Empathy without anxiety

Our thinking mind loves to diagnose. … Certainly the intellect does have its place; it is truly useful to be able to figure out how things work but we can be over-prone to that. We can unwittingly take refuge in having an explanation. … It is not that we should stifle the intellect or suppress our recognition of patterns, rather it’s a question of holding these things in perspective.  (From Ajahn Amaro’s book on compassion, “Don’t Push”.)

When we see a sad situation, there’s a broken-hearted feeling in both our body and mind. When someone we know is sick or suffers a setback, we allow their pain to resonate in us. This is entirely natural. If our heart is open, when we see suffering, we feel pain; when we see joy, we rejoice alongside the joyful person. The last of the four sublime states is equanimity, and this is what helps us hold strong feelings without losing our balance.

In a nutshell, compassion is holding our hearts open to whatever comes and understanding that all beings, ourselves included, are deserving of this form of unconditional care. Is there anyone who doesn’t experience dukkha? Who doesn’t worry that they are not doing enough or are not good enough or can’t handle what comes to them? So as we walk down the street or into the grocery store or through a park, we can be assured that everyone we see is suffering to some degree from dissatisfaction and is deserving of compassion. We are all in this together and we can put either sand or oil into the gears of human relationships.

When someone is suffering from a chronic or temporary challenge, we can hone our skill at being a fully present, attentive listener and at the same time, NOT assume responsibility for the problem. We can ask how we can help, or ask what they intend to do, but to keep ourselves grounded, we need to stay clear on the point that no one is helped if we take responsibility for someone else’s dukkha. Of course, if our vocation involves providing direct, immediate assistance, we do that on the job. And children have decisions made for them until they (gradually) assume control of their own lives. Under normal circumstances, however, we each need to manage our own energy and karmic situations. We can, and often should, ask for help, but we have to be the decision-makers of our own destiny.

If our initial response to a difficult situation is to retreat into an intellectually diagnostic frame of reference, we are likely to miss what is being asked of us. People are complicated. Sometimes we say one thing but mean another thing; sometimes we don’t have words for what we’re feeling; often we need time to figure out the source of our unhappiness. Most of us need to come to our own understanding of our experience, and we are grateful for friends who know how to be compassionate companions in that process.


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Some people think that the origin of all religious feeling and all religious systems is the fact of suffering — the big ouch! Every human being experiences and witnesses suffering and feels an urgent desire to not experience or witness it. We can turn away and think, “I just can’t deal with this”. We can postulate a mysterious, caring God whose motives for causing evident pain are unclear to us, but are not (we hope) malicious. That might allow us to ignore unpleasantness and “leave it to God”. Or we might feel that we are called to cure or alleviate suffering and do our best to develop skills that will help us to do that, even though we can’t protect everyone.

On an emotional level, we can’t help anyone, including ourselves, unless we accept the facts of suffering as we find them. We’ve been warned about old age, sickness, and death – they come to all of us, eventually (unless we die young, in which case we can avoid old age).

We can start where we are by taking an inventory of our current state of affairs. Are we ourselves, or are people we know, suffering from old age? How are we doing with that? Are we fully present with it? Is pretending to be younger than we (or they) are part of our response?

Sickness? Can we experience illness, in ourselves or others, without fear?

Death? When someone we care for dies, we are confronted with the truth that we also will one day die. Most of us deal with the knowledge of our own eventual demise with some combination of denial and resignation. Paradoxically, living “in the light of death” can bring joy to our days; our deepest fear is of facing the end of our lives knowing that we have not lived as fully as we could have.

As we investigate our own hearts on these questions, we can start to practice compassion right here. If there’s fear or confusion, we can act as our own kind and accepting parents, acknowledging the difficult emotion and letting it breathe within a safe and loving space.

