(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.
Love this one. I do struggle with this, but keep trying and feel a little progress I think. This approach really helps. Thank you.
I feel that disappointment is the main reason for my emotional pain. I am a giving person, and empathise with others, when I show kindness and compasssion to some people only to recieve unpleasant behaviour back it hurts me. I do not want to stop being kind and giving but want to stop being taken advantage of and being hurt. How do I seperate these things to prevent being hurt?
Good question. They can be separated, so that is a start. Remember that you can always choose who you love, it is not up to them, so no one can take advantage of you. If you keep unconditional love in your heart, you cannot actually be hurt. It is a work in progress.
What about when others perceive your actions as “not being in the fire with them” “not caring” or removed from the actual suffering the are experiencing? From my side I can continue to work at giving them blessings and love but they get mad because the care you’re showing is not the care they want?
Btw, this is a wonderful and vibrant article.
We can’t always do much about how others perceive us. It is hard to control others thoughts when we have a hard time controlling our own 😉 However, meanwhile, I don’t think there is anything to stop us trying to give them the kind of care they want, as well as love and blessings. The Bodhisattva training includes practical precepts such as going to the assistance of those in need, as well as the main job of working on the mind so as to be of even greater benefit in the future.
I am too new to comment with any authority. However, I do now feel that my life has a purpose.
Hi Sam, you don’t need to have authority to comment on this site! Just share your experience, experience can never be wrong.
Hi. I would like to try to share my thoughts about if compassion brings also pain.
I’ve got this question for a long time, and also the only place where Geshe-la clearly identifies this issue is (at least that I’m aware) is Ocean of Nectar. It’s something like compassion brings peace, therefore it cannot be causing suffering at the same time, otherwise it would not be a virtuous mind.
For me this is a logical, but theoretical explanation; I understand it, but still I’m not sure if that is enough for the pain to go away at my ignorant present state. When I attain the realization of universal compassion, I have no doubt it will be like this, but in the meantime?
My guess is that if your compassion transforms into bodhichitta, you do not only perceive other beings’ suffering, but at the same time you have the key that will liberate them permanently from their suffering. That mind should give you comfort and happiness.
A natural question comes from this argument. ..But right know they are suffering, even though I am a Bodhisatva (or in the path to becoming one =) ). In a recent teaching, Genla Kunsang said that when we engage in sincere actions, prayers or dedications, we are helping other beings right now, because we are creating the cause for them to be truly happy in the future, and we should not think this is not true only because we can’t see the result. With bodhichita, all my actions, especially my mental actions, are the causes for all sentient beings’ happiness. Right now I’m giving them happiness, it’s only a matter of time for this to become real, so even though their suffering still appears to my mind, is only because I still have ignorance. Hence I feel comforted, happy, peaceful. I’m helping them to really solve their problems, and this can only become more powerful as I get closer and closer to Buddhahood. There is no place for pain in this mind
Also, when Geshe-la explained in a festival the practice of taking and giving, he said that of course you were taking the suffering right now and giving happiness right now, because there is no samsara or nirvana other than mere name.
I have some personal experience of the truth of what you are saying about compassion protecting us and others from suffering. Several years ago I had a Bernese Mountain dog who was affectionate, playful, flirty and full of himself. I was very fond of him. He developed a limp and was found to have bone cancer. Tests determined that it had not metastasized. The options were to amputate his rear leg, giving him a chance to have a fairly normal life, or allow the disease to take its course, resulting in terrible pain for Obie. Due to my attachment to who he had been before he became sick it was very painful for me to proceed with the amputation. When I picked him up from the vet’s after his surgery I was told that I should not feel sorry for him as this would cause him to become depressed. Instead I should maintain a chirpy and encouraging manner. Since he could not negotiate the stairs to the living level of our house I spent as much time as possible with him in the basement and slept on the floor with him to keep him company.
