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.