The 3 Qualities of the Awakened Mind: 1. Compassion

April 23, 2012   |   25 Comments

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According to Buddhist thought, the awakened mind has three qualities.

Although I’ve said many times that having goals for your practice is a bad idea, I’m now going to suggest that there actually are goals and they are to realize these three qualities. However, the path is not accomplished by conventional means. Interestingly, these qualities arise spontaneously when we let go of our other agendas, no matter how well-thought out.

Meditation is, of course, the path.

The three aspects of the enlightened mind are compassion, wisdom, and power. We’re going to look at each one in turn over the next three newsletters.

Compassion is often confused with soft-heartedness. We might think that compassionate people are super sweet and always feel sorry for you. However, there is nothing weak about true compassion.

Compassion is an expression of the greatest strength. You are so confident that you can allow the sorrows of other people to touch you.

It is a gesture of bravery. You are so fearless that you can extend yourself to others.

It is an act of joy. You are able to connect, heart to heart, and, as far as I can tell, there is no other source of joy.

Some people might call this vulnerability, and it is. But here, vulnerability is synonymous with pure warriorship.

At the same time, it is extremely, heart-breakingly ordinary. We have all had the experience of compassion

I told this story in my book, “How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life,” and it remains for me a visceral experience of compassion.

When I was a little girl, my father taught me how to fly a kite. We were on the beach in Atlantic City and I was running up and down with my kite. I was so happy—the connection with the sky, the love of my father, the feeling of mastery. At one point, though, the kite got away from me and blew out to sea, higher and higher. I ran after it as hard as I could. I chased it until it was completely invisible. I was heartbroken, devastated. If you’ve ever chased anything that moves away from you on the wind and into another sphere (and I’m sure you have), then you know how shocked and hopeless I was. I remember the loss until this day.

One other person also remembered it to the end of his life—my father. Many, many years later, somehow the day of the lost kite came up and he called it one of those moments in his life that pierced his heart the most. He never, ever forgot the look on my face. He watched the kite fly out of sight, too. He longed to get it back, too. He would have done anything, anything to get it back for me. My sorrow was his. My loss was his.

My father didn’t have to stop and think, “Oh, my little girl has lost something that brought her happiness. I feel sad for her.” He didn’t have to do any math, like, lost kite + no hope = unhappy child, thus: I feel sad. There was no gap between my feelings and his, my experience and his, my loss and his. They were the same.  This is what compassion is. It is spontaneous. It arises as love and pain, mixed together, exactly 50-50.

If you have children, I’m sure you already know about this and, on behalf of all daughters and sons, I thank you. Know that this is the state of mind our meditation practice is urging us toward and which the great beings of this world, the meditation masters, saints, yogis, and enlightened ones feel for beings, on the spot, without thought.

How, you might ask, do they not fall apart completely? It is so terrifying to be this open and this vulnerable. Well, yes and no. The opposite is actually the terrifying option and our meditation practice, fortunately, thankfully, teaches not only how to open our hearts, but how to stabilize within the open state so that every time we are touched, we are not also knocked down. Instead, we are strengthened in our resolve and ability to be even stronger in our vulnerability.

This is true strength—the ability to remain soft and open under all circumstances, not just in those that are made to order. Recognizing the path to vulnerability from moment to moment? Stay tuned for the talk on wisdom. Connecting with the source of unconditional strength that sustains such vulnerability? Stay tuned for the talk on power.

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  • Posted by:  Nicky

    Susan – your description of compassion was beautiful – so clear and helpful. Thank you for this gift.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are so welcome, Nicky,

  • Posted by:  sasi

    compassion is my life’s theme.poeple used me,abused me ,called me names and assassined my character for helping very ill niece,educating her sister ,supporting the whole family for 6 yrs and getting the healthy niece married.I did everything assessing the need,resources’,
    out of love and pain,never to please them or expecting any thing in return.The relationship with the entire family ended because I was taken advantage of and I lost trust.I do not love them or hate them now.I am trying to understand my role in this .I am in a different country and never stayed with them.Everything was communicated via telephone .My funds were funding their luxurious,high life.The sick niece became a monster to her father who is my brother. Her health improved. She fired all the physicians we first found ,who saved her first time from serious ,chronic illness.They exhibited hatred with the mere sight of me the minute the sister is engaged to a rich kid.I have serious trouble with compassion destroying me several times in my life.I lack the wisdom to choose my charities well. I stay vulnerable ,but I am drawn for compassion to the needy,the underdog and almost always get burnt. Now I have PTSD FROM MY LIFE LONG ACTIONS of compassion.I need lot of help with this. please coment