The vet had told me that if the cancer returned I would know because he would stop eating due to the pain. There would be nothing further that could be done for him. I decided to prepare him to die. Every day I recited the Heart Sutra to him and did Avalokiteshvara puja with him to prepare him for a powa (transference of consciousness) at the end of his life so he could go to a pure land. He was with me during my daily practice and listened to Avalokiteshvara puja on continuous play cassette when I was out of the house. I resolved to think of him as a migrator, bound for future lives, and not as my pet dog. He had several bouts with edemas in his ears, had surgeries to deal with those and wore an Elizabethan collar for long periods. He was able to go for walks and even hikes. He was much like he used to be except he wasn’t full of himself. He received 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara empowerment with the torma on his crown in the meditation room at our temporary Center in a converted garage. He purified a lot of negative karma thru his physical suffering and his attachment to wanting things eroded. Finally the time came when he wouldn’t eat. Just a few days before he had gone on a short hike with us. I tried special treats but he wasn’t interested. The January Lamrim retreat had just started and I was doing my sessions at the Temple. I didn’t want to leave him alone and decided to consult my resident teacher Gen-la Dekyong. She said I should do the sessions at home with him, he was family and I should be with him. She said that sometimes it takes a long time for someone to die after they stop eating, but that if I were not attached to him I could pray that Geshe-la would take him to the Pure Land when it was time. I took this to mean that I could do this if my motivation were pure and I was only considering his happiness. I was to put a picture of Geshe-la on his crown when he died and then leave him for a time without touching the lower parts of his body. I asked if he might die when I was asleep or out for the room (we were sleeping in my meditation space). She said that if he realized that I was not anxious about him he would die when I was with him. I began doing all my sessions with him. Two days later during my second session, as I was reciting the last verse of the Prayer of the Stages of the Path I saw his tongue curl back. I knew he was dying. I grabbed my picture of Geshe-la and touched it to his crown. I had a strong sense that he had been taken to the Pure Land and was so happy for him. He was now better off than anyone I knew! I opened the window to the room to let the cold air in and went to the Temple to share the good news about Obie. A few days later we did a powa for him in my meditation space but I was sure he was already in Geshe-la’s Pure Land.
I’ve said before that I don’t shy away from hard things, from other people’s pain. I think this is largely because I understood from a very young age that suffering is part of the deal. I also believe my experience of living with and overcoming my own pain expanded my capacity to regard others’ pain. And obviously I’m not unique in this, in fact I think it’s how it works. It’s sort of the pay off.
But a few years ago things went very, very wrong for me, and I encountered a different version of myself. I was taken so far beyond my ability to cope that I quite literally died inside. One of the most enduring impressions I have from that time is the experience of being unable to deal with anything that smacked of pain and suffering. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I simply couldn’t deal with it.
It was the unhappiest time of my life. All my energy, all of my resources were directed inward. All I could manage was self-preservation. I had nothing left over for anyone else. Self-cherishing, turbo-charged by conditions that exhausted my usual capacity to rise above it, completely overcame my hard earned compassion. It was a very humbling experience that shattered several cornerstones of my identity.
Eventually things stabilized and I’m happy to say that this incapacity to look at suffering didn’t stay with me. But I am changed from this experience of finding the my own edges. Now I’m learning to have compassion for people whose baseline tolerance for regarding others’ suffering is where mine was at that time.
Simon’s post got me thinking again and right back to the view that our pain is a reminder to us that we are not yet Buddha, our compassion is a reminder to us that some day we will be. Until that day they get mixed up, in the same way that our love and our attachment get mixed up and we mistakenly conclude that Love hurts.
Surely whilst our minds are tied up with self-grasping all of our virtuous intentions can easily become mixed with some less wholesome features?
How many of us have tasted uncontaminated inner peace? Or is it that for most of us any inner peace that comes is a kind of ‘similitude’ of what true inner peace might taste like simply because our self-grasping always interferes with our happiness at some level?
This is a wonderfully structured and well written post about an important topic.
