Compassion and Responsibility

Some people say we should not intervene with other’s lives. What we perceive as their pain should not manipulate events or people across the world. If they live with war, that’s their karma. If this is so, what about compassion? What is our role? What should we do about war or famine across the world, if anything? Are we responsible for resolving it?

Aaron: There are two different issues here, the nurturing of compassion, and responsibility with non-attachment. Let us take them one at a time. You have said “What we perceive as their pain should not manipulate events or people across the world.” My friend, there is NO “my pain” or “your pain.” Your lives are totally interwoven with each other. Look at a room in which someone smokes. Others must inhale this second hand smoke. Do you think second hand pain is any less potent?

They could order food from So instead of picking up dinner at the local diner or fast food restaurant on the way home, they would bring back some great food from your club’s restaurant.

Across the world are people living with war, famine, pestilence. You sit safe in your own corner of the world and wonder, if it’s their karma that’s led to this pain, why do you need to get involved. This is their suffering, not mine, you may think. There are a number of related issues to explore as we answer this question. Let us look at one at a time.

First, “their pain.” What leads us to this illusory space of separation? I am NOT condemning you for that thought. Thoughts are neither bad nor good; they simply are. But it would seem useful to explore how this thought grows, because the sense of separation does dictate your choices.

Separation grows out of fear, fear that you may be hurt, or that your needs won’t be met. You must first understand that there is nothing “bad” about such fear. It arises because of conditions, among those being the perceived threat and a sense of solidified self. The threat may be real. Perhaps someone does wish to harm you or to take something from you. Seeing this, fear arises. The fear is uncomfortable. It leads you to want to retaliate against the catalyst for the fear. You move into anger, into grasping. When there are such mind states present, it feels like “me” against “them.” Yes, of course you feel separation.

When you bring awareness to the way that sense of separation arises, you begin to find more space. You notice there is a point of decision when the heart closes and the illusion of separation becomes solid. You begin to notice not just the anger or grasping but the fear behind it.

Here is an important moment. When you see that fear and before the movement to anger, if you are very aware you may notice the heart closing, the armor pulled across to shield you from pain. To notice takes courage and a willingness to move away from the seeming safety of past patterns. At that moment, if you can allow even a small bit of loving acceptance for yourself, for this being who feels fear, into your heart, if you can notice any judgment of “I shouldn’t feel afraid,” or “I shouldn’t feel anger,” then you open a wonderful door.

As you allow in a bit of compassion for yourself and acceptance for this being in pain, you allow the possibility of compassion for the catalyst to that pain, be it an individual or a situation. You begin the formation of a new pattern where the arising of fear does not need to lead to anger or grasping but can be a reminder for compassion.

When the heart stays open, even if only a crack, there is no need to flee into the illusion of separation. To allow your connection with all that is means to remove the armor so carefully girded on for protection and allow yourself to be vulnerable. From a place of connection the heart is open, the undefended softness of the heart reaching out to the world.

Of course you may not be able to maintain that state. If fear gets stronger, at some point the heart may close, the shield be drawn back into place. Can you accept even that movement with compassion for yourself? When you do so, you leave space for the heart to reopen. You see separation as illusion needed for protection even as you move into it. Then we’re back again to fear as a reminder for compassion.

Coming back to your question, when you are clear of this illusion of separation you know there is no such thing as “their pain.” You see that label for what it is, the heart’s desire to protect itself against pain that seems likely to overwhelm.

Something wonderful may happen here. As you see the whole movement with clarity and come back to non-separation, as the heart opens, you find a new space you never knew was there. Within this heart we all share, the infinite heart of mercy, is space for all pain. When you open your own heart, you open to the flow of that limitless space and energy. You may still have an occasional fear of being overwhelmed, but deep inside you develop the trust that it will not happen.

Your willingness to allow yourself to be vulnerable makes you far more invulnerable than all the shielding in the world. Can you see that? You can pile on one layer of armor after another and pain will still creep through and threaten to overwhelm.

Look at the sores developing under the armor. How can there be healing? When you allow the pain to move through, when you acknowledge that pain is inescapable and you need not hide from it, that acceptance finally allows true compassion to emerge. Not “my pain” or “your pain” but the pain we all share, the pain of the universe and all that dwells therein.

When you open to that, you also open to the light, the joy and beauty of the universe and all within it. They come together, pain and joy. You cannot close your heart to pain and remain open to joy.

Let’s go on to karma. There are those who believe that people move into the situations that they’ve created for themselves, in this or a past life, and of course there is some truth to that concept. Carried to an extreme example, there are those in some cultures and religions who, if a child should fall off a boat into the sea, will not reach out to save that child, but say it is that child’s karma to drown. This is a TOTAL misunderstanding.

Perhaps it is that child’s karma to fall into the sea, and your karma to be present and able to reach out and save him. You can NEVER allow another being to suffer without doing all that you can to alleviate that suffering. If you see another being suffering, and turn your back on that, that IS your responsibility. Always. And, yet, it must be done without attachment. This is subtle, and it’s hard.

