Caring for others and helping ourselves

at what distanceAt what distance do we stop caring?

I think this cartoon applies not just to animals in abattoirs, but to all manner of suffering in our world.  At the moment it seems that a lot of us, a lot of the time, try to keep suffering at a distance so we don’t have to think about it. Perhaps we feel forced to deal with it otherwise. How else to explain why we turn a blind eye to the billions of animals being butchered daily behind iron doors, but most of us would label as a sociopath someone who beat an animal to death on the street in front of us? Why we tolerate the gun violence when it is happening in some other country, some other state, some other town, but freak out when it gets closer to home?

Continuing on from this article.

I think due to our Buddha nature,  our innate goodness, we do have a sense of responsibility that kicks in when suffering gets close enough. Maybe it is for that reason that we prefer to physically or emotionally shut it away. However, suffering is around us all the time, and it requires a lot of exhausting mental calisthenics to ignore that. All we need to do to see suffering is “open your eyes” as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says; but we have to want to open our eyes.

Look around. Every person you see has some suffering, something they’d like solved, do they not? It is everywhere but we don’t look around as we don’t feel we can deal with it. But although our self-protective self-cherishing doesn’t want to be bothered with it, “I have to protect myself from suffering!” – in reality we are not protecting ourselves from suffering, we are carrying on suffering by ignoring others’ suffering. It is not self-protective but self-defeating. By ignoring suffering and staying absorbed in our own problems, we never solve our own problems. We’ve tried that, we know. It doesn’t work.

Suffering is not solid

animals belong in our heartsWe also need to overcome the ignorance that believes suffering is so real and so solid and so just there, so what are we supposed to do about it?! Gradually over time we understand more and more how the causes of suffering lie within our minds, and then it becomes more and more obvious how we can help solve our own and others’ problems. It is not that we have immediately to go out and save the whole world – we can’t do that – but compassion is a good and necessary step to getting closer to helping everyone. Eventually our compassion becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha, which is immensely active – protecting, blessing, and inspiring. It can genuinely help everyone experience peace of mind every day.

If we understand how blessings work, we can see how our state of mind in itself will become a source of refuge for others. And opportunities to help others will also arise more and more as our intention expands, as Nagarjuna explains, quoted here.

You may, for example, already be a very compassionate person, and although you are not always necessarily doing something, still the people around you are picking up on it. They feel better around you. We feel better around people who care for us, who want us to be free from suffering. Whether they are doing something about it or not in some ways doesn’t matter – we just want to be in the same room as them. Then, when the opportunity arises, they can help us practically too.

A Bodhisattva is someone who is developing their compassionate Buddha nature to perfection; an enlightened being is someone who has accomplished that. This is a big, universal, deep mind. We can all take the compassion we have now and slowly extend it until it becomes that, at which point we can protect people everywhere as our mind is everywhere. We can become like the sun, or the great earth supporting all living beings. Compassion is a very powerful force, as the article I quoted earlier says too:sunshine

The desire is that people see that kindness isn’t soft or syrupy but it’s actually a really powerful force and that if we actually started to prioritize it, not in a sentimental way but in the same way we might go to the gym to keep fit, it can really make a huge difference to people’s lives.

Eight Steps to Happiness explains a beautiful and extensive meditation on compassion, hopefully you have some time to check it out. In brief, we can bring others into the orbit of our compassion simply by thinking they matter, by loving them, by seeing how they suffer, and by wishing them to be free. We can start with the people for whom we already have an open heart, and then extend our love and compassion as widely as we wish. We can finish our meditation with the big thought:

May everyone be free from suffering and its causes. How wonderful this would be!

Imagine that! Everything starts in the imagination. The world is not fixed. Suffering is not fixed. Life without suffering is possible, and this is where it starts.

Have no fear

People’s hearts are good, but ignorance is our greatest enemy and destroys our happiness every single day.

bench in botanical gardens
He’d just left when I took this photo.

Earlier today in the Denver Botanical Gardens I saw an old Air Force veteran sitting all on his own looking sad, and then I saw him later near my pond. He dug into his canvas bag I thought for a sandwich, and indeed it was, but instead of eating it himself he proceeded to break it up and feed it to the fish, peering at them through the water as he did so. I thought, “May he and all those fish never experience another moment’s hunger or loneliness between now and when they attain enlightenment.” For none of them deserves to suffer, ever. None of us do. It is only our ignorance that has got us into this existential predicament.

