The other week I was walking to work after it had rained hard all night. The sidewalks and roads were covered with worms, who like to migrate when the weather is wet (no, it’s not because they would drown in their tunnels).
Now, almost exactly twenty years ago I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t walk past a worm without moving it to safety. Why? Well, I just don’t like the way I feel when I ignore another’s suffering, even if the other is a slimy invertebrate. And the sun was out, the sidewalks were starting to dry out, and it was obvious that many of these worms were going to die.
So every few feet I would stoop, scoop up a worm with a dried grass stalk, and move it to a grassy area. (I don’t generally use my fingers because I keep thinking how painfully hot and dry I must feel to a worm.)
There were so many worms out that as I carried one a few feet to safety I’d pass several more. And so I’d go back and rescue them as well.
It was fun at first, although after a while I started to feel a bit antsy. This was all taking a long time: stoop, scoop, move, return; stoop, scoop, move, return. My bit of dried grass kept breaking and I’d have to get a new one. Then it was back stoop, scoop, move, return. I had a lot of work to do, and I really wanted to get to the office. What to do?
Well, I could have decided to just bail, but I’d made a promise — never walk past a stranded worm without rescuing it. So what I did was this: I became aware of my restlessness and my anxiety to get to work, and I thought, “OK, you’re suffering too, just like they’re suffering.” And I embraced my suffering with a compassionate awareness, and kept on picking up worms and ferrying them to safety: stoop, scoop, move, return.
- I felt my suffering as a knot in the belly.
- I recognized that it was suffering — often we’re so caught up in the thoughts (things like “I”m late, I have to get to work”) that we lose sight of the fact that we’re actually in pain.
- I turned a “kindly gaze” toward my suffering.
- I accepted that it’s OK to suffer (often we react to our suffering and try to push it away).
- I wished my suffering well, sending it love in much the same way I would comfort a sick child.
I spell this out (my approach to self-compassion, rather than the specifics of worm-rescue) in case it might be useful to you as you’re developing compassion. When we consider another’s suffering, it induces a sense of discomfort in us. It may be an ache in the heart, or some uncomfortable feeling in the belly. And often we’ll react to this by assuming that something’s wrong. There’s no need to do that. It’s OK to feel discomfort.
So feel your discomfort. Recognize that this is suffering. Give the suffering your love.
Don’t wallow! Wallowing is when the mind creates more suffering by telling stories about how awful this is, how inadequate we are, how we can’t bear these feelings, etc. Let go of all of that thinking, over and over, whenever it arises. Just keep coming back to an awareness of the suffering being, accept your own heart-ache, and embrace both sets of suffering with love and kindness.
In my “worm walk” I sensed the arising of wallowing thoughts. I realized that the number of worms I encountered would vary depending on my path to work. I was coming across many dozens of worms, but I was missing many others. The whole town was covered with worms! Maybe I should try to recue all the worms! And realizing that this was impossible, the thought “I should give up” briefly crossed my mind.
But these thoughts just skirted the fringes of my consciousness, and I let go of them before they could take root. Focusing on rescuing the worms, and having compassion for my suffering, were enough to keep this kind of unhelpful thinking at bay. I can’t save all the worms, or all the anybody. I can’t be superhuman. But I can be in the moment, mindfully and compassionately, and do some good.
Interestingly, the early Buddhist tradition doesn’t say much, if anything, about self-compassion. The Buddha did say that we should protect our own minds (against unskillful mental states) and that in doing do we protect others. And we protect the mind both through mindfulness, and through imbuing our awareness in lovingkindness and compassion.
Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
The Buddha also made the point that we shouldn’t think in terms of there being a “me” to suffer. All he says is, “there is suffering.” So this implies that we should treat “our” suffering (which we shouldn’t, ultimately, think of as ours at all) in the same way as we would treat the suffering of others; we respond with kindness and compassion.
Sometimes you’ll find that you have to spend a long time dealing with your own suffering, and embracing it in a kindly and compassionate awareness. That’s OK, and that can just be how things are. But try not to get stuck on this. It’s perfectly possible to recognize that you’re suffering, and that another person is suffering, and to embrace this joint suffering compassionately. And in fact the recognition that just as you suffer, so do others can help you put your own discomfort into perspective, and perhaps you’ll realize it’s not such a big deal after all.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.