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  • Kate

Towards Compassionate Understanding

"It's easy to judge. It's more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods. Through judging, we separate. Through understanding, we grow."

Today, I find myself contemplating blame vs. compassion. When we hear the word "compassion", the first thoughts are often of those we view as less fortunate than us. I would argue that often this is not centered in compassion, but in pity, and often a sense of judgment and blame. As humans, we are so quick to place blame. If things don't go the way we thought it should (for ourselves or for others), we start to blame. We look to others for putting up barriers - or we blame ourselves for not working hard enough or for making a "bad" decision. I think this is equally true when we view those more fortunate than ourselves - but don't they deserve compassion just as much as anyone else?

I've seen true compassion described as the ability to be sympathetic, empathetic, as well as having the desire to alleviate another's pain and suffering. But the reflex to blame gets in the way, creating a barrier between us. As Pema Chodron notes, "Blaming is a way to protect our hearts, to try to protect what is soft and open and tender in ourselves. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground." Logically, I know that most people are acting in a way they believe is best for themselves, their families, our world. The fact that they approach life in a different way from me, doesn't give me the right to put us into categories of "right" and "wrong" - that is just another way of placing blame and putting up barriers. What if, before raising that barrier, I try to relate to their perspective? What if I actually asked them questions, in an effort to reach a compassionate understanding?

It is a practice to seek compassionate understanding. In Widening the Circle of Compassion, Pema Chödrön said " awaken compassion and in trying to help others, we might come to realize that compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others. Compassionate action is a practice, one of the most advanced. There’s nothing more advanced than relating with others. There’s nothing more advanced than communication — compassionate communication." I wish I could flip a switch that would lead me to seek understanding before blame. But it takes work. It takes a willingness to be open to others' pain, as well as our own. I can start by recognizing my own tendency to make myself "right" or "wrong." As I catch myself setting blame, I can practice looking inward to what makes me uncomfortable. And the more I practice recognizing, the more my old blaming habits will begin to soften, slowly opening the door to true compassionate understanding.

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