Common definitions of compassion read like the following: a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken with misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. These definitions create the idea that compassion requires us to join another in their misery. Does this really help anyone? We may need a definition of compassion that is more powerful. For true compassion we will have to expand our understanding so we don’t mistakenly create more sorrow from suffering.
Let us consider a definition which does not require us to suffer. What if compassion is simply the active expression of acceptance for the world and people just as they are? It entails a state of mind where there is no judgment about a situation or a person. True compassion is being able to look at the whole world without expectations that it should be any different. We can still hold a vision of possibility for the world, but we don’t use it as a standard of comparison for rejecting where the world is right now. In this way we can avoid the personal emotional reactions that create sadness, sorrow or pity.
In Buddhist practices sadness, sorrow, and pity are referred to as the near enemies of compassion. Being compassionate involves understanding the suffering of another without feeling sorrow or pity. When there are these emotions, compassion has turned into personal unhappiness and only adds to suffering. Feeling the emotional pain of another doesn’t relieve their suffering. In actuality it adds to the collective field of unconsciousness creating suffering.
If someone is suffering from hunger then it is more appropriate to provide nourishing food. If they are thirsty, provide them something to drink. If someone is in emotional pain bring your love and unconditional acceptance. It would not help people for the caretakers to go hungry and thirsty also. Although this is often the approach people take with their empathy or sympathy when people are without love and acceptance. When caretakers have emotional reaction of sadness or sorrow they nourish no one. A compassionate person brings the nourishment of love and acceptance to the situation that is starving for those emotions until someone can feed themselves.
Sometimes the best action you can take to help relieve emotional suffering of another is being present with your attention on the person and say nothing. Oddly enough modern physics tell us that our attention transforms experience. Although slow, other options driven by impatience and reaction usually create more chaos. Trying to change someone’s emotion is often driven out of judgment for that and sends a message of rejection.In my own personal process I did more harm than good when I tried to help. The desire to alleviate suffering is real, but the in which this is actually done is not apparent, nor is it usually our first reaction.
During the first couple years of intense personal growth I gained clarity on how people created suffering through the beliefs in their mind. I could see the habitual roles they were playing and the emotional reactions they were creating for themselves. The bad news was that I didn’t have much self-awareness in what to do and what not to do.
During that time I was eager to point out what people were doing and what they could do to change it. I was not aware that I was serving my conceptual idea of what should be, instead of serving them. By my suggestions of what they should do I was sending the message, “You should change.” Which is usually interpreted as, “I don’t accept you the way you are.” I was unaware that in trying to help, I was saying, “I reject you the way you are.” I was unaware that I was stirring up more emotions related to lack of acceptance.
Quietly sitting and listening to someone sends a powerful message of acceptance to them. They may feel that the whole world is wrong, but if one person accepts them unconditionally they may begin to feel more accepting of themselves. This is the seed of change that brings a new perspective.
Our Heroic Need to Help and Fix a Situation Can Be Motivated by Selfishness
While the desire to make someone feel better is a natural human desire, it can be distorted in our mind. If we react to another person’s situation with sadness, frustration, or anger we will desire to stop feeling these unpleasant emotions. Our mind holds an outside situation as responsible for our sorrow or pity. Unaware of how we are creating our own reactions, our desire to make ourselves feel better drives us to change others. We are overlooking the role of our beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations in creating our own emotions. In trying to change another we have lost our respect and acceptance of another for where they are.
An example of this was a woman who was intent on saving the world from suffering. She saw people being unhappy and was sad for them and frustrated for their circumstances. She saw people drowning in a sea of emotional suffering and her emotional reactions motivated her to dive in to save them. I asked her if she could lift herself into a boat of happiness with the world the way it is. “No,” she replied. She was an unhappy person that wanted to guide the world to be happy, but couldn’t get herself in the boat.
I pointed out that if we followed her logic we would all end up drowning together. If I saw her suffering and unhappy then I would feel sad for her. Now there would be two unhappy people. If two people saw us and took the same approach then there would be four people suffering over our frustration and sadness. Four more people could feel saddened and frustrated by our plight and then there would be eight more in the water. If we keep going in this direction the whole world would end up feeling sorrow and pity because one person was unhappy. She began to see that her logic of outrage, sorrow, and pity helped no one.
