We can see beings with the eyes of compassion, or with the eyes of utility. We almost literally live in different worlds depending on which eyes we use to see with.
When we see with the eyes of utility we gauge beings by their usefulness to us.
If the checkout clerk performs smoothly we’ll remain neutral, maybe even friendly, but if he or she has trouble looking up the code for an item, or — heaven forbid — has to call in a supervisor for help, we’ll quickly become irritable. This person has become an obstacle to the smooth functioning of our life.
When the child is slow getting ready for bed, succumbing to a seemingly endless stream of distractions, we yell, because the child being awake is an impediment to us getting on with our next activity.
If there’s a insect buzzing around in the house, this is an impediment to our living in a relatively annoyance-free zone, and offends our sensibilities, since bugs are dirty. The bug’s very existence is an impediment to our well-being and so we’re quick to reach for a newspaper or can of fly-spray.
The lambs in the field are cute, but we like the taste of meat. The lamb dead is of more utility to us than the lamb being alive.
Seeing with the eyes of compassion changes everything.
With the eyes of compassion, we only see one thing. We see that others’ happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own are to us. We see that others want and seek happiness, but don’t find it as often as they would like. We see that others want to be free from suffering, and yet keep suffering.
We feel for the checkout clerk because, for all we know, they are just learning the job, or are under-trained, or the systems have been changed, or they’re having to deal with someone else’s errors, or they have personal problems that are making it hard to stay focused. We don’t know that any of these things is the case, but we’re open to the possibilities. We may feel the frustration of being in a slow-moving queue, but we don’t just jump to blaming the clerk. He or she is a human being.
When we see, with the eyes of compassion, the child getting distracted while getting ready for bed, we may recall that self-control is one of the first cognitive abilities to go when we’re tired. So the child is literally unable at that point to control him or her self. What, then, is the point of getting mad? More kindly directing is needed.
The fly turns out to be just a fly. Sure, it has a dubious sense of hygiene and likes to walk over our food, and it makes an annoying sound, but it’s another living thing. Many an insect has been given safe passage to our front porch with the help of a glass and an envelope.
And the lambs? I’d rather have tempeh or tofu. After 31 years of vegetarianism I can no longer think of animals as food, any more than I can think of people as food.
With the eyes of compassion we see the most essential thing about any being: their deepest drives for life and wholeness and safety. With the eyes of utility we see only our own need. We don’t really see anything beyond ourselves. With the eyes of compassion we see beyond ourselves and are open to the magical and mysterious reality that is another life.
When we see with the eyes of compassion, recognizing that others’ happiness and suffering are as real to them as our own are to us, we don’t want to do anything to obstruct their happiness or to cause them harm. It just doesn’t happen.
And when we see in this way, and connect in this way, and respect in this way, every connection becomes a source of joy, for self-preoccupation imprisons and limits us like a birdcage, while leaving behind self-preoccupation is like flying free. It’s more than flying free, it’s like soaring with others.
Of course we can’t just switch from seeing with the eyes of utility to seeing with the eyes of compassion all at once. We’ll bounce from one perspective to another, perhaps many times in a day. Perhaps we’ll only see through compassion’s eyes for a few minutes or a few seconds, before we start to see the world in utilitarian terms once again. But it’s a training. It’s a practice.
Just keep coming gently back to the thought: “This person suffers just as I suffer. This person, just like me, doesn’t want to suffer.”
And if we keep gently reminding ourselves to see with the eyes of compassion in this way, that perspective will more and more become part of who we are.