    • Posted by:  Susan

      I’m sorry you are struggling with the wish to keep your heart open vs being taken advantage of by others. The first person to show compassion for should always be yourself. This is a very important practice. And if you struggle with PTSD, please, please seek the help of a doctor or therapist. Please keep us posted. Sending love, Susan

      • Posted by:  sasi

        I am in treatment with poor results from medications.therapy did not help. I am helping myself more through my prayer,meditation, good spiritual psychology reading,and reading a lot on the web .I am learning self love and compassion to me first. I grew up in India and became confused with Gandhian teachings and from Catholic schools.Now my beliefs do not work in today’s world.Working on rethinking. You have been helpful. Thank you. I admire the work you do .

        • Posted by:  Susan

          Wishing you clarity and love!

  • Posted by:  Barbara

    This has been lovely to read. Thank you. Tears hit the back of my eyes feeling that space of pure unconditional love that this makes available to others. Thank you again.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      You are very welcome, Barbara.

  • Posted by:  robyn

    Thank you. Several times you have, in three or four words, captured a deep desire or truth of mine. It’s usually something I haven’t been able to articulate simply. Today you did it again 🙂 Connecting, heart to heart. That’s my heart’s desire. With gratitude, Robyn.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Very good to be on the same path together, Robyn.

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Susan, when you refer to the awakened mind and the enlightened mind, is this the same concept as set out in the Four Noble Truths? thanks, Michael

    • Posted by:  Susan

      A very interesting question. Not sure. Are you referring to the 4th truth, that there is a path away from suffering?

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Yes, I’m trying to organize concepts/terms in my head and wasn’t sure if the awakening you are writing about is the same thing that occurs when suffering ends.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      I think it’s the same. But keep me posted!

  • Posted by:  Michael

    Of course! (PS, there is a new intro course starting lunchtime at the NYC Shambhala Center at the end of May which I hope to take, work permitting …)

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sounds wonderful.

  • Posted by:  Kate

    I am so grateful to open this from you today. I sat with my sister who is in great pain and grief and realized that all she wanted was to have me listen, not suggest, not do anything but love her right where she was in the midst of her pain. Just to listen as her story broken and raw poured forth…I love her and to see her in pain started to erode the earth beneath my footing…then gently and beautifully I heard…”this is not me, this is not my story…” over and over as if in a mantra. It was a buoy, a life jacket, a way to be open, available and vulnerable and still with her in all my love (in this place metta came) may all who suffer…but for today I see the phrase for me and I can hold this for my sister as “it is not who she is nor her story” and she will survive and I can be in my silent love for her right where she is….thank you for reminding me with this beautiful sharing …I did not and can now know that I will not lose myself … peace to you and may we all be strong in our beautiful open hearts! Katelyn

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Hi Kate. Your sister is lucky to have your companionship, love, and clarity. With love, Susan

      • Posted by:  Kate

        Dear Susan
        Thank you for being a beautiful light, concise and clear! We all really want to be “seen”, the best gift one to the other. I value you in my life… much love Katelyn

  • Posted by:  kathleen

    Susan, your writing overflows with deep wisdom and compassion…thank you for this series and I am looking forward to the Power post, as well as hearing more about going deeper with the OHP. Love and light

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Thank you, Kathleen. I’m happy to practice together.

  • Posted by:  Karuna @ Painted and Patched

    Susan my name means compassion and it’s something I have always tried to carry in my heart. What’s hard though, is when your have compassion and it’s misinterpreted by the person your giving it to as weakness. They abuse that and feel they have gained power. Soft, assertive compassion is what I am working on. Any tips? love and light, Karuna x

    • Posted by:  susan

      Hi Karuna. Yes, it is a beautiful name. And a lot to live up to! I don’t really have any tips, but I can suggest that the first person to extend compassion to should always be yourself. Wishing you well! Susan

  • Posted by:  Karuna @ Painted and Patched

    Thank you Susan. Your meditation videos have been a great support. I’m starting to extend this compassion more and yes to myself too, thats the hard bit. x

    • Posted by:  susan


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