Not long ago, I shared some of the most impactful things I learned from Buddhist literature and practice. However, one key thing that I failed to mention is compassion. In today’s post, I will do my best to connect my current understanding of compassion with the teachings I discussed last time and try to deliver some examples to illustrate it further. As I mentioned in my previous post, this discussion reflects my current and evolving understanding of the topic.
There are three closely related concepts I’d like to review: compassion, suffering, and attachment. These concepts belong to the Buddha’s central teaching, the four noble truths.
The word suffering has a negative connotation that brings ‘prolonged pain’ to mind. While precise, this term doesn’t resonate well when thinking of it from a shallow or simplistic perspective. The way I understand it, suffering is present discomfort from dwelling in the past or the future and stops us from being happy. So, for example, someone whose past trauma prevents them from doing things they like is suffering. But also someone infatuated and daydreaming suffers about the mismatch between their beloved in the way they imagine them and reality.
Attachment is the feeling that produces suffering. To connect this concept with my previous examples, the traumatized person might long for understanding or recovering their past self. And, the dreaming lover might risk disappointment. Thus, the Buddha taught attachment as the origin of suffering.
Compassion, which is today’s topic it’s trickier. In my simplistic mind, compassion is a by-product of practicing the noble eightfold path. On the one hand, you practice compassion toward yourself by being mindful of your suffering and taking steps to cease that suffering or release your attachments. But, on the other hand, you practice compassion toward others (and the world) by being mindful of their suffering and taking steps to help them cease their suffering.
Deep inside, humans are wired to survive and multiply. Thus, we carry in our brains multiple mechanisms that are especially good at perpetuating suffering. So, for example, someone that had a bad experience will remember it vividly and fear deeply every time a similar situation happens. Yet, this very same instinct will push us to try and secure future sex or wealth at all costs, potentially doing the wrong thing in the present, like harming our bodies and hurting our beloved ones.
I find it challenging to speak about compassion in general terms, so I will do my best to offer some examples of how I try to practice compassion both towards myself and others.
I practice compassion towards myself by identifying extreme emotions, mainly fear. Many years back, a dear friend of mine had a sudden death. This painful event made me prioritize living without regrets, and most of what I do today is about that. I try to take care of my mind and body, balance my work life, and not pursue empty future glory or focus too much on beauty. However, don’t be misled to think that I achieved it. Some days I am better at it than others, but that is my guiding principle.
I find it most challenging to practice compassion towards others. Of course, I draw pleasure and life meaning from making others happy, but sometimes I don’t know when the driver is my attachment instead of helping others stop their suffering. Let me share an example of it.
I tend to be passionate about learning new things like cooking, knitting, snowboarding, and so forth. Because of this passion, I spend a lot of time collecting in-depth knowledge about these activities. A few years back, a friend of mine decided to give bread baking a try, and I saw her making the usual beginner mistakes, so I offered my help. Unfortunately, I gave her such an overwhelming amount of information, completely neglecting her learning and cooking style, and when she rejected my advice, I felt worthless and unappreciated. My actions told a different story than what I intended to do. I allowed my attachment for feeling appreciated to cloud my view of her actual suffering, and my attempt to help her was all about me. Fortunately, she taught me a lesson about communication, and we managed to solve the issue. Even though I’ve gotten better at this, I still get into this situation from time to time.
The previous example illustrates how interacting with others can be either compassionate or transactional. Of course, none of these ways of interacting are wrong, but it takes self-reflection and knowledge to understand and clearly state the ultimate goal of the interaction. In my experience, compassionate interactions always feel good, while transactional interactions are subject to an implicit negotiation of terms. If this negotiation is not successful, there will be discomfort, anger, and other sufferings. Most of the time, interactions will have both of these components.
Though challenging, we can work on being more compassionate by following the noble eightfold path.
- Make your best effort to get a complete understanding of a situation. (Right view)
- Bring awareness to how you feel and think about the information you just acquired (Right thought)
- Saying and doing the things that best reflect your thoughts and feelings (Right speech and right action)
- Giving what you can while keeping compassion to yourself and others (Right effort)
- Making an effort to stay present and keep reevaluating the situation as it changes (Right concentration)
- Incorporate these behaviors into your life (Right livelihood)
- Take feedback and process it, rinse and repeat (Right mindfulness)
I conclude this post with a closing thought. Helping others and ourselves can produce suffering if attachment drives our actions. It can go from mistreating our bodies for years just to have some money to destroying relationships with beautiful people out of the wrong expectations. I recommend practicing mindfulness to gain understanding and learn how to let go.
Please share your comments or questions in the section below.