Some of you work with people who are physically or emotionally impaired, who have serious problems of one sort or another. You have learned that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you can’t help that person to make a change in their physical or mental condition. Does that mean that your effort is meaningless? Of course not. The meaning is beyond the physical plane.

I see all of you as light. Just that: light. Some of you give out a very brilliant light, and some of you have quieter light. You are all evolving toward perfect purity of light. Each act of helping another being, each act of love, of forgiveness, of compassion enhances your own light, and adds to the light of the universe. Part of that light is felt as energy, a positive or a negative energy that can be felt and experienced by all beings.

Each of you have felt this at some time, when you’ve been with somebody that was very negative and you really FELT that negativity. It made you draw back. When you’ve been with somebody that’s very loving, you relax into that love. You feel yourself embraced by it. It’s a very wonderful feeling. So perhaps you’re not physically able to help a person, and yet, the love that comes from you in the sense of caring does add light to that person, to that person’s experience, and to the whole universe.

It is not always given to you to see the direct results of your actions. Remember, among other lessons, you are here to learn faith. Can you serve, and trust that as you allow yourself to be a channel for love, this love does touch where it is needed?

You may be working with a person who’s suffering terribly, and you cannot alleviate that physical or mental suffering. If you become attached to doing that, saying “I MUST make them better,” you create more suffering. Not only more suffering, but do you see the ego in that “I must …”? Yes, perhaps as a physician or mental health counselor, you have the ability to direct them into healing, or physically with your hands to aid that healing. But ultimately, you cannot learn for another person.

Some of you have seen a person with a disease that is cured develop some other related illness, if there has been no emotional learning, no spiritual learning about that disease. The mind and body are related, and can’t be separated. So you learn to work with non-attachment.

This does not mean less caring and compassion, but a full acceptance that you cannot do it FOR another person. You bring your skills to bear but they must allow the healing to enter. You still must do the best that you can do, just because that’s what you must do. Otherwise, you can’t live with yourself. This is what you must do. The results are less important than the love that is given. And, often, that love that is given is enough to lead them to the healing they seek.

Now, let’s take that to a world situation. A war. This is both individual and a group karma. There are beings who have chosen to incarnate into a potentially violent society because they have something to learn there. At some time in your many lives, all of you have lived amidst such violence. Several of you are saying “What about those from this society who are sent to a violent society?” At some level they have agreed to that, they also have something to learn by being part of that situation. Indeed, your whole world is now a potentially violent society, but in some places the flammable material has been ignited, in others the flint has not yet touched off the conflagration. Perhaps it need not.

Those of you who are not an immediate part of that situation must learn to approach it in the same way as that being working with one who is very ill. War is an illness. Perhaps you can help to heal the illness, and perhaps not. But you cannot turn your back on it. In what ways can you help? In what ways can more love be given? In what ways can you add to understanding in the world?

Perhaps the best way that you can help is to find peace in your own heart. There can be no peace in the world while each of you is individually at war. So that is where we start. That doesn’t mean that one must just sit and meditate or pray and ignore the rest of the world. There’s a balance to be found. You do have 24 hours in a day; that’s enough time to go inward and to move outward. The balance will change for each of you from day to day.

Work simultaneously on many levels. Work on yourself to soften the shielding, open the doors of compassion, create that inner peace. Work politically or through social channels, or whatever ways feel appropriate to you, to touch the world. There is no separation. The world is within you and you within the world.

Working with the homeless in your own city may not seem immediately to relate to the situation in the middle east. But think how war comes about in the first place; what are the real issues in a war? You don’t need to go half way around the world to find people who are starving or have a great need. This giving does spread out. Very often, those who receive have need of that in order to learn how to give of themselves. So your giving may multiply, moving in many directions. You have no idea where it will end up.

Let me return to this war situation. I have said very strongly that it is unskillful to turn your backs on any being that is suffering, saying “It’s their karma, they created the situation.” To turn your back and say “Well, I didn’t create war for myself, and I won’t be involved in it” is no different.

You are not your brother’s keeper, you are your brother. Pain felt in any part of the world is felt in your own heart, and you can’t escape that. Yes, you can escape it by hiding your head in sand like an ostrich, but eventually you have to face the reality that there is no “my pain” or “your pain,” just pain.

You must practice to learn to respond lovingly to that pain, both here, and on the other side of the world. But with non-attachment, accepting that personally you could not keep this young man who has had his legs blown off from that horror, accepting that it is an opportunity for him to learn something. But at the same time, knowing that if you COULD have prevented that from happening, then it would be necessary for you to do so. Because, like that child that almost drowned, perhaps YOU were the one that was meant to reach out and aid him. Perhaps you still are.

As you do the inner work that enables you to move beyond separation you will begin to notice that skillful action does NOT arise from a space of “What SHOULD I do?” but from an open heart prompted by deep inner wisdom and free of fear. The heart knows how to act. When there is no distortion of self to create confusion, the heart acts without measurement. Choice grows from a place of clarity and love. When fear arises, you may greet it without judgment, invite it into the heart and explore it. In this way, will find increasing capacity for skillful, compassionate and wise action. On other post, checkout When your air conditioning installation goes badly.