The Bridge of Engaged Compassion

The Bridge of Engaged Compassion

Compassion is a hot commodity. We want it not to keep but to share. Although our intent is to share compassion, life sometimes gets in the way. The fog of our busyness obscures the bridge between our intent and our compassionate action. But, the fog of our busyness does not have to obscure our intent; through awareness and practice we can navigate the bridge of compassion while not being impeded by the fog. This bridge is formed through our intent and is the means by which we act with compassion.

In every moment of every day each of us is building, sustaining, and walking across this bridge of intent and action. We sustain the integrity of the bridge’s foundation through a deep, ongoing awareness of our authentic self. This awareness is possible when, in each moment, we seek to understand the power of our thoughts, words, and actions. We strengthen this foundation by living with curious daring and willingness to take a deep, honest look at our life. Through our awareness and our compassion-filled choices we sustain the foundation.

Buddhist teachings provide a wealth of information and techniques to facilitate living a compassion-filled life. Pema Chodron’s writings have challenged me to listen deeply and re-write the scripts of my internal monologue. Her writings encourage me to honestly examine the foundation of my life and provide clues to shift my reactions to compassion-filled responses.

Our awareness of our internal monologue — our thoughts, lies at the root of all our words and actions. Thoughts provide clues to our worldview and form the basis of every interaction. The extent to which we are mindful of our thoughts and act upon this mindfulness can either support our foundation or undermine it. Our thoughts either strengthen the three attitudes of our foundational awareness or weaken them. These attitudes are cause no harm, alleviate suffering, and accept life as it is. Based upon the three Buddhist vows that provide the framework for personal liberation, these attitudes cultivate an environment of intentional, compassionate response. The three combine to form a foundational awareness that forms the base for both our intent and active sharing of compassion.

Words matter, actions matter, but, most importantly, thoughts matter. Each word and action begins as a thought kernel. The first attitude, cause no harm, invites us to attend to our thoughts and their underlying judgments and motives. We listen to how our judgments and motives trigger harmful words or actions. When we intend to cause no harm, we form mindful, intuitive responses instead of fear-filled reactions. In these moments of choosing to cause no harm, we create an environment in which fear is banished. We alleviate suffering.

The end goal of compassion is to alleviate suffering. If we are not living by the first aspect of foundational awareness, it is impossible to engage the second. Alleviating suffering requires that we reflect upon our life and actively identify what self-generated and outward-focused harm exists. Only then can we take action to alleviate both external and internal suffering.

Compassionate action begins with self-compassion. When we suffer, it’s difficult to be present to another person. If we’re in physical or emotion pain, sharing compassion with another person will prove difficult if not impossible. Until we take strides to minimize at least a portion of our suffering, our focal point will not remain on the present moment. This unawareness of the present moment creates the environment of ignorance that allows us to be oblivious to the suffering of another.

The key to sharing compassion is to increase our awareness of the world around us. Being compassionate—alleviating suffering, does not occur in a “self-suffering free zone.” We will always have suffering in our life. Our intent is to be aware of suffering and to serve as fonts of compassion for both our self and others. We inherently understand that we can be both sufferers and fonts of compassion. We can choose to allow compassion to be an ongoing flow to our self and others or we can get stuck in a state of unawareness and bottle up our compassion.

During the extended period of my unemployment, I often found myself battling with depression and feelings of low self worth. Only when I was awake and aware of the difficulty of my situation, was I able to be gentle and compassionate with myself. At times this stimulated my ability to act compassionately toward others. As the weeks wore into months of unemployment, I discovered a radical aspect of compassion. When I shared compassion with others, I was more likely to be compassionate to myself. Both aspects of sharing compassion blended to create a more palatable life.  In alleviating suffering, I began to accept life as it is.

For most of us, life is seldom boring and is often filled with triggers that a give us plenty of opportunities to ignore our foundational awareness. With each trigger—a word, an action—we have a choice to respond intentionally or react impulsively to our interpretation of that trigger. It is often not the words or actions that cause our subsequent reaction but our interpretations of the meaning of or intent behind what was said or done. When we accept life as it is, we realize that the trigger is not as important as our response or reaction to it.

Reaction is often based in fear and self-centeredness. The words and actions of another have little to do with us and everything to do with the other person or people involved. Our choice is to either react to our fears and cause harm or recognize our fears and choose to respond in loving, gentle, and honest ways. When we respond, the by-product of this response is compassion.

Each time we engage the three attitudes of our foundational awareness, we create a rhythm, a pattern in our life. When we engage this rhythm, it is easier not take the actions of others so personally. We recognize that while our thoughts, words, and actions are ours, the words and actions of another are their reflections that may have little or nothing to do with us.  This knowing was the core of my master’s degree thesis, Understanding Energetic Awareness, and is based on the works of energy healers such as Barbara Ann Brennan. Only when we are hyperaware of how our thoughts, words and actions affect us and how the words and actions of others affect us, do we begin to see the world differently.

