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Meditation Teacher Sharon Salzberg on What Compassion Really Means and How We Can Train Our Attention Toward It

How a continuing sense of mutual discovery creates the opening to true compassion.

Meditation Teacher Sharon Salzberg on What Compassion Really Means and How We Can Train Our Attention Toward It

“Love,” wrote the psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt in her insightful mediation on compassion, humility, and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, “is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery… Compassion is one of the purest springs of love.” A generation later, Lucinda Williams captured the urgency of this mutuality in her beautiful song based on one of her father’s poems: “Have compassion for everyone you meet… for you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.”

And yet, despite our best intentions, we often misunderstand what compassion really means in an active living sense, just as we misunderstand the true meaning of the Golden Rule, that most abiding of humanity’s guidelines for kindness.

In her book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation (public library), beloved meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg identifies compassion as one of the three essential skills, along with mindfulness and concentration, which meditation helps us master by training our attention. Its deeper meaning and daily practice is what Salzberg explores in this wonderful short video in collaboration with Happify, animated by Katy Davis, part of the same series that gave us their animated primer on how to meditate.

For an essential counterpart that inverts the direction of that dignifying attention, see The School of Life’s lovely animated primer on the difficult art of self-compassion, then revisit Brené Brown on vulnerability, human connection, and the difference between empathy and sympathy, also animated by Davis.


When the Sky Is No More Than Remembered Light: Mark Strand Reads His Poignant Poem “The End”

“Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing / when the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.”

When the Sky Is No More Than Remembered Light: Mark Strand Reads His Poignant Poem “The End”

“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention,” the Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) observed in contemplating the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe. And yet this universe in which we live is predicated on impermanence, and the lucky accident of our existence is crowned with the certitude of its end from the start. Why, then, are we always so shocked by the finitude of all we hold dear and, above all, by our own mortality? Few are those who can say with sincerity, like Rilke did an exquisite 1923 letter, that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” Instead, we spend our lives shuddering at any reminder of our inevitable end, unsalved by the miracle of having lived at all.

Montaigne articulated the central paradox of being perfectly in 16th-century meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, lament we do, and some of our greatest art gives voice to that lamentation.

That paradox is what Strand explores with transcendent courage and curiosity in his poem “The End,” found in his Collected Poems (public library) — the trove of truth and beauty that gave us Strand’s love letter to dreams.

In this hauntingly beautiful recording, courtesy of The New York Public Library, an aged Strand reads his poignant poem shortly before he repaid his own debt to mortality:


Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,
Watching the pier as the ship sails away, or what it will seem like
When he’s held by the sea’s roar, motionless, there at the end,
Or what he shall hope for once it is clear that he’ll never go back.

When the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat,
When the sunset torching the lawn and the full moon icing it down
No longer appear, not every man knows what he’ll discover instead.
When the weight of the past leans against nothing, and the sky

Is no more than remembered light, and the stories of cirrus
And cumulus come to a close, and all the birds are suspended in flight,
Not every man knows what is waiting for him, or what he shall sing
When the ship he is on slips into darkness, there at the end.

Complement with the lyrical Duck, Death and the Tulip, Marcus Aurelius on mortality and the key to living fully, and the great Zen master Seung Sahn Soen-sa’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child, then revisit Strand’s celebration of clouds and everything they mean.


The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

“Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe.”

The Daily Stoic: Timeless Wisdom on Character, Fortitude, Self-Control, and the Art of Living from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Few words have been more corrupted by appropriation and misuse than the modern derivative of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Today, stoic is a word rendered vacant of the original quest for enlivenment that animated Stoic philosophy, instead warped to connote the very opposite — a kind of unfeeling forbearance that borders on pursed-lipped resignation. But two millennia ago, Stoicism emerged as a life-affirming platform for being — a kind of supervitamin for the soul, fortifying the human spirit against the trials of daily life, against the onslaught of the world, and, above all, against its own foibles. At its heart was the idea that the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control are the seedbed of human flourishing, and that all of our suffering arises from our perception and interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves — an idea that has as much in common with Buddhism as it does with Bertrand Russell.

Stoicism’s wide appeal and application is reflected in the diversity of its originators and early proponents — a Roman emperor and military leader, a celebrated playwright, a former slave who freed and sculpted himself into a prominent lecturer, a successful merchant, and a former boxer who put himself through school by working as a water carrier. Over the millennia, Stoicism has continued to influence minds as varied as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martha Nussbaum, and Tim Ferriss. Today, the Stoics’ wisdom is as valid and empowering as ever — Marcus Aurelius’s advice on how to begin each day is a potent recipe for sanity in the modern world; Seneca’s meditation on how to stretch life’s shortness by living wide rather than long remains the greatest consolation for the fact of our finitude, and his advice on the mightiest antidote to fear continues to fortify the spirit; Epictetus’s notion of self-scrutiny applied with kindness is perhaps the best attitude we can cultivate toward ourselves and the surest strategy for true growth.

Art from Philographis, a visual dictionary of major schools of thought in minimalist geometric graphics

In The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (public library), Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman reclaim this ancient school of thought from the sapping grip of academia and mend its misuses in the hands of popular culture to reveal its timeless wisdom in navigating the modern expressions of perennial human problems: how to love and how to work, how to tame and transcend anger, greed, jealousy, and the rest of our wildest flaws, how not to let success and power enslave us, how to find warmth and aliveness in the chilling awareness that we are mortal.

Holiday and Hanselman write in the introduction:

One of the analogies favored by the Stoics to describe their philosophy was that of a fertile field. Logic was the protective fence, physics was the field, and the crop that all this produced was ethics — or how to live.

Holiday and Hanselman reap the fruits of that field in original translations of the late Stoic triumvirate — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — and some of the philosophy’s earlier proponents. Their selections are temporally and thematically organized across the twelve months: from clarity in January and the passions in February to acceptance in November and mortality in December. For each day of the year, Holiday and Hanselman highlight a passage from one of the great Stoics and discuss its meaning in relation to daily life. Partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and Joanna Macy’s A Year with Rilke, what emerges is a generous gift of guidance on modern living culled from a canon of wisdom hatched long ago and incubated in the nest of civilizational time.


The year begins with Epictetus’s insight into control and choice, which opens the month of clarity under the entry for January 1:

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…


In another January entry, Seneca echoes the sentiment in a passage from his treatise on the shortness of life:

How many have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements — how little of your own was left to you. You will realize you are dying before your time!

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius offers the three ingredients of the sane and satisfying life:

All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.

In a sentiment that calls to mind pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff’s case for the poetics of curiosity, Epictetus cautions against fetishizing knowledge, suggesting that the moment the mind is made static in knowing, knowledge becomes an end point of curiosity and thus a stunting of growth:

If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters — don’t wish to seem knowledgeable. And if some regard you as important, distrust yourself.

Seneca admonishes against the destructiveness of anger:

There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane — since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.

Epictetus points to the self-defeating impulse to want too much:

When children stick their hand down a narrow goody jar they can’t get their full fist out and start crying. Drop a few treats and you will get it out! Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.

In a passage reminiscent of Dr. King’s famous dictum that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Marcus Aurelius reminds us that our own experience is inseparable from the experience of everyone and everything else:

Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other — for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.

The remainder of The Daily Stoic mines the ancient canon for practical wisdom on such facets of character as transcending fear, mastering the art of leadership, and using self-control as a tool of freedom rather than restraint. Complement it with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s classic treatise on the art of being, Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.


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