“Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.” ~ Joan Halifax

I was taking one of my nearly daily OBP 365 walks and I came across a McDonald’s bag, either tossed by someone from a moving car or perhaps left there by someone who had pulled over to eat (it was right near the private beaches on Pequot Ave. in New London, CT, where, no matter what time of year, folks pull over to take in the view, party, read, have lunch, or just be quiet).

I walked past the bag…and then stopped. I turned around, walked back, and picked it up, along with a bunch of other trash that was lying nearby. Bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, etc. I picked it all up and continued walking, picking up trash as I went, and dumping it into various trash receptacles along the way.

I was not disgusted or angry. I didn’t have thoughts like, “people shouldn’t litter” or “people are such slobs.” I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement. I actually took photos of some of the handfuls of garbage I collected.




There’s another part of this story…one that goes back 30 years or so. Back then I would secretly eat fast food in my car and then toss the garbage out the car window as I was driving, usually in the dark and (I was hoping) with no one else around.

Back then I was angry and full of self-loathing, although I didn’t know it at the time. Sure I knew it wasn’t right, but pain of the guilt of littering didn’t outweigh the pain I had inside.

And so perhaps, in the moment that I decided to turn around and pick up that McDonald’s bag on the side of the road, I felt the pain whomever had left it there. Because I certainly wasn’t doing it out of guilt or to make up for the times when I, myself, had littered.

And I choose to feel compassion rather than disgust.

In her TED talk Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax says that while compassion is present in all of us, that it is an inherent human quality, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured…that the conditions for compassion to be activated are very particular.

She tells us that compassion is comprised of the capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering, the ability to stand strong and recognize that we are not separate from suffering, the desire to transform suffering, engaging in activities that transform suffering, and, most importantly not being attached to outcome (because being attached to outcomes deeply distorts our ability to be fully present).

I didn’t know this when I was picking up the trash the other day. In fact, I only came across Joan’s TED talk last night (thank you Tonia).

She goes on to say that the conditions for compassion to be activated in a person are particular. And that the enemies of compassion are pity, moral outrage, fear.

I know a lot about pity, moral outrage, and fear. I woke up to those qualities in myself about 10 years ago and I’ve been, by turns, rejecting and embracing them. That’s why I like to write about defensiveness, anger, lying, and shame.

Joan also says that neuroscience has shown that compassion has certain qualities. A person who is cultivating compassion feels suffering more deeply than those who are not, but is also able to return to baseline sooner.

This is resilience.

Compassion also enhances neural integration (meaning that it hooks up all parts of the brain) as well as immunity.

I’ve got tears streaming down my face as I write this because I’ve often wondered about my capacity to not only feel true compassion, but to act from that feeling.

That I can is a revelation and a relief.

It’s funny what the simple act of picking up someone else’s garbage taught me.

Have you ever learned an unexpected lesson like this?