Gandhi said, "Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it's very important that you do it. Because nobody else will." It's hard to imagine that Gandhi ever felt that his humanitarian efforts were insignificant-yet here he is admitting to it. If Gandhi felt insignificant, then you and I also have a right to. I've always suffered with interminable and acute pangs of inadequacy. I am perplexed by people who don't stop to question the effect they are having on others, or how they are using their precious time. People seem to skate along unperturbed, while I'm vigorously scrutinizing myself, pretty sure I'm not doing enough for humanity. Gandhi also said it's only those who question at the end of their lives whether they have done enough who actually have.
The emotion of empathy keeps me feeling as if I've not given enough. While empathy is a fundamental characteristic of the human personality, I'm keenly aware, as I'm sure you are, that some of us have lots of empathy, while others have far less. Thanks to neurological scans, we now know that some brains are programmed with more empathetic cells than others. On the empathy spectrum, Psychopaths, people with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have been shown to have a marked deficit in empathy, which is why they can commit crimes without thinking twice about it. On the other end of the spectrum is the codependent who rushes to put others before themselves, even to their own detriment. There are specialized types of brain cells, or nerve cells, called Mirror Neurons, which specifically allow us to feel compassion and empathy for others. The more Mirror Neurons you have, the more empathetic you are. This is why Autistics typically display low empathy; neurological scans show the Autistic brain suffers from a deficit of Mirror Neurons. The average brain varies in these benevolent neurons; some of us are naturally endowed with the capacity to care, while others have to work harder at developing more of an awareness of others' feelings. The good news is that while compassion varies brain by brain, it can be learned.
Curiously, one way to increase compassion is through meditation, shown to increase empathetic response. The most surprising aspect of this research is that meditation caused people to help another who was suffering-even in the face of a norm not to do so. In fact, meditators who practiced sending loving thoughts to themselves and others reported less depression, more happiness and satisfaction with life, and were in better physical shape, with stronger immune systems. They were also willing to lend a helping hand when others needed it, and less afraid of suffering. Buddhists have a practice called Tonglen (meaning, 'giving and taking'), in which meditators breath in the suffering of another, and send healing on the out-breath. I have practiced Tonglen many times since I discovered this charitable practice, when a loved one was struggling and in need of strength. I sent them alleviation of pain, acceptance, and peace, on the wind of my breath. Whether it worked for them I cannot say; I know I felt immediate relief. Buddhist monks and nuns practice it with regularity, and the Dalai Llama is said to practice Tonglen everyday. When asked if it worked, he responded: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
When we feel compassion for others' suffering, we are not unlike the Buddhist Bodhisattvas, deities who have taken a vow to return to earth until all sentient beings are enlightened. My favorite Bodhisattva is the nurturing mother of all Bodhisattvas, Quan Yin. She is known as the Goddess of Compassion. She is always depicted carrying a bottle of salve down-turned on humanity, with which to heal their wounds. She stands upon the lotus flower, the only flower that grows in the mud, a symbol of growth despite adversity, and she rests tranquilly on the back of a dragon, a symbol of magic and power.
Perhaps those of us who care deeply, feeling the sorrow of others, are actually blessed. While we experience a double portion of tears and sorrow, we are also the heartbeat of humanity. Perhaps this is why I experience an existential inadequacy; as long as others are still suffering, I can't be contented. Perhaps I have been practicing compassion unknowingly, as I instinctively breath in pain, and breath out compassion. Perhaps I have practiced Tongen all my life without knowing it. If we could see ourselves for the Bodhisattvas we are, Bodhisattvas in becoming, endowed with the power of compassion, we wouldn't doubt our ability to reach out to others in times of loss and sorrow. Instead, we would trust ourselves as the embodiment of strength and compassion, and cease questioning if what we had to give was enough. For with every breath, we would realize that compassion is breathing through us, and could there be anything more extraordinary?