“In physics, the observer effect is the fact that simply observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon.” (Wikipedia) The same is true when we simply observe our own discomfort, fear, or aversion. They cannot remain unchanged; our watching them reveals both their fluid nature, their instability, and that they cannot stay at a maximum for long. It takes a special sort of effort to keep still and let our emotions work themselves out, without our direct interference. The phrase “diligent effortlessness” was coined by a Canadian meditation teacher, Khema Ananda, and it’s one we may find useful. We don’t check out and we don’t interfere; we remain present, tuned in, and accepting.

Until we can practice compassion with ourselves, we’ll have difficulty being truly compassionate towards others.

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Don’t push

In all Buddhist traditions, the four “divine abodes” are mettā (boundless kindness), karunā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy), and upekkhā (equilibrium). In one significant way, these four “unlimited” mind states are closely related to each other: they all have to do with relationships between and among people. While one can experience all of these states with oneself as the object, they are best cultivated in the challenging laboratory of interacting with other people. These states also share the quality of existing in inverse proportion to self-absorption.

The second of Ajahn Amaro’s books in his series on the divine abodes is about compassion, and its unlikely title is Don’t Push – Just Use the Weight of Your Own Body. The title is taken from a wise practitioner’s words about how to apply mindfulness while performing massage therapy. In that context, it makes sense: don’t squeeze or manhandle others’ bodies, just be fully present and connect naturally.

How does this idea apply to compassion? Here’s what Ajahn Amaro has to say:

[Compassion] is fully attentive and open to the pain of others, but does not suffer on account of that pain. I think that most Westerners would agree that, culturally, this is hard for us to comprehend, let alone achieve. Usually we either turn away and remain indifferent to the suffering of others, or we feel upset or angry on their behalf and desperately try to help. We have an interesting cultural tendency to show that we care by getting angry or upset.

We can learn a more wholesome response to suffering. Consider: do we leap to outrage at the injustice of someone’s pain? Are we able to be with our own or others’ suffering without becoming agitated, impatient, frustrated, or angry? Can we be present, allow our heart to break, and not turn away? In this way, karunā is a lot like mettā. Curbing our initial instinct to fight, waiting, and listening are required before wise action can be taken.

It is curious that we often feel that if we’re not doing something, then we’re useless. And yet, for most people in moments of fear, confusion, or pain, the most useful gift is a calm and steady presence. This is difficult for us because we really don’t like the Buddha’s first truth – the truth of dukkha. Many experiences in this life, ours and everyone else’s, are unsatisfactory, unappealing, apparently unfair and sometimes downright loathsome. We’re quite happy to accept the satisfying, appealing and apparently fair experiences that come our way, but when the opposite is true, we chafe, we squirm, we reject and object.

Our duty with respect to the Buddha’s first truth is to acknowledge it. This means not only saying, “Yes, OK, unfair and difficult things happen.”, but also knowing for ourselves, when apparent disaster strikes, “This is how it is right now”. When there’s pain and suffering, we face it with all the calm we can muster, and try to understand what is going on, for the benefit of ourselves and others.

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We have been exploring mettā and the attitudes and actions that block it from being experienced and expressed. It is odd but true that when we stop clinging to a sense of being “right”, mettā is what remains. It manifests in moments of letting go; it is the pleasant feeling of non-resistance, of freedom from greed and hatred.

At times when we feel we are “right”, and in opposition to those we consider “wrong”, our emotions and sensations are strong and clear. We may or may not be able to re-direct our energy, but we know what’s going on. What are the alternatives? Some of us are able to enjoy a comfortable state of delusion in which we think things are fine if we don’t look too closely. But mettā requires mindful attention, and in particular, attention to other living beings. Ajahn Amaro recommends that we travel through life with “mindful attunement to the present moment”. By attuning ourselves to our changing contexts and to the beings around us, we can learn to discern how to be kind, how to help, and when to keep still. This is how sati-sampajañña, or mindfulness and clear comprehension, works. 

