Jon Kabat-Zinn: Compassion and Mindfulness
This video is part of the Mindfulness Incubator video series. (7/16)
Today’s topic is really about compassion, gratitude, reverence, sort of this appreciation of the moment and of the beauty in humanity.
And one of the things I was joking with a friend at lunch how I’m actually a pretty third-rate meditator. I’m in the minor leagues, had never done very well at it. But one of the things that happened to me in an experience of meditation that you were directing, and I felt it again, is this dwelling in compassion.
So I wanted to ask you about how you think about and consider this mindfulness and compassion dialog or relationship. What is that? There’s an awful lot of talk about it, and I don’t actually think about it that much, to tell you the truth. I try to live it without the words, yeah, because I think sometimes the words, you know, carry sort of concepts and beliefs and a lot of evidence and structure, but it’s basically a narrative.
And it can be very useful to tell ourselves a narrative as we try to conform to a particular kind of recipe or algorithm that we think will make us better. But from the perspective of the non-dual, we’re already compassionate, we’re good enough as we are. So it’s more a question of uncovering our compassion rather than trying to build it up or something like that.
So the way I see it is that mindfulness, the cultivation of the quality of presence, simplifies things an enormous amount because it allows us to actually embody who we already are, as opposed to construct some alternative identity for ourselves. And who we already are is compassion.
Your data is suggesting that it’s like the core universal emotion, and that it’s perhaps because our babies need to be cared for in some very profound way for a very long time. And of course, we in some ways prefer our babies to other babies, but in a certain way, we don’t. Even the bonobo and the chimp bring up those kinds of feelings.
There’s a wonderful quotation from Einstein that’s in several of my books about recognizing the entire universe in this way and talking about the prison of our own ideas and opinions. When we start to separate things and see ourselves as separated from the universe, he describes it as a prison. And then he says, “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all beings in their beauty.”
Then he says, “Nobody is able to achieve that completely, but the striving for such achievement is itself a foundation for liberation.” He uses the word liberation, inner security. So that’s been the sort of vector that I’ve always taken, and it’s a good way, especially if you think of yourself as a bad meditator. Then a shortcut to being a good meditator in quotes is just realizing, reminding yourself, you just say to yourself, “It’s already here, it’s already here. There’s nothing to get, there’s no place to go, there’s nothing to do, and there’s nothing special to attain, because what’s special is already here, it’s already attained.”
And what realizing it means is making it real. And how do we make it real? By being present. Then we trust that the knowing is itself inherently compassionate. And if you study the Dzogchen and Tibetan teachings on Mahamudra, they talk about it that way, that the actual spaciousness of pure awareness is compassion.
In the realm of mindfulness and compassion, there exists a profound appreciation for the essence of the human experience. It’s a journey of self-discovery, a process that often unfolds in unexpected ways. We may find ourselves, like me, an amateur meditator at best, navigating the minor leagues of inner exploration. Yet, within this journey, we encounter moments of profound insight.
During one such experience, I had the privilege of being guided by a skilled practitioner. It was in these moments that I was reminded of the power of compassion. It’s not something we strive to attain or build; rather, it’s an integral part of who we already are. It’s not a destination on a distant horizon but a path we walk right now.
Mindfulness and compassion, often intertwined in discussions and teachings, are concepts that hold great significance. However, I’ve come to appreciate that sometimes, it’s best not to overthink them. The words we use to describe them can carry with them complex concepts and structures that, while useful, can sometimes distract from their essence.
In essence, mindfulness simplifies our existence. It’s a way of living in the present moment, a way of being fully aware of our true selves. And at the core of our true selves lies compassion. Research and observation suggest that compassion is a universal emotion deeply ingrained in our nature. It’s the instinctual care we offer to our babies, the empathy we feel, not only for our loved ones but for humanity as a whole.
A quote from Albert Einstein resonates with me in this context. He speaks of recognizing the entire universe as one interconnected entity. When we divide and separate, we create a mental prison for ourselves. Our task, as he eloquently puts it, is to break free from this self-imposed prison. How? By expanding our circle of compassion to embrace all beings in their beauty.
Einstein acknowledges that achieving this oneness with the universe may be an elusive goal. But it’s the very pursuit of this noble endeavor that leads to inner liberation and security. This, to me, is the crux of the matter—a pursuit not of something external but an inner transformation, a journey toward realizing the compassion that already resides within us.
As I’ve grown in my own understanding, I’ve learned that there’s no need to strive endlessly for mindfulness and compassion as if they were distant goals. Instead, it’s about recognizing that they are already present within us, waiting to be acknowledged. It’s about making these qualities real in our lives through the simple act of being present.
In the teachings of Dzogchen and Tibetan traditions, they speak of the spaciousness of pure awareness as being synonymous with compassion. It’s a reminder that, at our core, we are inherently compassionate beings. This realization, this living truth, is the compass that guides our journey.
So, in the end, I find that we need not overcomplicate this dialogue about mindfulness and compassion. We live it, breathe it, and embody it in our actions. We are already on the path, and there’s no need to seek what we already possess. Our task is to awaken to the compassion that resides within us and allow it to illuminate our path in this beautiful journey of life.