Embodying Compassion: Loving Yourself, Loving Your World

By Catherine Masters


The world today is crying out for compassion. Suffering seems ubiquitous, and more and more there seems to be an understanding that the remedy for this aching world is an increase in love and support for one another, and all beings. However, there is often a confusion gap between knowing that the world needs compassion, and actually feeling confident in embodying that compassion in one’s self.

I have been living, studying and meditating in Zen temples for the past 2.5 years, and Zen Buddhism, it may be unsurprising to learn, has a lot to say about compassion. One of the predominant figures in Zen is Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She is depicted in many ways: sometimes sitting entirely entranced in repose and bliss; sometimes with one leg placed on the ground, ready to spring into action; sometimes she has a thousand arms, each one aiding a suffering being in some way.

She is a figure that depicts the multi-faceted truths about compassion; namely, that it is something to be felt and understood, and also, that it is something to be acted upon. The active element of compassion in what differentiates it from empathy or sympathy – compassion is not only something one feels, but also it is something one embodies and enacts.

And the best way to come to be able to fully love and care for others, is to love and care for yourself.

The first noble truth in Buddhism – the truth that more or less the entire religion and practice is based on – is that Life is Suffering. Everybody suffers. The suffering might look and even feel differently in different bodies, hearts, and minds, but everyone has something to distract them from peace.

In order to fully give space for others in their moments (or years, or lifetimes) of suffering is to give space to yourself, in your own way. And this means coming to really know and accept yourself. Some very effective ways to know yourself and your pain are prayer, meditation, and therapy.

Wonderful insight can also come through art, music, exercise or gardening — to name a few. All you really need to make space for yourself is to just go ahead and make it – and in that space, watch and listen, observe your thoughts, examine your feelings and emotions, and settle into the sensations of your body.

After some time (it’s different for everyone), you’ll be able to meet the tensions that arise (they will arise – life is suffering, don’t forget). But in the acceptance of your tensions, you begin to notice the causes and conditions that led to such aches (heart or body). Nobody knows your life as well as you do – you are the most consistent companion you’ll ever have.

The deep sufferings, those that cause the most sorrow, usually come from childhood. Can you meet your child self and give her the love that she needs to heal – neglecting a wound of any kind often does no good. In this way, you are participating in the acceptance of the second noble truth – All Suffering Has a Cause.

In order to come to know the first and second noble truths (that there is suffering, and a cause to the suffering) requires courage. I love the word “courage” because the root of it is “cour” or “from the heart”. Courage is a form of bravery that comes from love.

In Mahayana Buddhism (Zen is a Mahayanamist tradition), one practices so as to be a Bodhisattva, like Kuan Yin. The meaning of “Bodhisattva” translates to “awakened being” – and there is an understanding in Mahayana that that awakening is the reality that we are all entirely and fully interconnected. Therefore, the Bodhisattvas make a vow to liberate all beings – that they will not “escape” the cycle of suffering, the cycle of birth and rebirth (called “samsara”) until all beings can; in fact, they realize they can’t be liberated until everybody else is too.

Inherent in this vow is an understanding of the last two noble truths, numbers 3 and 4, that There is an End to Suffering, and that the End to Suffering is Accomplished Through Living an Ethical Life. In Buddhism, the path of the ethical life is called the Eight Fold Path, but there are many paths across traditions that move towards the same goal. Living one’s life within an ethical framework aids in ensuring that you are not adding to the harm and pain in the world – and can instead add the love that is needed.

The vow to not escape the suffering of the world, but to stay and aid in the liberation of others, has compassion at its core, as its beating heart.  Etymologically, “compassion” means “to suffer with/together” (“com” = together; “passion” = suffering). It is the act that arises from knowing your own suffering and giving it love, so that you can recognize the suffering in others (and give it love). It is the active and engaged recognition that we are all suffering creatures calling out for compassion.

Most of us just want our suffering to be seen, and known, and heard, and understood. If you can offer that to yourself, then you can offer it to others. In another light, it is to live by Jesus’ golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

When you are not your best self – when you’re angry, upset, impatient, short-tempered, arrogant, deceitful, ashamed – it is almost inevitably a reaction coming from pain of some kind. When you are in such states, is it more helpful for people to react to you or to respond to you?  A reaction is born from habitual ways of protecting one’s self and one’s wounds. A response is born from steadiness, space, kindness and love. It is born through the acknowledgement and acceptance of your suffering so that you can see the suffering in others.

So in order to be compassionate, one must also have understanding. For example, if there’s somebody in your life who is regularly short-tempered, and it is bothersome to you (quite understandably), it is helpful to remember yourself when you’re short-tempered, and remember why that state came about. Were you tired or hungry? Were you battling an illness or psychological unrest? Were you grieving? Were your parent’s short-tempered and you embodied that behavior as a result of the paradigm in which you were raised? Is it all due to the big, complicated messiness of being alive, and thus of being a suffering being?

Can it be the same for this person who is bothering you? How would you have wanted to be treated, and met, and understood; given the suffering that lead to the suffering? Can you treat this person in the same way?

Undoubtedly, there are people and circumstances with which it is easier to practice compassion. For instance, having patience and love with the emotionally turbulent confusion of a partner, say, is easier than having patience and love with an emotionally turbulent and confused genocidal dictator.

So, we start where we can. Any amount of love and patience added to the world is a good thing. For some people (myself included) it’s easiest to actually feel compassion towards non-human beings. That’s fine – start there.

Start wherever you can.  All I know is that once I was able to jump over too many hurdles and through too many hoops that were required for me to come and love myself, I began to feel like I could love anybody. In recognizing my own beauty, I could recognize the rich and interesting and storied beauty in every person. I couldn’t help but find them all beautiful.

That isn’t to say that the feeling is always immediate – it isn’t. But, I have faith that once I come to know someone, and know her heart and its pains, and her soft spots and quirks; her defenses, fears, and confusions, I’ll come to know them as myself. And I love myself.

If you wish to play an active role in cultivating the compassion so needed in an aching world, you can start by setting aside even 20 minutes a day to tend to yourself and connect to our life. Instead of checking your emails again, or burying yourself in Facebook, You Tube, or some such thing, go and sit quietly somewhere, without distractions. Go sit on a park bench, or on the beach, or facing a blank wall (that’s how we Zen monks do it); or go for a hike or a walk or a run – and use that time to watch your mind and heart and body, and how they are interacting with their world.

I am no expert in living compassionately. I would have an awfully hard time meeting a genocidal dictator with compassion – I even have trouble meeting some of my peers here at the temple with compassion all of the time. But, it is my earnest wish to cultivate love, patience, and understanding for all beings — I can see it’s what the world needs.  I know I just need to have courage and determination — both of which stem from my heart. I just need to keep practicing.

And I have faith that practicing compassion is just like practicing any art form — soon enough you have enough skill to actually express the beauty you hold in your heart and mind. If I may quote Gandhi, please go and “be the change you want the world to be.”


Catherine is a Bodhisattva currently participating in a three-month practice period intensive at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventura wilderness of California. She loves that she’s around a bunch of people wearing black robes all the time, and that some nights one of her duties entails protecting the meditation hall from ghosts. Her life’s pretty weird and she’s into it.

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