Carrying on from this article.

Four noble truths

We talk about the “four noble truths” in Buddhism. In the first noble truth, Buddha showed that there is suffering, an endless cycle of suffering, and everyone still in samsara experiences it. In the second noble truth he identified the causes of suffering as lying within our minds – external conditions are only conditions for suffering if we have the actual causes in our mind, delusions and karma.

These delusions tend to cluster around a strong sense of self-importance, me me me, I’m the center of the universe, my happiness and suffering matter more than yours. In this article I tried to explain how we identify with a limited, painful sense of self, one that doesn’t even exist except as the object held by a wrong idea (self-grasping ignorance). Then we cherish that I, do everything we can to serve and protect it (self-cherishing).

That I — the seemingly real or inherently existent I, the I that we normally perceive — is like a puff of air blown into a balloon. The balloon is locked in a box. The box is secured in a vault. The vault is put in the bank. The bank is protected by guards.  The guards are employed by the government. And there we have it – a vast impressive bureaucracy of ego to administer and defend a big empty nothing.balloon in box

And everyone is doing it! Therefore, we suffer. And the stronger our sense of self, the stronger our sense of other. As it says in this article on some benefits of compassion that I quoted previously:

There is no-one who has not, will not, or does not suffer. By trying to identify common traits which you share it starts breaking down this barrier of defining someone as an ‘other’.

So in general when we are very self-absorbed and so on we are neither peaceful nor fulfilled because we are not living in accordance with reality. Self-cherishing that positions ourselves as more important than others leads to anger when things don’t go our way, uncontrolled desire grasping at what we think will make me happy, jealousy, miserliness, fear, and so on. One way or another, our mind is agitated. Modern society — or as we might want to put it “degenerate times” — apparently does not help us much either:

Combined with the frenetic pace of modern life, it has led to a stressed out, individualized society with a reduced capacity for empathy. As we remain vigilant to perceived threats to our own small piece of turf, compassion is the casualty.

Geshe Kelsang did say this though, and I believe him:

Full enlightenment is not easy to achieve. In these spiritually degenerate times people’s delusions are so strong, and there are so many obstacles to making progress in spiritual practice. But if we sincerely practice Kadam Dharma [Kadampa Buddhism] with a pure motivation, pure view, and unchangeable faith, we can achieve the ultimate happiness of full enlightenment in three years without any difficulty. We can do this.

Empathy

In our little experiment in this article, did you find that there was a sense that, although you really felt for another’s suffering, your mind was peaceful? Or not? Was it a bit of both? In which case, which bit was which?
empathy

Real compassion is all about the other person, identifying with their feelings etc. We have exchanged places with them in a way. And to the extent that it is about them and not us, compassion is very pure and free from any kind of pain. Also during that time it is impossible to feel impatience, at least as soon as you do the compassion has gone. Maybe your mom knows how to push your buttons and irritate you, but maybe she is very ill in hospital and you are not irritated with her at all.

The second noble truth, the causes of suffering, refers to self-grasping, self-cherishing, and their backing band delusions. These have reduced while we are cherishing others, so we are experiencing some peace. Thus, we gain a little taste of the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering and its causes; we see how this could be possible. How? Through the fourth noble truth, true paths, spiritual paths. These are states of mind such as compassion and wisdom (understanding that the I we normally perceive doesn’t exist) that cancel out our delusions and lead to their cessation.

So in this experiment, hopefully we see in our own experience how a cessation of suffering is possible. This may only be a temporary cessation for now, but through spiritual training it’s possible to get rid of our suffering for good. This is amazing, and gives us the confidence to think, “I don’t need to fear suffering. If I know its causes, I can stop it, and also apply this understanding to others to help them stop theirs.”

Reality

Generally, however, unless we want to train in renunciation or compassion, we try to avoid looking at suffering through distraction etc, and when we can’t avoid it we get depressed. As TS Eliot puts it:

Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

cow in factory farmIn that state, we don’t really want to explore suffering more deeply to see where it is coming from, let alone to look at others’ suffering. We’d much rather switch on Netflix or self-medicate. Again, in the words of TS Eliot, we spend much of our life “distracted from distraction by distraction.” But even if we were to spend 6 hours on Netflix and manage to forget about suffering for a while, does that get rid of it?