This realization is the power that is generated by accepting life as it is. We can choose to see beneath and beyond our own words and actions to discover our own triggers and fears. Only then are we able to re-pattern our thoughts. The result of this shifting is that our words and actions cause no harm. We look beyond the superficial, reactionary meanings we assign to the actions and words of another. In this looking beyond, we accept that life is what it is. In this acceptance, we become beings of compassion.

We can only accept life for what it is by living from four life pillars: being mindfully present, understanding who you are, living with curious daring, and taking an intentional look at your life.

These four pillars are the amalgamation of studying several spiritual traditions. Benedict of Nursia in The Rule invites us to “listen with the ear of our heart.” When we listen in this way we discover that a life deeply rooted in the four pillars is not possible unless we live with courageously and with an awareness of who we are and how our life is unfolding. The grandfather of the modern contemplative living movement, Thomas Merton, invites us to live with curious daring as our spiritual life intertwines with all aspects of our life. Jewish mysticism reminds us that we carry a divine spark within us. It shines the light of understanding. Thich Nhat Hahn and Jon Kabat-Zinn remind us of the importance of being aware in the moment. Even Albert Einstein affirms that we cannot fully embrace life and become who we are meant to be without courage and daring.  All these spiritual masters and more led me down the path toward my bridge.

Being mindfully present is crucial to living compassionately. In our lives we can choose one of three stances. We can live from a place of regrets and guilt, thus focusing on the past. A future-focused stance is filled with worries and fear of the unknown. Neither stance allows us to live in the present. A stance of mindfulness is awareness centered in the moment. Without mindfulness we’re more likely to react than respond to life. With mindfulness we become aware of life as it unfolds. Gaining knowledge is only possible in the present moment. This knowledge is vital to our understanding not only of our self but also of the evolving world and our role in that evolution.

Next, we must know ourselves. Within this knowledge lies power. Through reflection and introspection of knowledge do we come to understanding. Gaining knowledge only occurs in the present moment. Here we discern patterns. These patterns lead to a greater understanding of our self and how we engage the world around us. Through understanding we acknowledge fear triggers and choose to respond instead of react.

The next two pillars address not only the frame through which we live our lives but also the mirror that reflects our personal reality. We can view life as a glorious adventure or a tedious plodding. When we view life as a glorious adventure, we are alert and eager to engage all life possibilities. We discover other seemingly improbable possibilities. We engage these possibilities with curious daring as we discover which provides the best fit for us. Life is no longer filled with predetermined cause and effect. Curious daring shifts our sight so that we see that the amazing and seemingly impossible can happen. We see the opportunity of blessing, the silver lining, in each event. And then we’re able to look closely at our life: what catalysts have brought us here, what positive patterns and detrimental patterns exist, and how willing are we to embrace what is life giving and re-pattern what causes harm. Taking a long look at reality invites us into transformation. This transformation is only possible through curious daring and courage.

Foundational awareness and the life pillars form the base of our bridge to compassion. When we are rooted in awareness and understanding of our self, the bridge is stable and flexible. To ensure our continued ability to respond with compassion, we sustain the bridge’s integrity through practice. Just as a suspension bridge has cables that absorb the tension and stress caused by the weight of traffic, so must we have metaphorical cables that absorb our tension and stress caused by the weight of living. Contemplative practices can serve this function in our lives.

Formal contemplative practice* is vital to sustaining our bridge of intent and action. With a contemplative practice habit, we strengthen our connection to the divine and the world around us. Silence creates a place of response in the whole of our life. This place of response is informal contemplative practice. Our compassionate intent is strengthened by our foundational awareness and made manifest in our informal contemplative acts. Our informal practice provides the gateway through which we respond compassionately.

The final part of our bridge to compassion is the deck. We lay each portion, each track of the deck, through informal practice. The spaces between our times of formal practice, our informal practice, are our life journey. In these moments we choose to react from our fears or we respond intuitively and with loving-kindness. The formal practices make this choice easier to access because our awareness is expanded. We recognize we truly have only one choice. This choice is to respond compassionately to our self, others, and the world. Through this choice, our foundation is grounded, our cables sing with released tension, and the deck is laid one compassionate act at a time. Our bridge to engage compassion through intent and action is formed.


* A formal contemplative practice may be a sitting meditation, walking the labyrinth, or reading and reflecting on sacred text. A contemplative practice can also be active engagement like running or practicing Tai Chi or yoga. Focusing on our breathing is another way to enter into contemplative awareness. The chosen practice is only important as a focal point for our awareness and strengthener of our ability to rest in the silence.



Vanessa Hurst
Vanessa Hurst

Vanessa Hurst is author of the book Engaging Compassion Through Intent & Action. She is a member of the Coordinating Circle for the Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville and coordinates its awareness campaign. A practicing contemplative for over 21 years, the natural rhythm of her life is to intentionally share compassion with herself, others, and all of creation. Vanessa holds a master’s degree in Natural Health. In her practice as an intuitive healer and spiritual mentor, Vanessa understands living contemplatively and compassionately as the roots of healing. For her, compassion is a lived experience, one she hopes will touch all her relationships but most profoundly her relationship with her son, Merlin. She hopes to inspire many to engage compassion through intent and action. Her new book, "A Constellation of Connections: Contemplative Relationships," is now available on Amazon.