Family Dharma: Leaning into Suffering

Beth Roth

The Buddha taught compassion as one of four Brahma Viharas.  The Pali word Brahma means “heavenly” or “divine,” and Vihara means “home” or “abode.” Thus compassion, along with lovingkindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity are called The Four Divine Abodes.  These are said to be the most beautiful and powerful states that human beings can experience. The Four Divine Abodes are natural states of the human mind and heart, yet they are often obscured by our conditioning, habits, and difficult emotions.  The Buddha said that to reflect often upon these states, and to engage in meditation practices to strengthen them, is to enter into a process of deep spiritual transformation.  Those who do so will over time establish love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as their home.  The Four Divine Abodes promote individual happiness and support peace and happiness in the world. 

Compassion is an opening of the heart in direct response to suffering.  The Buddha named birth, illness, aging, and death as the four types of suffering experienced by every human being.  Suffering also refers to physical pain and discomfort, and to emotions and mind states that preclude coexistent happiness and well-being.  Common examples are sorrow, fear, anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, aversion, confusion, anxiety, disappointment, shame, and guilt.  These states afflict us from within and cause personal suffering.  They also manifest in our relationships and in the world, creating all types of interpersonal and communal suffering.  Although the Pali word dukkha is most often translated into English as “suffering,” other common translations point to the comprehensive meaning of dukkha:  illness, unhappiness, neuroses, discomfort, pervasive unsatisfactoriness, or perhaps most simply, stress. 

Compassion arises when we meet pain or suffering with love. The Pali word karuna, which translates into English as “compassion,” literally means “the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to a being’s pain.”  Over the years I have grown to appreciate the two parts of this definition.  First, “the trembling or quivering of the heart” so beautifully describes how compassion is based on a strong feeling of connection and empathy.  It means we recognize our commonality as human beings.  In the words of the Dalai Lama, “All human beings are the same - made of human flesh, bones and blood.  We all want happiness and want to avoid suffering.  Further, we all have an equal right to be happy.  It is important to realize our sameness as human beings.”

The second part of the definition of karuna, “in response to a being’s pain,” means that since every person is a being, we are called upon to meet not only another’s suffering with love, but also our own.  The Buddha said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere.”  When we are suffering, we are as much in need of our compassion as is any other being, and we are equally deserving of it.  As Jack Kornfield teaches, “Compassion blossoms only when we remember ourself and others, when the two sides are in harmony.”

In order to offer compassion to ourselves we must know that we are suffering.  This isn’t as easy as it might appear.  When we experience sudden, intense, unexpected, or prolonged physical or emotional pain, it definitely grabs our attention.  We know we are suffering.  But according to Buddhist psychology, every moment of life when happiness and inner peace are absent is a moment of suffering.  When I’m rushing, impatient, irritated, frustrated, anxious, angry, fearful, bored, sad, or jealous, when I’m filled with desire for something I want that I don’t have, or feel aversion for something I do have that I don’t want, I am suffering.  When I’m reliving a painful experience from the past or imagining a future one, I am suffering.  In the fast pace of life, and with strong habits of not wanting to experience the unpleasant, multitudes of moments like these go by without my full attention.  Although I may be vaguely aware that I’m unhappy, I tend to attribute my unhappiness to other people and external circumstances.  In these difficult moments, I habitually abandon my inner world and focus my attention outside myself, complaining about or perhaps trying to fix what appears to be wrong.  I miss innumerable opportunities to become intimate with my physical and emotional discomfort.  I learn nothing new about my suffering, and fail to meet my own pain with compassion.

The Buddha’s injunction that we extend compassion to ourselves requires that after recognizing our suffering, we respond to it with love.  This takes courage and commitment.  It means not looking away, not seeking distractions when offered the opportunity to be present for our own pain.  In the words of Joanna Macy, we learn to “sustain the gaze.”  To recognize our suffering and respond to it with compassion is a gradual process, and it must be done with sensitivity and care.  As we develop our internal resources, we may also need reliable external support – a good friend, an experienced meditation partner or teacher, a skilled therapist.  This is not a path we need to walk alone, and it can at times be unwise to attempt this type of healing as a solitary endeavor.

When practicing compassion as a formal meditation, the traditional phrases are “May I be held in compassion.  May my pain and sorrow be eased.  May I be at peace.”  If freedom from pain and sorrow seems impossible because of physical illness or other circumstances, we may need to experiment to find more resonant phrases.  For example, “May I care for my body just as it is,” or “May I meet this suffering with tenderness and love.”  We choose a certain length of time for formal compassion practice, and after settling the body and mind, say the phrases over and over silently to ourselves.  Alternately, we can repeat the phrases a few times at the beginning and end of our usual breathing meditation practice.  As we repeat our chosen phrases, the words themselves become the object of our attention.  We return to the words, and the meaning beneath the words, each time that our attention is pulled away by other things.  We can also insert these phrases into any moment of the day, saying them silently to ourselves as we engage in ordinary activities.

In traditional compassion meditation there are six directions, or categories of people to whom we offer our expression of caring, and there is a specific order.  We begin with a person we know, someone who is experiencing significant pain or suffering.  From there we move to ourselves, then to a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person, a difficult person, and finally, to all beings everywhere.  We are instructed to begin with a person we care about who is actually suffering because this will enable our natural compassion to arise more easily.  However, we can change the order as we wish, taking on greater challenges as our skills grow.  We can decide whether to work with one direction of compassion practice for weeks or months before moving on to another, or choose any combination as our compassion practice for a period of time.

The ability to offer compassion to oneself is the pre-requisite to being able to offer compassion to others.  If I run from my own pain, or habitually meet it with denial, aversion, distraction, or even self-pity, I will have little option but to react to the suffering of others with denial, aversion, distraction, or pity.  All these reactions are based on fear and separation, whether from oneself or others, whereas compassion is based on love and connection, both to oneself and to others.  Pema Chodron explains that our own painful experiences are our greatest resource for compassion practice.  “If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone.  This practice cuts through culture, economic status, intelligence, race, religion.  People everywhere feel pain - jealousy, anger, being left out, feeling lonely.  Everybody feels that exactly the way you feel it.  The story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all.”

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ItsMarissa1217's picture

To me I find the second part of the definition of karuna to be the most meaningful to me. I never did realize until reading this article that so many things can be considered suffering. When I am studying late at night for a test I always thought that was suffering, but when I am running late to the test that is also suffering. This helps me realize that almost everyone is always suffering, there are very few moments in one’s life when they can say that they are completely happy. This really does help me to open my mind up to every situation a friend talks about, or a stranger for that matter. When my roommate tells me that she is bored I will no longer write that off as useless information, but rather understand that is her current form of suffering and thus react to it with a fashion of love.
The other thing that really struck me was how when I think of me suffering personally I tend to find it selfish to dwell on my own misfortunes but to focus on the misfortunes of others. Well by focusing on my own suffering and reacting too it with love whether that be in the form of a simple prayer or a talk with a friend. If I can personally overcome my own suffering than I can focus fully on the suffering of others.