Compassion as an antidote for our own suffering (Day 45)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you.

  • I’m sorry, but I see your suggestion as a complete reversal of the norm. Compassion comes from the heart. You cannot direct it at yourself, that’s not compassion, but self pity. On the other hand if you first find compassion for others you will realise how fortunate you are and so any need for self pampering, as an escape from self pity, will no longer exist.
    In your first example, having compassion for another would possibly show you that they had a problem themselves which caused them to say something hurtful. So in fact their comment should not be taken to heart! Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying we never do anything to upset someone, but simply that compassion will show you if you deserved an unfriendly word or whether that word was simply a thoughtless or misplaced remark created by circumstances you may not know of.
    If you feel you deserved a rebuke then it’s a chance to learn another lesson. In either case, as I see it, there is no reason to feel hurt and suffer and no need to indulge in “self compassion”
    These are just my personal feelings, so if you have anything to comment or advise on, I would be most grateful for your opinion.

    • The notion that compassion can’t be directed at yourself seems rather odd. It’s possible to direct anger at yourself. It’s possible to direct compassion at yourself.

      Directing compassion at yourself is not self-pity, and has nothing to do with “self-pampering”; perhaps you’re not very clear on the distinctions between self-compassion, self-pity, and self-indulgence, but just as compassion for others is not the same as having pity for them or for indulging them, compassion for our own pain is not the same as having self-pity or of indulging ourselves.

  • English Dictionary Definition of compassion

    sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others:the victims should be treated with compassion


    Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati ‘suffer with’


    com·pas·sion (km-pshn)
    Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. See Synonyms at pity.
    [Middle English compassioun, from Late Latin compassi, compassin-, from compassus, past participle of compat, to sympathize : Latin com-, com- + Latin pat, to suffer; see p(i)- in Indo-European roots.]

    I don’t believe it’s possible to direct real anger at yourself irritation or a sense of failure maybe, but not Anger per se.

    • Well, there are problems with replying on dictionary definitions rather than on experience and common sense. The fact that you’re now denying that it’s possible to be angry with yourself is a measure of the tangle you’ve gotten yourself into.

      You haven’t, by the way, said why you think it’s impossible to feel compassion for your own pain. “Because dictionary” isn’t a very intellectually satisfying argument.

      The term “self-compassion” incidentally, goes back at least to 1677, where it appears in Richard Allestree’s The Art of Contentment. This is another reason for not relying completely on dictionaries — while useful, they’re necessarily an incomplete guide to language use.

  • Actually, I just remembered that I’ve had this conversation before. Last time I pointed out that the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “self-compassion”:

    self-compassion n. compassion for oneself.
    a1634 G. Chapman Revenge for Honour (1654) ii. i. 202 Self-compassion, soothing us to faith Of what we wish should hap. [Oxford English Dictionary]

    So if you need a dictionary definition, there you go. You can’t get better than the OED.

  • I’m sorry to say I was rather disappointed with your reply. I felt it to be rather lacking in understanding and sadly without any spiritual reference.

    Did you actually comprehend what I was trying to say in my initial comment? I ask, because I did in fact explain why I saw no need for “self compassion”, but you seem to have missed this!

    You also replied “The fact that you’re now denying that it’s possible to be angry with yourself is a measure of the tangle you’ve gotten yourself into.”
    I’m really not sure what tangle are you referring to? Possibly the fact that I am different from yourself in my response to events? Well aren’t we all, particularly as we get older and learn more of life?

    I hope when you are my age (74), and make decisions etc., you will have enough life experience to ensure that there is no need for self anger later.
    In fact Buddhism surely teaches us not to dwell on our mistakes, but see them as a lesson to be learnt, and then carry on without dwelling on the matter? No need for self anger, it’s inappropriate, and cannot undo what has already been done!
    It’s worth bearing in mind that, by allowing self anger to arise, you are denying yourself the opportunity to be of assistance to others until such time as your anger dissipates. So which of us is in a “tangle”?

    I wish you much happiness, contentment and peace of mind, and hope you will be inspired to find constructive and uplifting replies to the comments you receive.
    Best wishes,
    Gerry Long

    • Hi, Gerry.

      I don’t think you did explain in your first comment why there was no need for self-compassion. You said:

      “Compassion comes from the heart.” Which, as far as I’m aware, isn’t an argument for why you see no need for self-compassion.

      “You cannot direct it at yourself, that’s not compassion, but self pity.” This also doesn’t explain why you think there is no need for self-compassion. In fact it contradicts your statement that there is no need for self-compassion because you say that in fact you cannot have self-compassion. You don’t explain why you think one “cannot” have compassion for oneself, and so I was left guessing (more on that later). You also conflate self-compassion and self-pity, which are completely different things.

