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From suffering to compassion: Meditation teacher-author Sharon Salzberg shares her story

20150416-CCARE-Sharon Salzberg-0434Mediatation master and author Sharon Salzberg showed her recent Stanford audience that she could field even the toughest questions about the nature of compassion.

"What about the beheadings in the Middle East?" one audience member called out. Is it really possible to feel compassion for the perpetrators?

"It's not easy," Salzberg admitted. "But I also think it's possible and important... Hatred will never cease with hatred."

For models and proof it can be done, there are examples of great leaders who have suffered deeply such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Salzberg and James Doty, MD, pointed out.

Salzberg joined Doty, the director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, at a Conversation on Compassion last week on campus.

She had a tough start in life; her parents separated when she was 4 years old and her mother died soon after. Yet it was through suffering that she gained the motivation, and experience, to pursue the study of meditation, she said.

After taking an Asian philosophy course -- on a whim -- at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Salzberg traveled to India in 1970 to experience Buddhism firsthand. "The course completely changed my life," she told the audience. She said she was attracted by the Buddha's acknowledgment of the existence of suffering.

"Like many people, mine was a family system where this was never spoken about," Salzberg said. "Buddha's saying right out loud, 'Suffering is a part of life,' you don't have to feel isolated or abhorrent."

Salzberg went on to co-found one of the first meditation centers in the United States, the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.

Her conversation at Stanford was informal: Doty confessed he had spilled coffee on the business shirt he planned to wear, and the pair fielded questions from the audience throughout the talk.

"What is compassion?" one woman in the audience asked. "Please provide a definition."

"Compassion is the recognition of another's suffering with a desire to alleviate that suffering," Doty responded.

In Buddhism, compassion is "the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to seeing pain or suffering," Salzberg said. That doesn't mean you dive into the other person's misery, being consumed in the process, she said.

Also, compassion has an unfair rap as wimpy and passive, Doty said. "When you're truly compassionate, that means you're vulnerable. You have to be open and present to allow others to see your own degree of suffering."

Sometimes being compassionate toward yourself is particularly hard, but also necessarily before you can be of use to anyone else, they agreed.

And what about McMeditation or the popularization of mindfulness and meditation?, Doty asked. Does that dilute the force, or efficacy of the practice? Not necessarily, Salzberg responded. It's important not to limit yourself, however, Salzberg said. "I think the path is vast and our potential is vast."

And what if you don't have a guru, a teacher? "Done with a sincere motivation, I think our own practice will take us a tremendous degree of where we want to go," she said. A teacher just might help you get there faster, however, she said.

Previously: His Holiness the 17th Karmapa discusses the nature of compassion, Dreaming vs. doing: How my definition of compassion changed during medical school and At Stanford visit, Glenn Beck addresses compassion, change and humility 
Photo by Christopher Wesselman

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