The key to compassion, either for ourselves or for others, is the understanding that suffering is something we share. It may be easy to grasp intellectually that all sentient beings experience suffering, but this insight is also deeply counter-intuitive. When I am in pain, that suffering is mine, part of a drama that is bound up with my sense of myself in the world that makes me feel that my hurt is a unique experience that no one else can understand. If it occurs to me that other people have gone through virtually the same thing, that fact seems utterly irrelevant to the reality of my suffering in the moment. The experience of suffering makes us close down on ourselves, so that our pain seems to be the only significant thing.
A similar impulse occurs when we are aware of the suffering of others. Even when we are touched by seeing the pain of others, a host of reactive strategies tend to arise in response. We might just look away, change the channel, stop paying attention. We might come up with a story about how, no matter how regrettable the situation, the suffering person or people could have, and ought to have, avoided the situation they are in, and so they are to some extent to blame for their pain. We might respond with pity, which may seem like compassion but which is another strategy to separate ourselves from the suffering of others. Even when we respond to suffering with anger at the injustice of the situation, that anger can quickly become self-righteous, enabling us to turn from the reality of suffering by becoming absorbed in our indignation at whatever we condemn for the situation. Just as our own suffering isolates us in our ego identification, the suffering of others causes us to wall ourselves off from it.
All of these strategies arise from our desire to protect ourselves, to make sense of our own pain in order to feel a sense of meaning and control, or to protect ourselves from the overwhelming suffering of the world. But they also contribute to our sense that we are alone in the universe, isolated and alienated. We feel helpless, either to alleviate our own suffering or to do anything about the pain of others. In these conditions, compassion can truly feel impossible.
And yet, when we do experience real compassion, even if only for a moment, we recognize how allowing our hearts to open deeply to pain changes our perspective dramatically. Even though we have become vulnerable to suffering, we immediately experience that joy is here too, the poignant recognition of our fundamental connection to one another. Far from being a mundane fact, the reality that suffering is a shared experience becomes the key that releases us from the loneliness and alienation of our ego isolation.
As Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem, Kindness,
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
You must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
Lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you
How he too was someone
Who journeyed through the night with plans
And the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
To give kindness to ourselves and share it with others, we have to do the scary and difficult work of stepping outside the protective shields that also cut us off from ourselves and each other. The compassion practices we have inherited from Buddhism, along with those that have been developed by today’s teachers, can help us build our internal capacity for compassion so that we are able to overcome our fear of experiencing suffering and allow us to share that deepest thing inside with ourselves and the world.\
When Practice Circle meets this Sunday evening, August 12, at 9 pm Eastern, 8 Central, 7 Mountain and 6 Pacific, we’ll share practices to help us open our hearts to suffering. Practice Circle is the SBA’s online meditation and discussion community. We meet via video conference on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Practice Circle is free to attend, and everyone is welcome. Just click this link on Sunday evening to attend.