I would love to resolve the apparent contradiction is the statement; “with cherishing others we find other’s suffering unbearable,” followed by the statement that with compassion for others and in cherishing them we do not have “any mental pain.”
Here there seems to be too different things “the unbearable suffering of others” and “no mental pain.” If we are “bearing“ the suffering of others (this is logically infallible, because we have said that is “unbearable”), how is there no mental pain? Indeed if we have truly exchanged self with others, we would be in position to empathise with their suffering.
I say apparent because I take these world as being completely non deceptive and enlightening (coming from Geshe-La) but I can only reach that conclusion on faith. Each and every time I try to find the truth of there no being no mental pain in cherishing others (when not mixed with self-cherishing), through analytical or experiential investigation, I cannot reach that conclusion.
Looking in the Oxford Dictionary, Unbearable means “Not to be endured or tolerated”. The definition of “Endure” is to “suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently”. It is absolutely true, that our compassion can drive our wish to liberate others from their suffering, and in this way we are looking to permanently end their suffering. In this way, yes compassion is a call to action, not just a reason to stay seated and emotionally moved by the suffering of others. This makes sense.
However, by looking at the definition of unbearable alone, to say that we are not moved to compassionate action completely without any mental pain I simply cannot follow. Surely we see their pain, we feel their pain and we have to take it away. I we were not at all moved or stirred by the suffering of others (their ageing, sickness and death or the sufferings of animals and humans, hunger, cold, heat and so forth); what would be the fuel for the fire of our compassion.
If we imagine any other time that we would use the term “unbearable”; what images does it conjure up in the mind. For example unbearable heat, and extremely cold temperatures or complete starvation. Of course a lojong practioner can remove any mental pain through training in patience, but still the term unbearable suggests that something is to be beared.
I like the way that you have analytical divided the beneficial and unhelpful ways of looking at your cats illness, and I wholeheartedly agree that most if not all of the time we are mixing our compassion and wish to give happiness and liberation to others with self-cherishing. Your cat is close to you and therefore I agree with the various minds of attachment ( my cat) and non-equanimity (him being the most important cat) you describe. I always appreciate your honesty and well balanced thinking. I think your animals are blessed by your wisdom.
Therefore I wanted to explore another example of a couple of mice that came in to my flat a while ago. These mice came into the kitchen looking for food. They played a game of hide and seek for a few weeks and I tried to catch them (using a non lethal trap) so that I could find them a new home. One day I even saw one of the faces pop its head round the door. What a beautiful little creature, a precious sentient being! I whispered “please go into the trap for that lovely bit of cheese and we can find you a lovely home”….Alas, unfortunately hot weather came and one day I saw the two mice outside just a few metres from the back door. They had passed away. Perhaps it was the heat, lack of a food, a cat, who knows. Seeing their bodies, I felt some sadness it my heart; I had tried to do all I can to save them but alas within the pervasive suffering of samara I could not help (Yes Powa can be used). It made me think of all of the sufferings of animals and how many there are beyond my eyes and knowledge. Of course, when things like this happen, it reinforces our renunciation; it makes me want to be a better practitioner, to practise greater effort to reach liberation to help others.
As I felt pain, this leaves me searching for the self-cherishing. Versus the cats in your example; This mice are not pets and it they cost me nothing. It would be tricky to say that I am attached to them; I think that wanting them to live and be free from suffering is not attachment, I am not attached to them not eating my food or not getting in my way; all I want was for them to live. Also it wasn’t just a personal crusade for “me” to save these particular mice; if the same situation was happening in my neighbours flat I would equally think; I hope those mice don’t suffer.
Perhaps when Geshe-La says that we can practise the “patience of voluntarily accepting suffering”; do you think that in cases like these we need to practise the patience of enduring the suffering of others (e.g. doing everything that we can with our current wisdom and compassion but accepting our current limitations). Only through liberation would there be any power to save these creatures (permanently).
