One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)
Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.” If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.
As Geshe Kelsang says:
Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.
Brief compassion experiment
We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.
We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.
We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering. What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.
Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?
We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.
“You need to go and let him out, then”
I don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.
A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”
I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.
Moral of the tale
I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.
Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.
The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)
Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.
From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.
The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?