“Wait,” you say, “I have felt pity towards myself or sorrow at my condition as well as towards others.” But pity and sorrow are not compassion, at least not in the Buddhist sense. Because pity and sorrow do not negate the underlying condition as perceived by our ego. It does not change the perception that we or others are bad or a failure or whatever.
For a Buddhist, the origin of compassion is being aware that we all suffer and that we have become who we are and do what we do because of our life experiences, our samsara. It is being aware, as the Christian saying goes, that "there but for the grace of God go I." Although we are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us, our life experiences and the mind's reaction to those experiences has left us weakened, separated from the Buddha dharma.
And so compassion is unconditional; we do not judge ourselves or others anymore. We accept ourselves and them for what we are … without labels. For an exception to this acceptance, see my post, "Evil - How Should a Buddhist Respond?"
Why is compassion so difficult? It’s often because we feel anger towards a particular person or group of people. If we don’t, then we don’t usually have a problem feeling compassion because it doesn’t go against our grain. For those towards whom we feel anger, the greater the anger the harder it is for us to feel compassion.
The reason is that we are not forgiving. We hold onto past hurts or slights tenaciously. They become a powerful aspect of our ego-mind. Whether the hurt is caused in our view by our own action (or inaction) or someone else’s makes no difference. In many cases we are least forgiving of ourselves.
And we are not forgiving because we hold either ourselves or others accountable for the fact that our lives are not the way we want them to be. It is our fault or it is their fault.
In order to develop a compassionate heart, there are thus several things that we need to do. The first is to accept, or better yet embrace, the fact that our life is exactly the way it is right at this moment because it’s just the way it is. If there’s a perceived problem, it’s no one’s fault. (And remember, if we are aware that all our thoughts are empty of intrinsic existence, then there is nothing that is a “problem.” That is yet another label we apply that impacts our experience of reality and creates a barrier.)
Someone, ourself or another person, may have caused the situation, but it is not our or their fault. It may be someone’s responsibility, but not their fault.
“That makes no sense,” you are probably thinking. Let me explain. We know from the Buddha dharma that each person’s suffering is a result of the learned experience of a lifetime. That is especially true of our childhood. Suffering is universal. Each and every one of us, regardless how rich or poor, how powerful or weak, suffers because of the insecurities that we learned at the hands of our family, our peers, and our society.
And because we are all a product of our learned experience, despite all the talk about free will, we actually have very little free will ... only within a small range of activity ... because we are programmed by our experience to act in a certain way. So even though each person acts in a purposeful way, whether doing good or bad, we really have precious little choice how to act.
That is why I said that someone may be responsible ... they did indeed cause something ... but they are not at fault, because they really didn’t have a choice to do much else. This is a hard fact to accept because it goes against everything we’ve been taught about choosing between right and wrong, about free will.
And besides, we feel the need to blame someone. But if we accept our lives as being the way they are right now because it’s just the way it is, then there is no need to blame, there is nothing to feel bad about. Our life just is, just like everything else.
So we should have compassion for ourselves and for all others. Even those who have done great harm to others are deserving of compassion because their heinous acts are a direct reflection of the extreme inner turmoil they experience due to the brutality that they suffered at the hands of family, peers, or society.
The other barrier to compassion is our not feeling at one with others. For example, many people find it difficult to feel compassion for street beggars or dope addicts or prostitutes, etc. We feel that these people are somehow different from us, less deserving, they are at fault for their present circumstance, we are often scared of them or feel threatened. This can even be true regarding family members or colleagues who have "problems;" we feel they are at fault. Again, we are not forgiving.
But the Buddha dharma teaches that we are all one. Suffering is universal. Such people are the way they are at this moment because they have suffered greatly at the hands of their family, peers, or society. They were not born that way. Their circumstance is not something they chose, certainly not with anything approximating free will. And so realizing our common humanity, we have compassion.
I know the lesson of compassion is a hard one. But remember, we forgive and we have compassion first and foremost to heal ourselves. That is the only way to rid ourselves of the anger and negative feelings and feelings of separateness that eat away at us day after day and cause us much suffering.