If we think of the many current sufferings in the world (particularly hunger); when we first hear these things and perhaps cry a little; isn’t this like the birth of compassion. When we really feel some pain in others or perhaps injustice, is this the call to action, isn’t there a little pain. I think of Martin Luther king who was clearly moved and because of that acted with incredible wisdom and compassion to help others. Perhaps a bit of sadness them moves us to compassion. Either way, I still can’t remove the little bits of feeling pain for others from the compassionate wish to help them. For me it is the very empathy with how they feel (and thus imaging their particular suffering), that makes me want to try harder to find the solution. Without the “unbearable” feeling of their pain; I cannot see why I would have the motivation to wish to liberate them.
For me Luna, you are a wonderful supreme emanation, am I wholeheartedly appreciate the exquisite timing of your posts which are all propelling me in the right direction. Please therefore help me with your wisdom to help me understand compassion better and try to see it as completely unmixed with pain. I am a humble practitioner who knows little, please do challenge and correct me as best you can. In fact I know I am wrong; but sincerely I would like to see the logical way of thinking to understand compassion better.
I smiled when I read this. Examples about cats are particularly helpful for me right now. In the past 4 months, our household went from 2 to 7 cats.
I have been finding myself in the middle of the internal conversation: Self-Cherishing (I also call it the “Freaking Out” voice) and Compassion (the voice of Gentle Assurance and Reason).
Two stray cats appeared – the first pregnant (surprise!) and the second is infected with Feline Leukemia.
The dialogue begins: “I must do whatever I can to help these beings. They need protection, shelter, food, safety” versus “Oh no…how will I find homes for everyone…I need to find money for all these vet visits, food, litter…where will I put them all…why can’t they get along?…what if my own cats get sick…what if…what if…”
The whole house has been in upheaval for weeks and weeks. The mind that wants to sit down in despair, head in hands, collapsing under worry and strain is relentlessly shouting. The gentle strong voice of compassion keeps a steady firm voice that moves into deliberate and positive actions.
Day by day, I get to taste the threshold moment of intention. Endless opportunity to ask which mind to listen to, which one to follow. If I listen to the self-cherishing what kind of experience comes? If I stay with the compassion…?
The evidence is strongly convincing, although not always easy to stay with – when I choose worry, I feel clumsy in my decisions, I take on the strain and stress of the cats and feel hopeless. When I choose to focus on my intention to help them all, I slow down, find solutions to each new problem (which keep coming!), and the cats are less agitated as a result.
Working this practice is not easy, but it gives the perfect evidence that I can choose an anxious painful mind that feels incapable, uncertain and fearful OR I can remain with the mind that finds solutions, one at a time and is healed by focusing solely on how to help these cats.
I call them my representatives for ALL beings. Thanks for the post – off to cat food and litter box duty!
I’m not sure Buddha really knew what he was talking about. Lots of people seem to have become enlightened, yet few if any have had really profound thoughts which made any sense.
For example, Buddha told monks not to grow their own food, because they would kill insects in the process. So they begged for food from others. This clearly does not make sense. Insects will be killed either way. It almost seems selfish, in fact, and implies that one should have a “holier than thou” attitude.
I haven’t studied enough Buddhism yet to know if there are lots of other contradictions in the Sutras, or if there are any worthy patches… but so far I am disappointed with the one system that seems more rational than the others.
yes, self cherishing is a mind that prevents you from seeing your ultimate true nature, which is your potential to become Enlightened. Self cherishing is based on delusions of the mind and keeps you fixed and worried instead of solution oriented, stay on the path and look at your self cherishing mind when it shows up and recognize it, then you can start to reduce it, and finally abandon it.
“What would Buddha do” is a beautiful question. I believe it challenges us to think about the union of compassion and wisdom. Also, about the long term – permanent liberation from suffering. So often our loved ones have desires that are not really good for anyone. They make demands of us that we cannot fulfill and they may even get angry with us for not fulfilling their wishes. Often I get trapped in “pleasing” or “placating” rather than true compassionate action. We need both wisdom AND compassion to be of real service. One might even say, detaching with love. ~ Evie