      So I’ve been discussing your comment that one “cannot” experience compassion for oneself, while you are now (apparently) defending the notion that there is no “need” for self-compassion, which is rather different. Perhaps you’re not aware that what you’re saying has been changing, and that’s why you’re assuming my response is “lacking in understanding.”

      “On the other hand if you first find compassion for others you will realise how fortunate you are and so any need for self pampering, as an escape from self pity, will no longer exist.” Leaving aside the fact that this again rather unfortunately conflates self-compassion with self-pity (and so the premise of this statement is mistaken) it’s certainly true that if we have compassion for others our own suffering can be put into perspective. I’ve written about that elsewhere. But suffering is suffering, whether it’s arising within oneself or within others, and compassion is the appropriate response to suffering. Therefore, self-compassion is an appropriate response to one’s own suffering. To single out one’s own suffering as unique in that it doesn’t require your compassion is what the Buddha called manas, or conceit.

      It was in commenting on your assertion that “You cannot direct [compassion] at yourself” I was left guessing why you hold this belief, since you didn’t offer any rationale that I could see. Perhaps, I thought, you didn’t think it was possible for us to have emotions toward ourselves (I’ve heard this put forward, odd as it may seem). So I pointed out that it’s possible to feel anger for ourselves; therefore why should it be impossible for us to feel compassion for ourselves?

      Your response was “I don’t believe it’s possible to direct real anger at yourself.” So, you seem to be saying that just as it’s not possible to have compassion for yourself, it’s not possible to have anger (or “real anger”) at yourself. The “tangle” arises because you are now contradicting the experience of every human being on the planet, who knows very well that self-anger is very possible indeed.

      But then you said: “I hope when you are my age (74), and make decisions etc., you will have enough life experience to ensure that there is no need for self anger later.”

      Do you see how you’re contradicting yourself in alternate comments? This makes discussion rather difficult. I suppose if you’re not aware of how you’re contradicting yourself, then my replies will seem “lacking in understanding” but then it’s hard for me to understand someone when they haven’t explained what they mean (why, again, is self-compassion not possible?) and when their position is constantly shifting.

  • Many thanks for your reply, and I can quite understand why you found my statements confusing. I was thinking along the lines that a) I cannot imagine that I could apply compassion to myself and b) that even if it were possible, it should not be necessary. Of course it was remiss of me to construe this mentally without fully committing my thought process to words!

    In the case of self anger I committed the same error as mentioned above, firstly by saying I had never felt real anger with myself (but of course frequently regretted something or felt sad or guilty of something which could have been managed better), and then by continuing to talk about anger in the terms you described without including the essential…. “but if you believe it exists then…..” So again I’m sorry that my writing lacked the clarity is should have had.

    To reiterate, my feelings that self compassion should not be necessary, were derived from a rather simplistic argument based on your feeling of having been “punched in the gut”, I assumed by an unkind or thoughtless word. My logic was that either we deserve a reprimand, in which case we should accept it and learn. Or that we do not deserve it, but should then use our compassion to accept that the person may have lashed out because of some reason or problem troubling them which was unknown to us.
    However, there are many reasons to feel low, not the least of which is illness or emotional trauma. For what’s it’s worth, my thoughts on this are that much as our ego would like it, we cannot always be top dog, fit and trouble free. Buddhism tells us that we gain merit by assisting others, but obviously this cannot be a one way process. The time will come when we have to accept with gratitude and thankfulness the compassion and kindness of others, let us not selfishly and egotistically deny them this!

    I hope my viewpoint on lack of self anger doesn’t mean I’m conceited, an you seem to be suggesting :-) Believe me I am well aware of my many failings, but try and learn from them and press on, without immersing myself in a rather useless chain of regret and despair at my imperfection, but with the aspiration to do my best to avoid a recurrence.

    I notice you didn’t confirm my reference to the Buddhist attitude to acknowledging ones mistakes, which I phrased as a question.
    However, I feel that, if I am understanding the teachings correctly, then they are underlining my viewpoint that the most beneficial emotional response to ones faults (for yourself and for everyone around you) is neither anger (if that’s the feeling you get) nor even prolonged regret or despair, but acceptance and learning?

    Again many thanks for drawing my attention to the discrepancies in my writing. Clearly I will need to elucidate with greater clarity in the future.
    Thanks also for your comments which have been of great assistance in helping me to appreciate the viewpoints of others.

    • Thanks for the exchange, Gerry.

      Just a word about “conceit” in Buddhism: it includes the normal English usage of feeling superior, but it also includes feeling inferior — or equal! Basically it’s conceit in the sense of “conceiving of the self” in any way.

      I agree wholeheartedly about acknowledging one’s mistakes. It’s best done without anger or prolonged regret, and certainly without taking it as a sign that there’s something inherently bad about us. Short-term regret is natural and healthy, however.

      All the best,

  • this was a good and meaningful read. thanks


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