The removal of the wish to harm as a possibility from the mind is both
the ethical function and the ethical fruit of compassionate action.
I heard Jon Kabat-Zinn say recently that when reporters ask him for one word to explain mindfulness, he always used to say “awareness,” but now he says “relationality.” Mindfulness describes a way of relating to others––whether they be living beings, places, objects, situations, or the earth. Compassion also speaks of an attitude in our relating to others, and both mindfulness and compassion have the quality of carefulness that we have been exploring over these past months––apamada in the Pali language.
A recent news story combines these two mental attitudes in a very compelling way. Even as I was feeling gladness and a kind of awe at the skillful landing of the crippled Southwest Airlines passenger plane by pilot Tammie Jo Shults, I thought of this relationship between mindfulness and compassion. According to the reports, after a blown engine threw shrapnel into one of the jet’s windows, Shults quickly brought the plane to safety, maintaining her calm even after learning that a woman had been partly pulled out of the damaged window.
Shults’s rigorous training, her refined attentiveness, well-practiced technical skills, and remarkable abilities in mindful awareness and concentration all conditioned her actions; and those actions saved the lives of 148 people. Though in the first reading of the gripping events her compassion may seem less apparent than the sharpness of her mind, her feat was definitely a compassionate act. It diminished the possible––highly probable––harm that could have come to that airplane full of people. Clearly, the motivation driving her quick, calm and highly skilled actions was to prevent such harm from occurring. It seems instinctual––she just did it––and, at the same time, it was intentional. “We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit,” Shults calmly told air traffic controllers.
Tammie Jo Shults saved herself from harm too, and while she was flying the plane, the passengers in the cabin were also engaged in wise and compassionate acts. Several of them pulled the woman who was being sucked out through the open hole back into the plane. Others cared for those who were injured. All of them managed together to regulate their nervous systems well enough to stay relatively calm. The pilot could not have done it without their help. The airship traveling in boundless, empty space provides a wonderful simile for the situation we all share. Whether republican or democrat, black or white, male or female, human, other animal, plant, or planet, we are in this together.
Those who are contentious
have forgotten that we all die;
for the wise, who reflect on this fact,
there are no quarrels.
(Dhammapada, v.6 — V. Munindo)
Our usual, human, default way of relating to the world and to ourselves entails a filter or a mask formed by a sense of “I,” “me,” or “mine.” We tend to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think in ways colored by a constant assessing and measuring in regard to our self: How does this reflect on me? In Buddhist teaching this is referred to as “conceit”; it is the comparing mind that has me as better than, worse than, or equal to everyone else. We are steadily and consistently creating a defended “self,” one with strong preferences and many opinions about the way things should be. This is not our fault, nor does it make us bad people. It does, however, lead to a certain degree of discontent, fear, desire and grief. It can lead to harm. When instead we “bring mindfulness to the front of the mind,” we are greeting the world differently––with sincere interest and openness and without hostility or ill will or “conceit.” This changes the way we relate to ourselves as well as to others. It changes us, and it changes the world we experience. It makes compassion possible, and compassion brings to fruition the transformation of relationality.
Every moment we are in an attitude of metta, compassion, sympathetic joy, or equanimity will leave its impact not only on others, but also on our own mental household. – Venerable Analayo
We practice mindfulness meditation to strengthen our ability to establish mindful relationships with people and events in our daily life, and we can practice compassion meditation to evoke and cultivate the natural, human urge to prevent harm from occurring. Through such meditation practices, we retrain the mind and we nurture our confidence in our ability to offer help. The word karuna is the word in the Pali language (the language of the early Buddhist teachings) used for compassion as a meditative practice, while anukampa more often expresses compassion in action. In both cases, the direct experience of caring in this way transforms our way of being in the world and enhances our mindfulness, which in turn helps us remember how good it feels to be of service.
In Buddhist teachings, compassion is not the same as empathy; it does not entail “feeling the pain of the other as one’s own.” Empathy may sometimes help ready the heart for action, but it is not necessary. What is needed is enough awareness and “clear comprehension” in the moment to know that harm or the possibility of harm is present. With this understanding established, there is the arising of a wish or an urge to alleviate the suffering of another or of oneself; and there is a confidence that something can be done to move the situation towards a positive outcome.
Compassion is an energetic state––more attuned to joy than to sadness. It understands change. It is sustained by wise, persistent effort. It was present in the Southwest Airlines plane flying over Pennsylvania on that afternoon on just one engine.
When the deliverance of the mind* through compassion is developed in this way, no limiting action remains there [in the mind]; none persists there.
(Subha-Sutta MN 99)
This is the release from harming,
namely the deliverance of the heart by compassion.
(Sangiti Sutta, DN 33)
* The Pali language word used in both these excerpts is citta, which refers to the embodied heart-mind. Different people translate it as “heart” or “mind.”