Compassion: When Love Meets Suffering

“Practice love (rather than attachment), compassion (rather than pity), joy (rather than jealousy), and equanimity (rather than indifference).” 

Jack Kornfield

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Compassion is the strong wish of the heart to alleviate all suffering. It’s opening our hearts to the suffering that is there with a feeling of connectedness to those suffering, a quivering of the heart in the face of suffering.

Frank Ostaseski of the San Francisco Zen Hospice says there are two kinds of compassion. Universal compassion, which embraces all of us whether we know it or not, and everyday compassion, where we do stuff like feed people, stand up for injustice, etc. With everyday compassion you get exhausted so it has to be sourced from universal compassion. If not, we run out of juice. Lucky for us, universal compassion is always in us.

Thich Nhat Hanh, whom I will refer to as Thay says, “We have the seeds of compassion in us. There are times we are capable of understanding and capable of being compassionate. The energy of understanding and compassion can be generated from within us. That is the energy of the Buddha inside. The Buddha is always there within you, and you can touch the Buddha at any time you like.” Whether you call it Buddha, Jesus, loving awareness or something else, that inner goodness is always available for us to touch into to re-energize our everyday compassion. We may need to look deep inside under all the armor we have built up over the years to protect ourselves from suffering. Developing self-compassion allows us to remove that armor so we can touch our inner goodness.

Universal compassion is just a big idea, we give it expression through everyday compassion. It needs our arms and legs. Everyday compassion is a tapestry woven of many threads: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When we embody all of these in our lives, we develop the kind of compassion that has the power to heal suffering.

Compassion requires both openness, the willingness to let things in, and equanimity, not drowning in the difficulties or being overcome by the sorrow. Literally, compassion means “to suffer with,” which implies taking on the suffering of others. This would add suffering to the world. Clearly, that is not what the Buddha or Jesus had in mind. Taking on the suffering of others is a near enemy of compassion, I call it sympathetic suffering. A near enemy means it looks like compassion, but is truly not compassion.

Another near enemy of compassion is pity, we feel upset and angry on their behalf. Pema Chödrön, says: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”   If we think we are taking care of them, that is pity.  If we can see ourselves in their shoes and want to help, that’s compassion.

In addition to weaving our tapestry, there are two steps to cultivate compassion, a willingness to turn toward suffering, and responding with care.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on what you do in the face of suffering. Take a few moments to look inside for the answers to these questions.

What do you do in the face of suffering?

Do you withdraw?

Do you numb out?

Do you feel uneasy?

Do you take on the suffering?

Do you go into problem solving mode?

Or do you let it be?

In building compassion, you need to start where you are.  So, don’t judge yourself.  Just accept that this is your starting point in building your compassion muscle.

True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but in its fires. Often, we really work hard to not turn towards suffering. Ignoring suffering can be a form of aversion. I often shield myself from the suffering seen on TV. I rationalized is as not taking in toxic TV programs. But, in reality, I also shield myself from documentaries or news that contains violence, not just toxic TV programs. Upon reflection I have realized that the shielding was based an aversion to suffering. So, I am giving myself small doses so I can build up my compassion muscle.

When you are building your compassion muscle, small doses are important. When you are touched too much, breath it out. Remember the larger space that holds it all. The sky has room for all the weather systems. The ocean has room for all the waves. The larger space, that ultimate compassion, could be Buddha, Jesus, loving awareness or your inner goodness. If you stay in the small self, you will be squashed.

My typical response to suffering has been to turn away. Whenever I feel that I cannot fix it, I go into freeze mode, and don’t do anything. Christina Feldman said that we may make heroic efforts in our lives to shield ourselves from the anguish that can surround us and live within us, but in truth a life of avoidance and defense is one of anxiety and painful separation. Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) says, “With compassion, you can relate to other people. Without compassion, you are cut off.”  Mmm, wonder why I sometimes feel cut off.

At my last Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training , we worked with grief and loss. The exercise was to move from one person to another and share a small change in your life, most of which were a grief. With each person we took the time to listen, and to imagine what they were feeling. We did not even have to be right. By simply saying, I imagine you are feeling ___, we helped them to go inside and examine their feelings. That helped me to learn that we do not always have a solution for suffering. I am learning that you don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to be there. That can be profoundly comforting. I am working on just being there for my mom. Her dementia has progressed to the stage where she is now on Hospice. I can’t fix her, I often can’t communicate with her, but I can hold her hand or cuddle up to her.

In a dharma talk, Janice Sheppard said, “Learning to not push or fix or change suffering is hard. But that’s what compassion asks of us, at least initially. When we first encounter suffering, we may respond instead with an agitation, based on aversion or fear, that makes us want to do something to make it go away. Do something, either by fussing or fixing, or by turning away. But compassion does not do that. Compassion is calm, it’s kind, it’s willing, it’s unafraid.” ​I still have a lot of aversion towards my mom’s illness. But I am practicing being calm, kind and willing to be there. I am nowhere near unafraid, but I am allowing the fear to just be there.

Cultivating the willingness to see and listen deeply to suffering is the first step on the journey of compassion. We may have to dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience, and wisdom that enable us to care. Finding a firm foundation for ourselves means we able to be here for others. Therefore, self-compassion comes first.

For the last couple of months, I have been practicing self-compassion. This practice is providing me with the strength and courage to stay connected and to listen deeply. In the times of darkest distress, what is most deeply needed is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone.” I believe this practice is enabling me to be more present for my mom. I hope she feels me communicating my love and the message that she is not alone.

According to Kristin Neff, there are three requirements for self-compassion: mindfulness, loving kindness and common humanity.

Mindfulness has to come 1st, if you are not aware of suffering, compassion can’t arise. We must recognize the pain, but not get lost in the story of suffering. Mindfulness allows us to recover from our overreactions more quickly. With mindfulness, we are not so carried away by our personal drama that we can’t clearly see what is occurring in the present moment. It helps us to be with the suffering without adding fuel to the fire of suffering.

Instead of seeing ourselves and others as a problem to be fixed, kindness allows us to see valuable human beings who are worthy of care. We respond with a sense of care, kindness and friendliness that we would provide a good friend. When faced with human imperfection, we can either respond with kindness and care, or with judgment and criticism. An important question to ask is, what qualities of heart and mind do we want to encourage in ourselves? In Tattoo on the Heart, Gregory Boyle said, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is. Rather than judging those who make mistakes, compassion considers what it must feel like to be the person making the mistake. Even if that person is our self. Life is imperfect, us too! Our failings are not there by choice. We are part of the intricate web of causes and conditions. A deep understanding of interbeing allows us to realize we’re doing the best we can, given the hand life has dealt us. Thay says, “In order to be compassionate, you have to understand why the other person has done that to you and your people. You have to see that they are victims of their own confusion, their own worldview, their own grieving, their own discrimination, their own lack of understanding and compassion.”

We have explored, a willingness to turn toward suffering. Now let’s look at responding with care. Thay says you may need only fifteen minutes of breathing deeply and looking deeply to recognize that the other person is a victim of their suffering. That person needs your help, not your punishment. Suddenly the nectar of compassion is born, your heart is blessed with that nectar, and you don’t suffer anymore. Instead, you want to do something, to say something. If you’re not capable of using loving speech, you can write letter. You can say something kind to help that person. But you can’t help another until you’ve been able to help yourself. Peace and compassion always begin with yourself.

Responding with care can range from saying a prayer, sending loving kindness, doing a small act, or making a major sacrifice. When compassion arises within you, act on it, no matter how small the act. With those acts, may compassion ripple out from us to those nearest us and from there out to the world.