Helping someone from drowning in emotional suffering has to be done from within the boat of compassion, acceptance, and love. Diving into sorrow and pity your self will not help anyone and only adds to the number in the waters. Some resist this approach and call it selfish to put your happiness first. I disagree. Having emotional reactions and feeling offended when the world is not living according to our personal beliefs is the act of selfishness. I see expressing love for yourself and for others is the most generous thing you can do.
Seeing Suffering in the World and Not Feel Sadness
For most people to look at the suffering in the world and not feel some sadness involves disassociating from their emotions. Taking on an attitude of “It doesn’t bother me,” is usually a mask of emotional denial. This is often the case if a person is not aware of their emotions or their compensating strategies. Developing true compassion may take more practice than simple denial.
The motivation for this kind of practice is usually driven by a desire to be happy. To be present with our emotions and not feel sadness about the suffering of someone we love is not something we are conditioned to do in our society. In this society it goes against the importance of being right and feeling justified. To be compassionate you must give up your personal beliefs about being right. By letting go of your own personal agenda and embracing humility it is possible to be aware of the suffering of the world without interpreting it as injustice and feeling sorrow or pity.
The Great Barrier to Compassion
The great barrier to seeing the world with compassion is our personal beliefs about how the world should be. When we are attached to those beliefs we have two pictures in our mind at the same time. The judge part of our mind automatically makes a comparison and we end up rejecting the present reality. Our desire and attachment to our imagined world is what traps us in reactions. When we let go of our imagined perfect world our inner judge has no grounds for rejecting the real one.
Some might argue that we should hold the vision of a better person or better world and keep it in our consciousness or strive towards it. This is a noble and valuable idea, but often the execution is distorted with an attachment to time. We expect our vision of the world to have already manifested and react with frustration or disappointment because it hasn’t. By having these reactions we fall out of the boat and into our emotional suffering.
We cannot help the world out of suffering if we cannot help ourselves. It is difficult to lift someone emotionally higher than where we are standing. This does not mean that you should do nothing People are starving and people are in pain in the world and much can be done to help. Recognize and be aware of the part you have to do for your self. You can do work on creating peace within yourself as you work on creating peace outside yourself.
Action Steps for Transcending Emotional Suffering
A specific action that will help you to be more accepting is to find and dissolve your core beliefs about how people should be. What conceptual idea is in your mind about how the world should be and when should it be that way? These artificial standards in the mind become the basis for judgment and emotional reactions. The second step is to become of aware of the emotions that these beliefs create. Becoming aware of the emotional pain born out of these beliefs will motivate you to suspend your belief in these artificial standards. In this process it may seem sensible to let go of our expectations for ourselves first. This is actually one of the hardest places to start. You may find it more productive if you begin with an inventory of expectations of other people.
This process can be humbling. When I challenged my own beliefs and break the cycle of my emotional reactions I realized how difficult it was to identify and change beliefs. Realizing the challenge helped me be more accepting of other people trapped in their own beliefs. I no longer expected them to change their emotional state simply with my suggestions. I knew that they would have to change their point of view and beliefs before their emotions could change. Sometimes the process can be quick; perhaps a wise teacher can help with a change of perspective. Other times what is called for is being present and unconditionally accepting for life as it is. As my awareness grew I became more accepting of all the different dimensions of life. I also became more humble as I let go of my personal agenda of how the world or people should be.
There is no difference between compassion and forgiveness. Both share an attitude of unconditional acceptance for a situation or person as they are without judgment or expectation of something else. When you forgive people you let go of your attachment to your expectations and wishes for something different. This is the same as actively accepting life as it is. When you forgive people and the world for whatever they will do in the future you will be accepting of them however they are. This act makes it possible to live without judgment and the resulting emotional reactions. In this way compassion for the world is the same as a complete act of forgiveness. This is the pathway to a happy and compassionate life.