I’ve often written about how experiencing compassion for ourselves can naturally spill over to experiencing compassion for other people. When someone says something that you find hurtful, that hurt is a form of suffering. Often what we do is try to become angry, ultimately in an effort to rid of the “cause” of the suffering (the other person) and thus remove the hurt. This is a kind of double aversion, because not only are we experiencing aversion to the person whose words gave rise to the feeling of hurt, but we’re turning away from the hurt itself.
A compassionate approach to dealing with hurt, on the other hand, is to drop both these forms of aversion: let go of the thoughts of anger the moment we become aware of their presence, and turn toward the hurt, with compassion. We train ourselves to “drop down” below the level of emotion and thought, down to the level of raw feeling — that ache, that bruise, that sense of having been “punched in the gut.” When we embrace our own hurt with a mind of compassion — when we wish it well, as we would with a dear friend who was in pain — there is no need for anger. Our anger becomes redundant, because its purpose is to deal with our hurt, and our hurt is now being dealt with much more effectively. And having empathized with our own pain, we can then feel empathy for the other person and have compassion for them. From turning toward our pain in this way to experiencing compassion for the other person often takes seconds.
But it works the other way around as well. Having compassion for others helps us to be more compassionate toward our own pain, to drop our aversion toward it, and to accept its presence with an even mind.
There’s a great illustration of this that comes from the Buddha’s life. There was a time when the Buddha was injured by a falling rock. Tradition has it that the rock was pushed down a hillside by the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who desired to take control of the Sangha. The rock missed the Buddha, but a splinter flew off it and injured his foot severely, causing great pain. (I have to say, though, that the symbolism of Devadatta taking something whole and creating a splinter [group?] that hurt the Buddha seems too good to be true.)
So the Buddha, injured, and in agony, is lying down in a hut, mindful and alert, when he receives a visitor in the form of Māra, the Buddhist personification of doubt. And Māra taunts the Buddha about how he’s lying there in a stupor, unable to do anything, unable to fulfill his goals of teaching beings to liberate themselves, lying there as if he were a dreamer.
So you can imagine anyone, injured and in pain, unable to do what they loved, having this kind of doubt.
The appearance of Māra is interesting. As the personification of doubt, his presence implies that the Buddha was not entirely immune to those inner voices that taunt us that we’re not good enough. Those voices still arise for him, but he’s able to face them and send them packing. And that’s what happens in this case.
And the Buddha says something very interesting. He says, amongst other things: “I lie down with sympathy for all beings.”
And Māra realizes he’s defeated, and vanishes. The Buddha’s self-doubt vanishes. Doubt arise for the Buddha, but they can’t “infect” his mind. His clarity and mindfulness act as a psychological immune system.
So what about “I lie down with sympathy for all beings” makes it an effective immune response to protect the Buddha against suffering and doubt?
Well, when we’re in pain — when we’re lonely or sick, for example — we tend to assume that there’s something special about it, and about us. We’ve been singled out: “Why me?” We’ve been afflicted with an especially severe form of suffering: “This is terrible! I can’t bear it!” And these thoughts intensify our suffering.
But when we consider others’ sufferings — when we “lie down with sympathy for all beings” — we realize that we’re all in it together, and that many other people have it worse than we do. You have a cold? Someone else has just been diagnosed with cancer. You have cancer? Someone else has just learned that their child has cancer. When we recognize the commonness of suffering, and have sympathy and compassion for others’ pain, we can (once again) let go of our stories — let go of our thoughts and emotions — and drop down to the level of raw feeling, and have compassion for that pain too.
So having compassion for ourselves frees us up to have compassion for others, but having compassion for others can also free us up to have compassion for ourselves, and to bear with our suffering mindfully, and without aversion.