Passion for Compassion

Sharon Salzberg

I went to India my junior year in college—back in 1970. The State University of New York at Buffalo offered an independent study program that allowed students to go anywhere in the world. I had taken an Asian philosophy course when I was a sophomore, and I’d heard about meditation and really wanted to learn how to do it. I wasn’t very interested in the belief system—I wanted to know the practical applications and I didn’t see that offered anywhere in Buffalo at that time. So I proposed to the school that I go to India and study meditation, and they approved the plan.

I stayed a little more than a year and then came back to finish school. After I graduated, I returned to India. In 1974, I planned to go back to the United States for what I thought would be a very short trip. I saw my teacher to get her blessing for the journey, and much to my surprise, she told me to teach.

My friend Joseph Goldstein had come back about six months earlier, so when I got to the States again, we ended up responding to invitations to teach together. It slowly grew, and then it kept growing until one day I realized, I’m actually not going back to India to live. My life is here now, and my life is teaching. In 1976, we established the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Although it doesn’t have to be meditation per se, I believe we need something that allows us to step away from all our conditioning and illuminate our lives by asking questions directly of our experience. Otherwise, we don’t really understand what makes us strong and what makes us weak, or what makes us happy and what brings us suffering.

For example: Society teaches us that vengefulness will make us strong, but when we really examine what it’s like to be vengeful, we can see the huge amount of energy we consume in wanting to harm someone else—and how in reality, that only harms us. In the end, being vengeful limits our lives and makes us feel horrible and lonely.

Often we’re taught that having compassion is a sign of being weak because it means you’re not going to stand up to abuse or oppression. Compassion is strength—it means you’re not going to be consumed by hatred. Your actions may then be more effective because they’re not born under that angry fire, which can be very confusing because it can make you feel as though you have no options.

Compassion gives us an opportunity to step back. When we explore the nature of compassion, we recognize that disturbing and disruptive actions come from a place of pain. We can truly wish the other person well—wishing they could be free of that pain. We realize that obsessing over another’s faults holds us back and limits us because it requires so much of our own energy. It’s as if we’ve let them take over our own mind and body. To recapture all that energy, we have to be able to let go of the other person. If they have problems, those problems are their own. If we need to take action to protect ourselves or others, we do that, but it doesn’t have to be from a hateful place.

In Buddhist psychology, anger is likened to a forest fire, which burns of its own support. It can destroy us and burn wild, leading us very far from where we actually want to go. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad. The positive part of anger is its energy—it’s not passive or complacent. Our job is to capture the energy without getting lost in anger’s damaging aspects, such as negative tunnel vision. Think about the last time you were really angry with yourself. You probably didn’t think, You know what, I said that really stupid thing, but I also did five good things the same morning. Those five good things are gone, and all you can think about—all you think you will ever be—is that stupid comment.

In that really narrow, compressed place, you don’t see many options. You can’t see a path forward and so you don’t make good decisions. Maybe you even get overwhelmed and lash out. If you try to push what you’re feeling away, pretending it’s not there, you just get tighter and tighter and tighter until you explode. The whole teaching about mindfulness is that it’s a place in the middle between those two extreme reactions of being lost in a diffcult emotion or trying to make it go away. In this place in the middle, we can simply be with our feelings.

We can actually take an interest in our anger and recognize different emotions within it. Maybe there’s sadness underneath the anger. Maybe there’s fear. Maybe there’s guilt. Maybe there’s grief. We can see that, and we can watch it change because it’s not a permanent feeling. That’s a very spacious way of being with anger. We learn a lot about the anger and about ourselves, and then we can hang out with it long enough to see options for the action we want to take.

In Eastern culture, the core belief about who we are and what we are capable of is very different from our Western view. Easterners believe we have the potential to be free, connect fully, love boundlessly, be wise, and have understanding—and that every single person has that capacity innately, from birth, without having to do anything to deserve it. It may be hidden from view and hard to find, and it may be hard to trust—but it is never destroyed, no matter what you may go through or do as a human being.

In this view, a sense of a separate self still exists, but it’s part of a larger network. Consider this analogy: If you look at a tree, there’s a level of reality where the tree is a singular entity. There is also another, more uncommon, way of looking at the tree that includes sensing the role of the soil, which is nourishing the tree, and recognizing everything that affects the quality of that soil, including the rainfall and everything that affects the quality of the rainfall, and so on. So we can see the tree not so much as a singular entity, but as part of a network of all these elements and all these relationships coming together.

The same is true for us. We’re not nearly as isolated and in control as we tend to think we are. We’re networks in an interdependent world. This way of looking at life is actually more truthful, and because it’s more truthful, it opens us up to a more connected, compassionate way of being.


Author Biography: 

This article was adapted from a June 2016 interview Sharon Salzberg gave to Janet Conner on her Unity Online Radio show, The Soul-Directed Life, airing Thursdays at 1 p.m. (CT) on