(Part of the series Is compassion happy or sad?)
The main reason why thinking of others’ suffering hurts is due to our self-cherishing. This is not always obvious. In fact it’s quite subtle.
A dumb but destructive mind
Self-cherishing believes that our self that we normally see (an inherently existent me) is supremely important, and that its happiness and freedom are supremely important. That inherently existent I is in fact non-existent, so self-cherishing is a really idiotic mind, which has nonetheless managed to pull the wool over our eyes since beginningless time! For us, self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing are almost the same, as Geshe Kelsang said in Summer Festival 2009. They are both aspects of our ignorance and, as such, the root of all our misfortune and suffering. To be clear, self-cherishing is not the same as caring for ourselves.
How can I bear this?
In Modern Buddhism, page 78, Geshe Kelsang explains how with self-cherishing we find our own problems unbearable, and this makes us suffer, and how with cherishing others we find others’ suffering unbearable.
Why, one may wonder, would I then try to cherish others – it is bad enough cherishing just one person, me! Surely if I cherish others and then find their suffering unbearable too, I’ll just collapse in an agonized heap?
No. The interesting and profound thing about it is that if we don’t have self-cherishing, we don’t experience any mental pain. Ever. Cherishing others, we find their suffering unbearable, but it doesn’t hurt! It is compassion, which is by nature a peaceful, positive mind and leads to the everlasting happiness of enlightenment. Geshe Kelsang explained this in 2009, pointing out that we can see from this that it is self-cherishing alone that is making us unhappy. (Implicitly this seems to suggest that it is not contemplating others’ suffering, or even our own, that in itself makes us unhappy.)
Exchanging myself with others
If this is true, it has far-reaching consequences because it really does mean that all we need to do is change our views and intentions by removing self-cherishing from our minds and cherishing others instead (also known as exchanging self with others). According to Kadam Lamrim, this is the actual way to become a Buddha, and it is devastatingly simple – anyone can do it through the force of determination and meditation. It may take a while at first to get going with it, like anything, and we’ll have to review the reasons a lot more than once; but with familiarity it becomes easy. If we believe this, we will gradually lose all resistance to contemplating others’ suffering and generate compassion, enabling us to attain the bliss of enlightenment.
Does it really work?
To believe it, I think we have to “suck it and see”, as they say. Does it really work? If I reduce my self-cherishing, and then contemplate my loved ones’ suffering, will it really not hurt my mind? I tried to apply this to one specific scenario, the swelling of Rousseau’s third eyelids. (I have of course many other scary examples I could use, such as friends with serious illnesses, but the same principles will apply.)
What is happening when I look at Rousseau’s eyes at the moment? His eyes appear unsightly and unpleasant to my mind and various things are going on if I’m honest:
(1) I love this cat, feel for him, and want him to be free from sore, itchy eyes and having to stay inside all day long, which he loathes.
(2) I will do anything it takes to make him feel better.
(1) Those swollen eyes mean expense at the vet. This is his second infection in three months and I cannot afford to keep paying for his treatments.
(2) Pushing and grasping – if his eyes aren’t completely better after 5 whole days, someone’s gotta do something! This is desperate. Panic.
(3) I am guilty that I allow him to roam free outside so he can pick up infections, even though I feel even more guilty keeping him cooped up inside in prison his entire life. I can’t win. It’s frustrating.
(4) It is more urgent to get rid of his suffering than that of all the other cats in the neighborhood, nay in the world.
(5) I feel woefully inadequate at protecting him from sickness and suffering even though he is my responsibility. I am a failure.
Yes, the good bits are all about him. And if I can stick to the good bits, no matter how much I consider his sickness, I feel no mental pain at all. I’ve been trying it, it is true. Good bit (1) is also a basis for wishing better things for him, like complete liberation from all sufferings, and good bit (2) is the basis for my determination to become a Buddha as quickly as possible to help him become one too. That is actually bodhichitta, a most blissful state of mind. I can even think: “What would a Buddha do in this situation?” and then approximate it. (For one thing, Buddha would be giving him mental peace through blessing his mind – something we can do somewhat ourselves already, especially if we identify with being a Buddha right now — perhaps a subject for another day. Meantime, see Joyful Path pages 60-61 and page 116 for how to self-generate as Buddha Shakyamuni out of bodhichitta, and bless others, even without an empowerment.)
The 5 not-so-good bits are all about me, and they are what are actually causing my pain and worry. They are also the basis for all inappropriate attention and getting stuck down grimy mental cul de sacs, such as (1) dwelling on his eyes in an unhelpful fashion, and then on how little money I have to fix him, and then moving on to all the things that can go wrong, requiring money; (2) not letting things run their karmic course but trying to force all the issues ahead of time, impatiently grasping at results, not seeing the mere (mistaken) appearance of the situation; (3) guilt, which is an entirely useless, cracked-record state of mind; (4) finding Rousseau’s suffering to be more important than the suffering of a gazillion other cats in the world, just because he is my cat, instead of having equanimity and universal compassion; and (5) identifying with my current limitations as opposed to figuring out that I need to, and I can, swiftly get into a position where I can help EVERYONE by practicing Kadam Dharma – going down the open road.
I have been reading both too much into Rousseau’s eyes (with inappropriate attention, causing worry) and too little (not recognizing them as a symptom of needing to get him and all of us out of samsara altogether).
“Question ourselves and give ourselves the answer”
You can try doing something similar with the person you are most worried about right now, including even your own child – what is going on in my mind, the good bits and the not-so-good bits. As Geshe Kelsang suggested in 2009 when analyzing whether or not self-cherishing is indeed the root of our suffering, we can “question ourselves” and “give ourselves the answer.” (No doubt we’ll have to do this a number of times before the answer sticks.) Please let us know in the comments what you discovered.
Jennifer, my neighbor, also loves Rousseau and often has him to visit, but she is not over-dwelling on his problems – she is not worried about him, and is simply efficiently helping me put in his eye drops, confident that he’ll feel better soon. And although we sometimes want other people to worry about our loved ones with us, for misery loves company, in fact it is far more uplifting when they are not worried, but simply care.
Finally, exchanging self with others is primarily a mental training — we change our thoughts, and our physical and verbal behavior naturally follows suit. Which leads me to a question I have for you, which I’ll ask soon.
Your turn: Do you think your self-cherishing is responsible for all your mental pain or not? Please share your experiences.