Sometimes we are so wrapped up in our own thoughts that we don’t notice all the other things going on around us. The challenge is to broaden the field that we are attuned to; to move beyond seeing things primarily in terms of “what I do and don’t want” towards opening up to a larger framework. An analogy might be that we tend to play our instruments “solo” rather than as part of a larger orchestra. When we play solo, we are only concerned with measuring our own progress, with rating our skill, and self-criticism can provoke anxiety. When we play with others in an ensemble, we are constantly listening to others and making adjustments to become more harmonious with them; the pitch, the tone, the tempo – all can be fine-tuned to make the whole into a magnificent and moving sound. This is what a life with mettā might be like: inclusive, engaged, harmonious, open, responsive.

One by-product of mettā is that the demands of the self can become less onerous. If we spend less time critiquing ourselves and others, we are bound to be more relaxed and open to some subtler experiences. When we are less tense we might notice a pleasantness that is undramatic but real. This is a wholesome mind state, and we often miss it because we are more attuned to stronger feelings. Becoming aware of these more refined states can provide a harmonious platform for everyday living; we can learn to return to mettā after an upset, we can make it our home.

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Responding vs reacting

Further to our conversation in the past few posts, here is a clarifying question and answer from Ajahn Amaro’s book, “I’m Right, You’re Wrong!”:

Question: Going back to the story about the monk, if someone is harming others, when, how and where is the red line? How long do you let them do what they’re doing?

Answer: That’s the big issue, isn’t it? I’m not saying that every action is inappropriate. What matters is how we handle a situation. We learn how to respond appropriately. If someone is harming others, instead of jumping in with an immediate reaction you establish a breadth of vision. This is an important distinction that I like to make: ‘to react’ I take as meaning to blindly and impulsively follow the immediate effect of something seen or heard, sensed or thought – chasing the liked and rejecting the disliked; ‘to respond’ I take to mean consciously attending to the same sensory stimulus and then mindfully reflecting on the feeling of like, dislike or neutral feeling. You open your mind to the situation: ‘This seems to be really wrong. Now, what can be done to help?’ This is a quality called sati-sampajañña, which means ‘mindfulness and clear comprehension’ or ‘clear awareness’. You pay attention to both the object and the context within which it appears, ‘practising Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma’.

Ajahn Amaro makes a distinction between reacting to our own discomfort and establishing a breadth of vision that allows us to discover what action might be in the best interests of all concerned. This seems the critical point to consider when we are faced with situations in which our instincts say “I’m right, you’re wrong!”.

A classic example is a parent wrangling with a difficult toddler in a supermarket. To our eyes it may seem like child abuse, but there is plenty of information we can’t see or know. Our discomfort may be acute and may obscure our vision. Can we look more broadly at the difficulties being experienced by both the parent and the child? Can we imagine an action we might take that would bring calm to the scene? That would de-fuse rather than blow up the situation? There is no obviously correct answer here, and our sensitivities vary depending on our own experience and expectations. What can feel like a moral imperative may actually be a reaction to our own strong feelings of not liking what we’re witnessing. Can we de-link our view from our aversion?

This is a useful litmus test: are we reacting to our own not-liking, a compelling set of  sensations? Or is it less personal than that? Are we responding from a position of mettā for everyone concerned? Most of us can sense the difference, both physically and mentally, between reacting and responding. When we react, we often regret our actions; when we respond, we rarely do. Are we willing to accept the awkward period of being unsure, of waiting for clarity?

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Forgive and give space

Such a rich story (see two previous posts) – it’s made me consider my actions from a new perspective.

First thought is that we should have some compassion for Ajahn Sumedho. He was a young monk in a strange and possibly frightening situation, trying very hard to do his best using tools that had served him before. His military training might have been a handicap, along with his Protestant upbringing. For him, it would have been an unforgettably painful lesson, if a necessary one. Most of us have made similar misjudgments, perhaps not as publicly or consequentially, but all the same, there’s a lesson here for us.

