The key to mental health and happiness lies in the skilfullness of our emotions. This may seem strange if you tend to think of the emotions as purely spontaneous states. But in the Buddhist teachings, the mental life is something we can exercise and train, no less than the body.
The Buddhists recognize four mental states that are called "divine abidings;" loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity and it is these we may call skilful emotions. It is said that the wise person dwells in one or the other of these states at all times.
To consider just one of these, compassion is the sincere wish that each and every being be freed from suffering. To do this we must come to fully accept the reality of the other as a feeling and suffering consciousness.
To dwell in compassion is tremendously liberating, because it breaks down the walls of separateness between us. Depression is a widespread disease in our times and at the root of it is alienation and separateness; the obsession with one's self and one's own problems. As a culture we really need to break down those walls of alienation and to open our hearts to the universal reality of our common suffering.
There is a well-known story about a meditation master from Burma who was teaching the meditation of loving-kindness to people in an American city. He began by explaining that the first step is to arouse loving-kindness for one's self and then he quickly moved on to further instruction. At this point, several people in the audience interrupted to ask for clarification; many of them found it no easy matter to arouse loving-kindness for themselves. The Burmese master was dumbfounded and had a long exchange with his translator. In all his experience teaching in Asia he had never encountered people who didn't love themselves; he couldn't believe what these crazy farangs were asking!
This points out the tragic level of alienation in our society. A wealthy nation that tolerates tens of thousands of its fellow citizens sleeping in the cold streets is surely missing some vital element of the heart. We begin by withholding compassion from the stranger and end by losing it even for ourselves.
This is another aspect of the wonderful alchemy of compassion. To love others is to truly love ourselves, and we cannot honestly love ourselves until we learn to love others. Compassion is the other side of wisdom. One leads inevitably to the other. Only the wise can be fully compassionate and to have compassion opens the mind to the great wisdom of selflessness and interdependence.
Compassion is not sentimentality. While it is incompatible with thoughts of anger and revenge, it dies not necessarily entail approval of others who cause harm. True compassion requires the strength of a warrior. It respects the integrity of the subjective experience of all beings and that requires great courage and openness.
Our modern society is remarkable for its technological sophistication and its enormous potential for the creation and distribution of material goods. But are we truly a happy society? Why is there so much depression, suicide, alcoholism and family violence? Why is there still poverty in the midst of plenty?
In recent decades we have drifted more and more into a social and political culture of selfishness. There is a prevailing ethic of "I'm all right Jack," reflected in increased competitiveness and a diminished sense of community. This attitude goes deeper than the almost obsolete political categories of left and right. Even the movements for reform are increasingly focused on the problems of specific groups rather than on the well-being of the community as a whole.
The solution lies not so much in any political ideology or agenda. It lies in the cultivation of compassionate understanding for each other. In our personal and economic relations, no less than in the way we cast our ballots on election day, we can consider only our own selfish interests or we can open our hearts to the suffering of our fellow travelers in this city, this nation and this planet. One way leads to alienation and despair, the other to sanity and community.