I’ve had more people asking me about the “near enemy” of compassion. So here goes…
The “near enemy” is, by definition, something you might confuse with compassion. You might think you were cultivating compassion but were actually cultivating something else, in the same way that you might water and care for a weed, thinking it’s a useful plant. The “far enemy” is quite straightforward. It’s cruelty, or indifference to suffering, which is just the direct opposite of compassion. That’s easy to understand. But what is compassion’s “near enemy”?
People often use the word “pity” to describe the near enemy, but the traditional commentaries use the word “grief.” Compassion is also said to fail when it becomes sorrow, and that also seems related to the notion of the near enemy, since grief and sorrow and virtual synonyms. I’m going to point to three things that I think can be the near enemies of compassion.
But first, as a reminder:
Metta, or lovingkindness, is the desire of bringing that which is welfare and good to oneself and others. Compassion is the desire to remove suffering, especially from others.
1. Your suffering’s making me feel bad, dammit!
Now, grief is a sense of loss. We can be attached to our own “normal” state of mind and find it unpleasant to have that interrupted by seeing someone suffering. We experience the “grief” of losing our normal sense of ourselves — even our normal ego-centric sense of ourselves — taken away from us.
So we see someone suffering, and it’s unpleasant. Now we’re suffering too! Now we may just turn away, or we may want their suffering to stop and in doing so think that we’re being compassionate. But we want the other person’s suffering to stop because we want to stop our own suffering. We really just want to remove an obstacle to our own happiness! There’s no real empathy. No real recognition of the other’s suffering. There’s just our own pain, which we want to get rid of. So this is very self-focused and it’s essentially egotistical pseudo-compassion.
We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, so we need to connect with our own vulnerability, which is something I’ve talked about in relation to compassion, and with lovingkindness. I wouldn’t recommend going into compassion meditation “cold.” We should always start by acknowledging that we suffer.
Another form of this may be when we feel the heart-ache of considering another person’s suffering. This heart-ache is completely normal. It’s just a deep-rooted response to pain in another person. But it’s uncomfortable, and we may not be very good at dealing with discomfort. You know what it’s like when you have a cold or some other minor ailment, and you find yourself wallowing, telling yourself (and anyone who’ll listen) about how awful it all is? And it ends up that 95% of your suffering is actually caused by your reaction to the cold, not to the cold itself? Well, that can happen with developing compassion as well. We move from the heart-ache of being aware of someone’s suffering, to going on about how awful everything is.
We can’t empathize with others unless we empathize with our own suffering, but we also can’t empathize with others’ suffering if we’re not able to accept our own. We need to learn to become comfortable with discomfort, otherwise the heart-ache of compassion turns into a wallow-fest that’s all about me, me, me.
2. Stop samsara, I want to get off!
Another way attachment can get in the way of compassion is when we get despondent (i.e. we experience sorrow, which is failed compassion). So we might be aware of someone’s suffering, and we get overwhelmed. Maybe we try to cultivate compassion for a friend who has terminal cancer, and we feel dreadful because we’d like to help but can’t. There’s attachment to the idea that we should be able to make things OK. We can’t accept that there are things we can’t fix.
Or the mind takes this one step further, and we start thinking not just about our friend, but about all the other people who have cancer, and maybe other terminal diseases as well. Now we get despondent because there’s so much suffering in the world, and we can’t fix it! So we feel terrible. But compassion isn’t about saving the world, because none of us can do that. We can and should act where we can, but it’s just going to make us suffer if we’re attached to being a “savior” and think that we should be able to help everyone.
As they say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s grief and sorrow when we don’t know the difference.
This very much connects with the Buddha’s teaching about the “two arrows” of suffering:
Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”
The first arrow here is simply the heart-ache of sensing someone’s suffering. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to consider someone’s suffering. But how do we deal with the discomfort of compassion? The second arrow is the reactions I’ve described above, where we “sorrow, grieve, and lament” about the fact that we or others suffer.
The Buddha called wallowing a “bottomless pit” of pain, because we generate pain in response to pain. It’s bottomless because there’s no end to that. But this wallowing is not necessary. “When a well-taught noble disciple is afflicted by painful bodily feelings,” the Buddha says, “she will not worry nor grieve and lament, she will not beat her breast and weep, nor will she be distraught.” And thus she becomes one “who can withstand the bottomless pit and has gained a foothold in it.”
We can learn to bear suffering mindfully, without reacting. We can practice being aware of suffering, and beaing aware of — and letting go of — our thoughts and reactions to suffering. We just let the suffering be there. It’s OK to feel discomfort. Over time we become better at experiencing the first arrow without adding a second.
3. Poor you!
And maybe related to this is a sense of superiority, where we’re feeling good about ourselves in relation to all these “poor souls” out there that aren’t as “sorted” as we are. So that is “pity” in that we feel superior. But here the grief is hidden, because we’re probably having a blast thinking of ourselves as being so wonderful and benevolent. The grief comes later, when the people we’re so “benevolently” helping tell us how arrogant and out-of-touch we are, for example. This is what the Buddha called the “suffering of reversal.”
The cure again here is acknowledging our own vulnerability. You want to be happy. You don’t want to suffer. And yet over and over again you encounter suffering when you hadn’t expected it. Suffering sideswipes you. So you’re not in control. You’re not “sorted.” You’re struggling, like everyone else. Compassion doesn’t make us superior. Bearing this in mind helps keep us real.
Doubt is deadly! People are always looking for excuses to think that they might, secretly, be doing a meditation practice wrong. So I feel compassionate, but maybe it’s not real! Just keep going. If you feel despairing, then that’s probably a sign you’ve tipped over into “grief” or “sorrow.” If you just have an ache in the heart then that’s probably just the “first arrow,” which is an unavoidable part of the practice.
All of the above are simply things we have to work through, so don’t beat yourself up or despair. But maybe if we learn about these unhelpful patterns we can recognize them a bit earlier.
PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.