When Things Go Wrong with You

As the line from the old blues song puts it, \”When things go wrong with you, it hurts me too.\” This is the original meaning of compassion—to suffer with. Or as Bill Clinton put it, \”I feel your pain.\”

Most of us have more than enough pain in our own lives.  A fair amount of our time and energy is spent avoiding pain or at least trying not to add to it.  So why would we take on another\’s pain?

Most religions and great spiritual teachers indicate that we are called to practice compassion and that it will benefit us.  Jesus\’ teaching \”Love one another as I have loved you\” could be reframed as \”Be compassionate with each other as I have been compassionate with you\” (John 13:34).  At least it would eliminate some of the confusion in English between the multiple meanings of love.

The core of the Dalai Lama\’s recipe for happiness is compassion (see Compassion and the Individual). And Gandhi had a similar teaching:

If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger and we will make not only our own happiness, but that of the world at large.

Compassion does not yield short-term pleasure. The pursuit of short-term pleasure is at best a dead end and frequently the road to hell on earth. From the blurb for Noah Levine\’s book, \”Dharma Punx\”:

Having clearly seen the uselessness of drugs and violence, Noah looked for positive ways to channel his rebellion against what he saw as the lies of society. Fueled by his anger at so much injustice and suffering, Levine now uses that energy and the practice of Buddhism to awaken his natural wisdom and compassion.

Before we have experience with compassion, we can rely on the experience of those who have that experience and seek them out as teachers. Noah started with mindfulness meditation. Seeing that it worked, he took the bigger step of compassion practice because his meditation teachers said it worked even though from his own experience it seemed an unsafe path.  And in an environment of \”drugs and violence\”, it was.  And he had left that environment.

Science is finding that practicing compassion measurably improves our health and some of the what and why. See Compassionate attitude towards others\’ suffering activates the mesolimbic neural system and The Impact of a New Emotional Self-Management Program on Stress, Emotions, Heart Rate Variability, DHEA and Cortisol.  Other studies found that mindfulness practice reduces the depth and frequency of negative emotional states.  Compassion and loving-kindness practice increases positive emotional states.

One of the troubling aspects of compassion being suckered. Equanimity has to go hand in hand with compassion. On some level, equanimity is being compassionate with yourself first. You feel their pain and don\’t leap into \”helping\” or \”fixing\”. There is a good discussion of this at Being Compassionate Toward Others {Not To Be Confused with a Doormat}. Compassion may simply be not adding to their pain with judgement and condemnation.

A more advanced teaching that promises long-term benefit is from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso: \”Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed.\”

I support a number of organizations that are engaged in difficult work: Amnesty International and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Reading some of the horrific situations they fight against, I am worn out and of no good to anyone until I recover. So I don\’t read their newsletters when they come. Perhaps with more Pure Compassion practice, I can read the newsletters.

Generally, abusers were abused as children. Compassion, paired with equanimity, is more effective for this work than anger, hate, or punishment. And harder. Compassion and equanimity, like all spiritual practice, is hard work. And so necessary.

Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.
Fyodor Dostoevsky

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