Mark Nepo's Weekly Reflection: Two Forms of Compassion


What is compassion but drifting in the immensity of life with an open heart? We bump into and pass by so many torn and budding lives along the way. Some are like us, many are not—on the surface, but under it all, we remain the same ounce of spirit carried in skin and bone. One of our jobs, then, is to learn how to relate to the cascade of others that rise and fall around us. The practice of compassion is how we learn that we are each other. And the practice of expression is how the heart knows itself.

Early on in life, there is an initiation into the practice of compassion through the commonality of our experience with others. If I have suffered and healed from a broken heart, then when I witness your heart breaking, I can easily identify with what you’re going through. If you’ve lost your job and come into my life when I’m laid off, we can easily meet in our common struggle through adversity. If I’ve felt betrayed by a friend or loved one and I’m with you when you are betrayed, we can quickly form a bond that will help each other through. This sort of compassion, based on our common experience, is an ongoing apprenticeship that never ends.

But over the years, as I’ve thinned what builds between my heart and the world, I’ve come to see that this form of compassion, dear and necessary as it is, leads to a maturing of compassion. Once our heart is opened, the practice of identifying with others leads us to the noble act of feeling compassion for those that we have no common experience with. So when I meet a man who served as a medic in Iraq, whose experience I can’t fathom, I still commit to feeling what he went through and to keeping honest company with him. The maturing of our compassion opens a wild and tender field of relationship in which we hold nothing back by honoring the experience of others, no matter how different from our own. Not only does this sort of compassion extend our circle of healing, but it knits the larger fabric of humanity.

Eventually, we’re called to inhabit a twin practice of compassion: maintaining our care for those who have something in common with us, and extending our care to those whose experience is completely foreign to us.

. . .

A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of an experience of compassion that was triggered by having something in common with someone who was suffering. Then, tell the story of an experience of compassion that was triggered by having nothing in common with someone who was suffering. Describe the difference.

This excerpt is from my book, Drinking from the River of Light (Sounds True).

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