How To Be Compassionate: Use Your Imagination

Oct 6, 2010 by

How To Be Compassionate: Use Your Imagination

I wish I knew

What it’s like to be

A splinter, a bee.

A song, a sea.

A tree, a shoe.

A bird that’s new.

I wish I knew

What it’s like to be you.

– By my daughter Tamar, at age 7


When I was a child, I experienced an awakening moment. My mother had revealed to me that before my oldest brother had been born, she had had a miscarriage. That revelation set my mind spinning:

If my mother had given birth to that child, would I have existed? Would my oldest brother have been the middle child? And my middle brother the youngest? Or would I have been my middle brother? Would I still be me? Or would I be him? Or might I have been born as someone else entirely. To a different family. In a different place in a different time. Who would I be then?

It was that last thought, the thought that I might have been anyone, that truly left me stunned. I began looking at other people differently. Everyone I passed I thought, “I could have been that person as easily as I came to be me.” I imagined myself with different parents. In a different part of the world. Growing up speaking another language. Learning from different books. Playing different games. Perhaps I might have grown up hungry. Or frightened. Or lonely. Would I still be entirely myself? The same happy, self-assured, playful child? Or would I be different? Would experience make me into someone else?

I felt something for other people that I had never really known before. Each person I passed, I thought, “That could have been me.” And I knew this possibility to not just be a figment my imagination. But a deep truth. I knew in my heart that any of one us could have been any other of us.

Ah-ha moments can’t live forever. I am an adult now with many responsibilities. I often move through life quickly and thoughtlessly — and my imagination is tucked away where it will not interfere. I do not look at every individual I pass in the street and wonder as I did when I was a child if I might have been that person. My mind is often racing with the details of life. And in that racing about, people become objects. Obstacles. I forget that childhood realization. And I suffer because of it. I cause others to suffer as well.

But there are times, too, that my imagination comes back to that original state of wonder, and my compassion is awakened with it. I am open to the flow of life. And I can create happiness in others.

The Buddha is famously quoted as saying, “If you see yourself in others, then whom can you harm?” I do not believe that the Buddha is saying that we should witness that others are like us. That they are similar to us. I think he is saying something deeper. That others are us. And we are them.

The faces of all of usAny one of us could have been any other of us. And with minds awakened to imagination and hearts awakened to compassion, we can see this very clearly.


Lauren Rosenfeld is the author of Your To Be List


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