My friend told me he often went to the same little corner grocery store in his neighborhood. One day he realized that though it was usually the same woman working there each time, he hardly ever noticed much about her. He felt shocked at himself and thought, “For all I really pay attention to her, she might as well be a cash register with arms.” So he went into the store, determined to actually pay full attention to her. The first thing he noticed was that she was singing along to something playing on the radio, and that she had a beautiful voice. When he said that to her, she responded with a wide, radiant smile. As soon as he told me that story, I realized that I too often went into the same store. And also had hardly noticed that woman, except for maybe a vague sense that perhaps she was a little grim. I made a plan. I’m going to go into the store, say to her, “I heard you have a really beautiful voice,” and watch her get really happy and give me a beautiful smile. But when I went into the store, actually paying full attention to her, the first thing I noticed was that she was already smiling broadly. Wait? What happened to a little bit grim. I realized again how much of a person we miss when we don’t pay attention. People are people, not pieces of furniture. We each have a life, a story, changing moods, joys, sorrows. And if we pay attention to one another, we recognize that, and our lives are enriched by a continuing sense of discovery. That’s the opening to true compassion. Sometimes, we think of compassion as a gift, which we’ve either gotten, or we haven’t. If we haven’t we’re out of luck. Or we think of compassion as some kind of emotional reaction that spontaneously erupts out of us. I think of compassion as a natural result that comes from actually paying attention. That means we can continue to cultivate it.
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