The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Chapter 23: Compassion: Meeting Suffering Without Resistance

Searching all directions with one’s awareness,
one finds no one dearer than oneself.
In the same way, others are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others if one loves oneself.
    – Samyutta Nikaya 3.8

Compassion is one of the central values and ideals of Buddhist practice. However, seeing it as an ideal makes it easy to overlook the difficult circumstances in which it arises. Compassion doesn’t come about in the abstract. It arises when we are in direct enough contact with actual suffering to be moved by it, whether the suffering is our own or the suffering of others.

We can meet suffering with or without resistance. To resist suffering is to meet it with fear, despair, condemnation, timidity or projection. And if we project our own problems and sorrows onto others who are suffering, not only are we in a poor position to provide help, we can easily drift into grief, pity or anxiety.

When we meet suffering without resistance, suffering does not make us a victim. Rather it can be motivating in two ways. On one hand it may ignite the wish, perhaps even the passion, for spiritual practice to resolve the roots of suffering within ourselves. This means having the motivation to clarify our resistances, clingings, and fears as well as our joys and strengths. On the other hand, our contact with suffering may awaken the compassionate wish to alleviate that suffering. The Buddhist word for compassion, karuna, means more than just empathy; it includes the desire and motivation to end suffering. Even when we do not have the ability to help directly, such caring can offer comfort.

As an ideal, karuna means being present for suffering with- out denial, defensiveness or aversion. However, in the actual messiness of our life, we may simply learn to be compassionate toward our own tendencies of denial, defensiveness and aversion, and the pain from which these are born. The willingness to sit in the midst of our life is what begins the process of dissolving the places of tension, fear, and the like. With honest presence and compassion, resentment dissolves into forgiveness, hatred into friendliness, and anger into kindness. However, when we are lost in our busyness, ambitions, escapes, or fantasies, compassion has no chance to arise.

As we become more accepting of ourselves and of our own suffering, we begin to feel more fully the suffering of others. Mindfulness practice helps connect us with others as equals. This in turn guards us from mistaking sentimental pity – feeling sorry for others while feeling separate – for compassion.

Suffering is a universal human experience; meeting it with compassion is one of the noblest capacities we have as humans.