Anger, impatience, righteousness – all these can make mettā impossible, and yet, we are familiar with anger, impatience, and righteousness as regular events in our consciousness. Our challenge is how best to handle these states when they arise in our experience. Can we try to imagine a larger framework when something specific is troubling us? I’m reminded of the story of small boat in the dark, with a single light at the bow. One passenger sees another boat approaching in the dark and signals them to stay to one side — no response. The warnings become louder and more insistent — still no response. Finally the boats knock bows and the furious passenger sees that there’s no one in the other boat, no one to be angry with.

In the same way, we can forgive and make space for people with special needs: crying children on crowded airplanes (along with their exhausted parents); aged, slow drivers;  war veterans who startle easily; the bereaved, who may cry at any moment. It is harder if the irritation is at someone who seems arrogant or clueless, but this only means that their obstacles are internal and not visible.

All of us, at times, need to be forgiven and given space, and if we can do the same for others, we’ll be practicing mettā in line with the Dhamma. When it seems impossible to forgive and give space, we can take an indirect route to addressing our discomfort. We can try to imagine what might make someone so careless or oblivious of the needs of others, or we can just remind ourselves that this is the nature of humans. We can also ask a wise friend if they see something in the situation that we do not; perhaps a beneficial action can be devised after some thoughtful discussion.

Sometimes we don’t notice that we are all fish swimming in the same ocean. Moving out of each others’ way helps to make life workable, but we often bump up against each other. If we choose to say “excuse me” rather than “get out of my way”, we’ll be practicing mettā. Even better, we can move through the world with an awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of living creatures, that is, we can pre-emptively forgive others and give them space.


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Story part 2

[See previous post for part 1 – both taken verbatim from “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” by Ajahn Amaro]

A few days later Ajahn Chah returned, and word reached him pretty quickly about this outrageous confrontation by the foreign monk. He took note of that. But before Ajahn Chah came back, the monk who’d been criticized and shamed in this way left the monastery and wasn’t seen again. After a few days Ajahn Chah found a moment to chat with Ajahn Sumedho and said: ‘You know, Tan Sumedho, what you said about the loud-mouth monk, you did something very harmful there. You meant well, but what you did was harmful because even though…’ the expression he used in Thai was bahk bahp, daer jai di, which means: ‘His mouth is evil, but his heart is good.’ ‘He’s got bad verbal habits. I knew that. Of course, everyone knows that. But how many monasteries do you think the fellow had to leave before he came here? This was the one place where he could stay and practise, because I made space for him. But now you’ve closed the door on him and you have to take responsibility for that; he can’t stay here anymore because you shamed him publicly. And so you have to acknowledge that that was poorly done on your part. You were right in fact, but wrong in Dhamma.’

That to me [Ajahn Amaro] is an extremely precise and helpful teaching. In our minds the two ideas are often meshed together: ‘If I’m right, then however I act on that rightness is good.’ But that’s not necessarily so, because there’s a principle whereby it’s not just a matter of what we do, but the way we do it. It’s not just the opinion we have or the way we see things, but how we express them that makes the difference. That’s the crucial element, and that’s what the young Ajahn Sumedho had missed. It was a very powerful lesson for him; he has remembered it ever since.

There’s a principle called ‘practising Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma’, dhammānudhamma paṭipatti (SN 55.5), which is one of the essential elements, the final factor for stream entry [1st stage of awakening]. If we really want to be free, it’s absolutely essential to understand and embody this principle, to truly see the difference between just having a sense of rightness, and recognizing that the way we act needs to be in accordance with the Dhamma, with fundamental reality.
Question: Ajahn [Amaro], how would you handle the dilemma with the ‘problem’ monk?

Answer: If it was me? Well, in a perfect world I would have found one of the other senior monks prior to the meeting, and taken a few minutes to say: ‘I feel pretty critical of this monk’s behaviour, and he seems to be out of order and upsetting many people. This looks really inappropriate to me, but Luang Por doesn’t seem to be saying anything about it. Is there some sort of reason? Could you throw some light on that?’ I’d seek a bit more background.

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