If all our efforts to get rid of suffering through distraction and diversion worked, we would be as happy as clams by this point; but instead we have the same old problems every single day of our life because we are not addressing their causes ie, the delusions and karma. For as long as we are not touching those, for as long as we are fiddling about with externals to solve our problems, we are not getting rid of the causes of suffering and experiencing cessations. The most we’re getting is some temporary relief, like scratching an itch – that is, if we’re lucky, and of course if we don’t keep scratching. Looking for freedom in external sources is a fool’s game. It has got us nowhere.

Training in compassion is not an optional extra, therefore, that might make our life a little better. It is a necessity, the actual path to happiness and fulfillment.

One more article on compassion here.

How to be a hero

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.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

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.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

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”

Be a heroI 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
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

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?

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

Geshe-la with baby deerThe Western scientific world, or at least some of it, is catching on to the benefits of compassion. According to this article:

Practicing compassion with intention has a positive physiological effect on the body. It can lower blood pressure, boost your immune response and increase your calmness… Other studies show it can be protective against disease and increase lifespan.

And this next one has got to be a clincher, right?!

Brain imaging reveals that exercising compassion stimulates the same pleasure centres associated with the drive for food, water and sex.

I knew it! Give me compassion over attachment any day. Especially universal compassion. Moreover, whether we have love or compassion for someone depends on us, not them. Compassion can therefore become a guaranteed source of pleasure — unlike food, water, or sex, which can and do also cause us pain.

If you are uncertain as to how compassion can be pleasurable, it might help to think about how and why love is a happy mind — as we get that already — and compare that to compassion, which is just the other side of the coin. So, with love, we do focus first on how others do not experience the happiness they long for — but the actual love is the wish for them to be happy, and this wish feels great. Similarly, with compassion we do focus first on others’ suffering to develop the wish for them to be freed from it, but the actual compassion is the wish for them to be free – and this wish feels good too. And solution-oriented.

suffering

As you have probably noticed, there is no shortage of people to develop compassion for. Buddha pointed out that there is no one with an uncontrolled mind who is not a suitable object of compassion. Why? Because uncontrolled minds = suffering. Every single person and animal is suffering. Most are suffering a great deal. And this is not just now, but pretty much all the time, life after life. Therefore, everyone can be the object of our compassionate wish, “May they be free.”

Hang on, universal compassion is a bit of a stretch, surely?!

Does universal compassion seem pie in the sky to you right now? Try this simple experiment for me – just close your eyes and develop the thought, “May everyone be free from suffering and its causes.” Don’t think too much, just do it for a couple of minutes.

PAUSE FOR TWO MINUTES

Did you manage it? Amazing if so, because that is a mind of universal compassion. If we had that all the time, imagine! Even a minute or two is encouraging for it shows we are capable of developing these vast beautiful minds, we are capable of thinking of others when we put our mind to it. Imagine always having this thought, and imagine it becoming deeper and vaster – you’d actually be a Buddha.

In fact, whenever you are developing compassion you can feel that it is inseparable from the compassion of all enlightened beings, and let their blessings pour into you while you are at it.

Being able to develop compassion like this, even if briefly, even if relatively superficially, shows that we have Buddha nature, the potential to be a fully in the heart of even the cruellest person...enlightened being, who has completely realized universal compassion. It is one of a Buddha’s two principal ingredients, the other being wisdom. And there is no living being who does not have this potential. Even Western science, in its own way, is figuring out that compassion is part of our very make-up:

Not only are we hard-wired to be kind, but it is essential for the survival of our species…. People are much happier and live a better life if they are able to maximise their genetic potential for being compassionate, and it has a significant contagion effect on others, motivating them to be more kind….

and

There is an emerging mental health movement relying less on pharmaceutical interventions and more on innate human traits such as empathy, altruism, kindness and resilience.

Also, having compassion not just for the symptoms but for where suffering is coming from, its causes – wanting everyone to be free from their delusions and contaminated karma — is an even more solution-oriented and pleasurable mind. Through training, this wish is perfectly possible and a very desirable state of mind to cultivate.

I like watching videos of people and animals being compassionate, it is one of my favorite uses of Facebook. I am not alone, millions of people do. I think it shows how pleasing compassion is to us.

More articles on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, please contribute your comments on this lovely subject.