I in no way pretend to be a practicing Buddhist, or even well-versed in Buddhist principles. But I am very fond of the writings of Thich Naht Hanh, and I also like what Jack Kornfield has to say. I started reading and exploring Buddhism after starting to attend Quaker meetings– many of the people who spoke at the end of silent portion of meeting talked about Buddhist principles and the intersection with Christian and Humanist principles as a guide to action.
One of the states of mind you’re supposed to work toward when meditating is “infinite compassion,” which means, well, that. To have compassion for everyone and everything around you– but the starting point for gaining compassion for others is to first cultivate compassion for yourself. As far as I can tell, though, compassion isn’t an “oh, there, there” kind of sympathy. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that everyone around you can be going through hard times, and that their suffering is worth a moment of pause. Nobody’s perfect, and it is what it is. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t still disagree about how someone acts on their suffering– although as I conceive acting with compassion, I am bound to temper my own reaction with compassion, and then decide what the best way to help reduce that person’s suffering, or type of suffering, would be. Here’s an example– the Virginia Tech shooter. Murder’s not acceptable, ever. Stalking girls who reject you isn’t cool, either. But acknowledging how profoundly lonely and confused the shooter was, and by all accounts, for a really long time before he acted so fatally, puts the problem in larger perspective. It’s not enough to deplore the shooter’s actions, and to sympathize with the family. And it’s not sufficient to increase gun control laws. Looking at the type of suffering that created the problem, you’ve got to look at what might have headed things off at the pass– forced medication/institutionalization? more forceful intervention with the shooter’s family, even though he was “of age” when his troubles came to light at university? There will always be a lot of coulda/shoulda/wouldas, but without trying to find a way to prevent anyone else from being so miserable that they shoot up an entire campus, you’re not exhibiting infinite compassion, much less getting to the root of a problem bound to cause more suffering.
That’s the easy part, though. The hard part is the first step– having compassion for yourself. Setting aside feelings of shame, anger, rage, avoiding patterns of denial and self-doubt, to really look at who you’ve been, and who you are, and accepting it without condemning yourself for things you can’t now change is SCARY. For me, I have deep self-esteem issues, worries about being smart enough, clever enough, expressive enough, and they feed my depressions and screw ups. I had to accept my screw-ups, rather than suppress thoughts about them after that first blush of humiliation, in order to say to myself, “boy, I was really miserable, and I shouldn’t have to be that miserable again.” Only then could I start looking at what I needed to change about my habits of thought so that I don’t sabotage myself again. Forgiving myself for being fallible, and allowing myself to continue to be human, so that I can concentrate on “just” catching myself a little earlier into a mistake, rather than aiming for perfection, is something I struggle with every day. But after doing that, accepting other people is a piece of cake.