond my reach as an individual. And to grasp our complex, 21st century world and the ease and methods by which the information finds me is just mind-boggling. I read about the conflicts and listen to the witnesses on the ground to try and gain some insight and understanding. Inevitably there is an “expert” who knows all the right people to blame and has all the right answers and if we only did “this” then the fighting and suffering would stop. I am very skeptical when it comes to people who seem to have all the answers. The world is not black and white and there is never just one answer. What made the most sense to me was one eyewitness description of the ongoing crises in central Africa reported by the New York Times:

“People here refer only elliptically to the perpetual crises that have enveloped their nation. Its troubles are referred to as “les événements,” or the events. It is a passive phrase that carries the inevitability and randomness of a tornado or an earthquake – an unpredictable, destructive happening that has no author and for which no one really can be blamed.”

A reaction such as this is perfectly sane to me. No questions, no answers, no one to blame; only the undeniable reality of the events of life in this world.

I recently watched a film for the third or fourth time called “In This World” directed by Michael Winterbottom. It’s an amazing story and harrowing film about the journey of two Afghan teenagers escaping from a Pakistani refugee camp trying to make their way to family and freedom in London. They travel by every form of transportation – foot, truck and shipping container over land and sea to reach their destination. It speaks to the efforts individuals will make to create a better life, a life that exists perhaps only in their imaginations, and if not better then just different from the one they experience in their own country. Along the way they suffer the extreme effects of displacement and loss the likes of which few of us have ever experienced.

What initially attracted me to this film, in addition to the director whom I like very much, was the title, “In This World.” It’s a perfectly beautiful, simple title, and very complex and specific in its meaning, all encompassing and very personal all at the same time.

How do we live a compassionate life? Compassion means “together, to suffer.” How do we do that in this world?

In our media dominated world we are bombarded and stretched by a relentless barrage of images. We are exposed to and connected to information about each other like never before, and very quickly. What we couldn’t bear to walk away from if directly in front of us is paraded over and over again on our screens and on some level it has become very difficult to process what is distant and what is immediate. That distinction has been blurred and so has our sense of responsibility along with it. This is the feeling inside me when I read my Darfur emails. Is this far away – or is personal? I have found that when faced with the stories of the life and death of others, mouse clicking and page turning are very easy. I wonder if the ease by which we are exposed to the suffering of others, we actually become immune to the “togetherness” that real compassion evokes.

The French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil said:

“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” –Simone Weil

Compassion is an essential part of Zen Buddhist teaching and practice. Practice, basically, is made-up of sitting on our cushions and paying attention. (It’s interesting to note that Simone Weil regarded “attention” as synonymous with prayer.) As part of the Four Noble Truths, “Life is suffering” is fundamental to our tradition. The meaning of suffering that is implied here is that of attachment; the affliction we experience when we attach to ideas of what we think we are, how we think we should act, how we think others should behave and how our world should be. We stick to our ideas, our anger, our fears, our insecurities and habitual perceptions of the world like glue. And it is our unique combination of attachments that forms our view of the world and how we fit into it.

Stephen Batchelor writes eloquently about the nature of compassion in his book “Buddhism Without Beliefs.” He speaks of “a world where all living things are united by their yearning to survive and be unharmed,” and to “recognize the anguish of others not as theirs but as ours,” with no separation. Our habitual sense of separation creates the “us” and “them” mentality, which is so easy to regard as normal. When taking the genocide in Darfur as just one example, how do we recognize their anguish, displacement and terror as our own? How do we relate to that? Is it possible to enter into the experience of those displaced and terrorized people and fully disappear into their world? Compassion and empathy knows no boundaries; it is “based on the fundamental belief, or the trust, that understanding is possible.”

One of the things that make understanding possible is the notion that “we are all living in the midst of the same life.” Empathy is our ability to fully enter into the world of the other person and allow that world to be all there is, seeing everything through their eyes, just as it is. Indeed, it is our responsibility to reach out and acknowledge those needing our attention, often to individuals with whom we are the least comfortable. We must always question the boundaries we arbitrarily set when we say, “That’s not me,” or “I can’t do that,” and walk away, turn the page or click the mouse. To do this takes endless attention and practice and the willingness to identify with everyone everywhere no matter what their story.

When I read my Africa related emails or read about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan my heart sinks and my mind goes numb; there is so much suffering. The mind-numbing aspect to this is the most unsettling reaction. So I make that my starting point to enter into and identify with those who are afflicted by war. I sit with my own feelings of sadness, of despair, hopelessness and loss – just the feeling of it, not the content. I give full attention to my own experience, allowing compassion to begin with me. Somehow acknowledging our own humanity and imperfection brings us closer to those around us and to our sense of responsibility. Our sense of responsibility changes as a result. It’s not a burden it’s an uninhibited response.

Zazen is a practice all about ourselves and is a practice that we do together and with everyone in the world past and present. After long years of practice, ideas about who we are begin fade away and what is left is the sense that we as individuals are not discrete and separate from the world but are part of an interactive process that shapes the world. But the world is a very big place, how do I begin to make a difference? Let’s practice well.